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As Raja Kumari, Songwriter Svetha Rao Is Bridging East and West in Hip Hop

Svetha Rao has spent years songwriting for other artists and is now releasing her own material. Courtesy of Svetha Rao

If 13-year-old Svetha Rao could see herself now, she’d be shocked that the Timbaland she spent hours listening to in her bedroom became someone she collaborates with.

“I used to imagine a world where I would be in the studio with Timbaland and we would be making music together,” Rao told NBC News. “I imagined this exact scenario: I’ll call up my friend who makes music videos and be like, ‘Okay, Timbaland said this,’ and he’s like, “I like that this is now just a casual conversation to you.’”

Svetha Rao's collaborations with Timbaland, Gwen Stefani, and Iggy Azalea has earned her acclaim throughout the music industry including a Grammy nomination. Photo by Nikko Lamere

Timbaland isn’t the only artist Rao works with. Over the past decade, she has also collaborated with Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, and Fall Out Boy, among others, collecting both critical and commercial success along the way.

Now, Rao — professionally known as “Raja Kumari” — is releasing of her first music videos with an EP on the way and trying to break stereotypes in the process.

“As an Indian American woman in the [music] industry, everybody has so many opinions about what an Indian person should sound like and I just want to break all those stereotypes,” Rao said. “Everybody has an idea of how it should look or sound but I’m here authentically telling you what it is.”

Raised in the city of Claremont in Southern California, Rao began learning classical Indian dance at the age of five. Obsessed with the blend of history and culture, she spent six to seven hours a day practicing with her dance guru — a teacher who lived with the Rao family for over ten years, she said.

“Each classical Indian dance style comes from a certain area, and has a family that is responsible for maintaining the authenticity of the style,” she said. “My teacher actually spent time in Kuchipudi village learning from the gurus there. Most people in America would only have access to someone that learned from someone who learned from someone, most people can't trace how many degrees they are from the source.”

Her dance career took her on tours across India and even gave her the opportunity to help build a meditation hall at the Vegesna Foundation — a school for physically disabled children in South India. In between performances, she began listening to hip hop and was enamored by the works of Lauryn Hill and Timbaland. At 13, she began experimenting with songwriting and recorded her first song in the studio two years later. Around the same time, she was encouraged by producers to begin songwriting for other artists — an endeavor that launched her name in the music industry and years later, grabbed her a 2015 Grammy nomination for being a member of the team to work on Iggy Azalea’s “The New Classic.”

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Though her music career had already started to take off at 17, Rao remained steadfast in her pursuits of education. She studied comparative religious studies at the University of California, Riverside and credits her classes for opening her mind to humanity’s universal experiences — many of which appear in her music. After graduating, Rao threw her heart into songwriting, making a name for herself as a writer unafraid to take on undesirable projects.

“I started writing for young girls, 10 to 13,” Rao said, laughing. “The stuff no one wanted, that was mine, and it helped me diversify, expand, and practice.”

Svetha Rao's work blends hip-hop with Indian influences she experienced growing up. Photo by Gabriel Burgos

Her big break came in 2014 after Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” became a quadruple platinum single on the band’s 2015 album “American Beauty/American Psycho.” Currently with 116 million views on YouTube, Rao said the song was actually written with a different musical act in mind.

“Now it’s sold so many copies, and it’s performed all over the world, but it started as this idea for Jay Z and Rihanna,” she said. “ That whole thing taught me to never limit the songs because you never know where they’re going to go.”

In the past four years, Rao has juggled her ever-growing writing roster — which includes work with Stefani, Azalea, Timbaland, as well as Fifth Harmony, Lindsey Stirling, Twin Shadow, and Dirty South — with her own musical pursuits.

“It's incredible to be in the presence of your idols,” she said. “Just watching [Timbaland] work, learning from the way he manipulates sound, he opened my mind the the possibilities. He taught me to push the boundaries.”

After receiving the BMI Pop Award for Songwriting this year, Rao released her first original music video, "Mute," on July 1, a song that combines classical Indian imagery with hip hop culture in a celebration of Rao’s dual identities.

“I want to connect the East and the West,” Rao said. “I think the eastern world and the western world, they’re separated for no reason. Science, technology, everything grows greater when we’re in communication with each other. Me being an American girl, born in America, I am from the West but I am a seed of the East with my knowledge of Eastern culture. It’s my goal to be a vessel of culture between the two.”

In October, she released her second music video “Believe in You,” which was filmed in her childhood temple and features home video of her dancing. Her first EP, "The Come Up," is scheduled to be released on Nov. 17. Rao said she remains steadfast in two things: Using her music as a force for social change and combating the lack of representation that plagued her as an American teenager.

Rao was also the recipient of the 2016 BMI Pop Award for Songwriting for her work on "Centuries." Courtesy of Svetha Rao

“When I was growing up it was just blonde hair and blue eyes, it was Britney Spears and that was it. It made me want to be something I couldn’t be,” Rao said. “I realized one day — when I was going through my teenage angst — that I loved my culture and through classical dance, I’ve seen so much good done.”

“I’d seen real things come from it,” she continued, “I realized I had to become that person so many younger girls want to see and hopefully, help them love their culture. Help them see it’s okay to be American and be Indian.”

Rao sees her art as not only a personal passion, but a vehicle to help her to impact real change in the world. With the release of her second video, Kumari focuses on both her personal pursuits — more meditation and mindful food consumption — and professional endeavors — gaining more legitimacy in the music industry in order to bring clean water to India.

“Giving my art for free, using my art to make something good, in building that meditation hall, I realized I could create a real change in someone’s life,” Rao said. “I want to get my art and myself to the biggest stage there is so that I can really make change in the world like bringing clean water to India. Just gaining this platform is going to help me do that.”

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