Raja Kumari was not born in New Delhi or Mumbai or Kolkata — rather, 8,000 miles away, in Claremont, California. But Kumari and her record label have a huge ambition this year: to smash down doors for Indian rappers all over the world.
Kumari, whose parents emigrated from India to the U.S. in the 1970s, proudly describes herself as Indian American, a designation that could be applied equally to her music — which sees her rap in both English and bursts of Hindi, while mixing bold elements of modern U.S. hip-hop with obvious sonic nods to her mom and dad’s homeland. “I feel like I’m a seed from the motherland that was sent across the world,” says Kumari, adding that incorporating Indian culture into her music is “not a gimmick to me — it’s an expression of a lifetime of trying to preserve it.” Driving the point home, the cover of Kumari’s debut EP, 2016’s The Come Up, saw the artist’s adorning both a gold maang tikka and an American flag fashioned into a headscarf.
As a Grammy-nominated songwriter who has worked with the likes of Gwen Stefani and Fall Out Boy, Kumari has now signed with a record label actually based in India, where she spends much of her time, having previously been signed by Epic Records in the U.S.
The new company, Mass Appeal India, is a joint venture between Universal Music India and Mass Appeal, the über-cool New York-based media and music firm co-founded by Nas in 2014. Mass Appeal India launched in Mumbai last year with a flagship signing, rapper Divine, who is a central figure in the country’s ‘gully rap’ hip-hop movement. Divine was actually the inspiration for 2019’s multi-award-winning movie, Gully Boy, which can — clumsily, but not entirely unfairly — be described as the Eight Mile of India.
Divine, who has collaborated with Raja Kumari in the past, raps entirely in Hindi and has been steadily growing his global fan base since signing with Mass Appeal; today, he has over a million monthly listeners on Spotify globally and over 1.9 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.
“The goal of launching Mass Appeal India is to be a part of that growth and really help push hip-hop culture to the forefront. I have no doubt that the next superstar will come out of India.” — Nas on his new label venture
“There is so much talent [in India today], and to see how hip-hop is becoming a big influence is a beautiful thing,” Nas tells Rolling Stone. “The goal of launching Mass Appeal India is to be a part of that growth and really help push hip-hop culture to the forefront. I have no doubt that the next superstar will come out of India.”
Stage one of the master plan: Raja Kumari popularizes elements of Indian hip-hop in the U.S. and beyond, partly by melding them with the familiarity of mainstream American rap. Stage two: Hindi rappers like Divine are introduced to a primed global audience, particularly via collaboration with established English-language superstars.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider this: There is an analogous narrative in the mainstream rise of reggaeton in the United States, where the likes of Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and Ozuna have evolved into crossover superstars despite largely performing tracks in their mother tongue.
The same conditions that seeded the mainstream explosion of Latin music — “Despacito,” don’t forget, remains the biggest video in YouTube’s history — are mirrored in India today. India boasts a huge population (1.3 billion-plus) with the potential to drive local stars up global streaming charts; in turn, this could transform “native” Indian artists into lucrative prospects for U.S. labels.
Indeed, the current Top 10 of YouTube’s global artist chart, reflecting weekly volume of worldwide streams, features two Latin stars (J Balvin and Bad Bunny) and six Indian artists: Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan, Kumar Sanu, Arijit Singh, Lata Mangeshkar, and Neha Kakkar. (The remaining two acts, at No.9 and No.10 respectively, are BTS and Eminem.) All of these Indian artists are “playback” acts, i.e. those who perform the music behind Bollywood films, which is then mimed within these movies by actors.
Devraj Sanyal is CEO of Universal Music India, which has focused its energies in recent years on non-film artists like Divine. Non-film music, particularly hip-hop, says Sanyal, is enjoying a major popularity surge amongst India’s youth right now — as a new generation looks beyond Bollywood to find more relatable stars.
Sanyal says the arrival of Spotify in India last year was an important catalyst for this trend, as it not only decoupled audio from video (the popularity of playback artists on YouTube is driven by videos “sung” by those miming Bollywood actors), but also gave local Indian artists the opportunity to make their name on a service used in all corners of the world.
“I’ve been asked for a long time: When will an Indian act pop overseas?” says Sanyal. “The one problem we have in all these emerging markets — India, China, Africa, etc. — is that our artists [perform] in local language. Hindi is [spoken by] 1.3 billion people in India and another 40 million over the world; that competes with 6 billion people who speak English.”
He continues: “The world is now barely getting [comfortable] with fully Spanish-language music going mainstream; [mixing] Hindi and English is a challenge. So if you have someone who represents the Indian look, feel, and soul but in English with a sound that’s unbelievable, it has a chance to take Indian-based hip-hop into the world. That’s a primary reason why our signing of Raja Kumari is an incredible deal.”
Sanyal says that a number of senior executives at Universal labels in the U.S. have already expressed excitement over the possibility of their artists collaborating with Kumari. He also predicts that we’ll generally see more U.S. pop stars collaborate with Indian rappers in the future, as American acts look to crack the fast-growing Indian streaming market. (In the current Spotify Top 10 chart in India, interestingly, you’ll find tracks by North American artists like The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, and Trevor Daniel.)
“Something will come, in Hindi, in the next 24 months that will crack open,” Sanyal predicts. “But before then, six months in the future, what really has a chance of popping overseas is something English-based, but which also embodies the Indian spirit and persona.”
Peter Bittenbender, the CEO and co-founder of Mass Appeal alongside Nas, says Mass Appeal has made a film about reggaeton that’s opened the company’s eyes to the potential for certain music to travel, even into territories where there is “zero connectivity to the language.” Bittenbender says that Divine is already collaborating with some “very high profile non-Indian artists” as Mass Appeal aims to excite a U.S. audience with the sound of Hindi rap.
Of Raja Kumari, who is currently adorning the cover of Rolling Stone India, Bittenbender says that he and Nas are “beyond excited,” adding: “Raja’s able to juxtapose two cultures and two worlds in a very organic and seamless way. She’s just a badass; she’s got so much attitude, swag, and confidence, and she’s brimming with talent.”
He continues: “With reggaeton, there’s been these big crossover moments, Despacito, or Drake doing songs with Bad Bunny, [and after that] there’s a snowball effect. I truly believe that we will have a global hit out of India in the next two to three years. That’s our business model, if I’m being honest: We want to have a song that penetrates at a global level.” For Mass Appeal, says Bittenbender, this is simply a matter of time — and of head-spinning numbers: “It’s amazing to imagine, as the Indian market matures and hip-hop becomes more mainstream, where [today’s Indian rap scene] could be in three years or five years.
“I’m like, ‘If there’s 500 very successful hip-hop artists in America, could there be 1,500, 2,000 in India?’” Bittenbender says. “Even if there’s only 500, that’s still a massive business. When does it get to that point? This is the kind of stuff that keeps me awake at night.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.