It’s not often that a local artiste gets mentioned on a global variety show like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. So when the Singaporean-Tamil rapper and songwriter got name dropped by Fallon in July last year, Yung Raja was psyched. He told Augustman, “I paused the video and bawled my eyes out just after hearing these four words ‒ ʻSingaporean rapper Yung Rajaʼ ‒ ʼcause it was just too surreal.”
Truth be told, he came to my attention because his 2018 debut single was a remix of “Gucci Gang” by Lil Pump, titled “Poori Gang”. The mix of “Weird Al” satire and hyper-local context taking inspiration from all-day, all-night Little India shopping mecca Mustafa, set him apart from the nascent crop of wannabe hip-hoppers who were still very American-influenced. Today, with him wearing an iconic Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight, I’m reminded once again of the daringness that has set Yung Raja apart from his peers.
We don’t really have lingo and circumstances of the ghetto or “the projects”. Where/how did you discover this wellspring of language/culture for Singaporean rap/hip hop?
Hip hop has always represented love, unity and so many other beautiful values. Since the first time I heard rap music, a genre largely born out of struggle and in a place so far from home, I’ve felt a strong connection to it which I could never really understand. Growing up with hip hop, I realised that it enables artistes to have their most authentic voices and stories heard. Hip hop made me find my own and be proud of it. It helped me understand who I am as a first-generation Singaporean Indian who’s bilingual… figuring out my place in society. And it wasn’t long before I found my community… my tribe. And that’s when everything clicked for me.
How does one define rap/hip hop from Singapore? How do you as Yung Raja define it?
Hip hop from Singapore, or hip hop in Southeast Asia even, is a breed of its own. The mix of cultures and ethnicities here is one-of-a-kind. As a borrowed culture, hip hop has successfully become deeply rooted in Asia and it’s enabling and elevating communities that have always fought to be heard. One of the main focuses as a hip-hop artiste from Singapore is to showcase my culture in a way that has never been represented before. My goal is to unify my community and put them on the map through hip hop.
What sort of influences define you musically?
Mostly South Indian, Tamil music that I grew up listening to. [When I was] growing up, AR Rahman’s, Ilayarajaʼs music would always play either on the TV or radio. I’d say it’s one of the perks of being born into a traditional South Indian family ‒ all of my influences were completely unadulterated… which ended up laying a strong foundation for me and my identity especially at a young age. Then at 10 years old, came hip hop that completely moved and shaped me into the person I am today. I would say my influences are a perfect mix of East and West.
Is Yung Raja merely just your alter ego? Do you have a persona you keep only for self and loved ones? How does this come across in your style and dressing?
I wouldn’t say it’s an alter ego… I’d say it’s my best self. The highest degree of what my potential signifies. Yung Raja is the person I had to become to find my truest self, personality, style and voice. Through songs, music videos…interviews… I get to share who I am in the most authentic way. I’d never want to take that for granted ever.
What are some of the signature hallmarks that define your style? What sort of accessories do you like?
Colours… bandanas… 916 gold jewellery with precious/semiprecious gemstones. A variety of silhouettes that push or challenge and, of course, Tudor timepieces. Recently, I got my Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight and I can’t leave home without it! It has been my travel buddy, perfect for day and night. These are some key facets to my style. It’s a constant process of evolution thoʼ. I have the most fun exploring my style.
Could you share with us some of your musical milestones, from beginning to Tanglish? What are the challenges involved in “translating” Tanglish into the form of rap?
When I first started writing lyrics in Tamil and English in the way I do… It was kinda experimental because it was something that came natural to me, but I had no clue if people would accept it or vibe with it. To have so many Tamil people resonate with my Tanglish is truly a blessing and beyond my wildest dreams. These past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with other Tamil artists from different countries. I’m just so happy that my art has enabled me to experience the richness I feel from all the meaningful connections made. I always take stock of what the universe blessed me with… but if there’s one that I have to mention, it’d be hearing my Tanglish on Snoop Doggʼs album.
K-pop is more popular than J-pop because the latter is designed for domestic consumption while Koreans want to go international…how do you balance your English and Tamil so you have international appeal and remain popular with your base?
I’m blessed to be born in a country like Singapore where bilingualism is so deeply embedded in our culture. To have strong worlds of influences from both the East and West is something I’m truly grateful for. English is my first language while Tamil is my mother tongue. There’s a seamless integration of these two worlds and that allows me to have a balanced mix.
Tradition versus modernity – how do you balance your traditional beats while collaborating with regional artists who aren’t necessarily familiar with your culture?
I’d say it’s all about tasteful unification of traditional and modernity. I always try to find the sweet spot where it’s not too unfamiliar but captivating at the same time. It brings me great joy especially when regional artistes aren’t familiar, because I get the opportunity to share about the things I hold so near and dear to my soul.
Say “Raja” and most think of “Maharaja” – but you didn’t take inspiration from the great kings for your name, did you?
Raja is a pretty common Indian name. I was thinking of an artiste alias in 2017. The word Raja felt perfect because it wasn’t too far from my birth name ‒ Rajid. It just felt so perfect yet classic!
Mami was pretty catchy and while that Jimmy Fallon shout-out was awesome, it must have hurt (at least at the start) … what’s your takeaway from that experience?
Not at all. I paused the video and bawled my eyes out just after hearing these four words ‒ “Singaporean rapper Yung Raja” ‒ ʼcause it was just too surreal. First of all, I’ve had friends from overseas that don’t know much about this pretty city. To have my home represented like that… through hip hop music, let alone music/arts, it’s something that’s so widely underappreciated and underrated here. So, I see that as a win already for my city. Secondly, it’s just so cool that I was addressed as rapper Yung Raja because I used to dream of this… And thirdly, I’m a glass-half-full guy. This is one of the biggest personalities in the world… that just mentioned my name on national American television. This Tamilan feller straight outta Tekka Singapore writing Tanglish raps… My key takeaway is that it was fkin iconic.
Is it hard to gel societal expectations with success versus how you define it as a performer?
It’s a struggle to constantly having to remind oneself our own definitions of success. At the end of the day, perspective is very important to keep ourselves in check. The goal is never let anyone’s voices into your head… other than the ones you’ve chosen to keep close. To place the power in other hands… to let others define or control what your idea of success should look like, is a no go. I always try my hardest to stay aligned with what I consider wins or losses.
I got to try some of your fried chicken wings recently… I didn’t realise you had turned entrepreneur as well, when did you venture out? Are any of the lessons you learned in your music career transferable skills?
I have always been waiting for the right opportunity to build businesses. It’s always been fascinating to me…how a conversation, an idea, could open up a whole new universe to you. In 2020 I met one of my old friends, and in just a few months, our conversations led to a business partnership. It has been a ride ever since and one of my greatest understandings is the fact that before [becoming] a musician, an artiste, I am essentially a creative. Moreover, I can tap into this creativity to enable any interest I have without it being music related. I sell the world’s first dosa-tacos. I have to be the creative and that I am in music ‒ in a totally different industry. The lesson that I have learned is that through great collaborations/ partnerships, we can move mountains together. By pushing the boundaries of what’s new, that’s how I will make my dream a reality.
Why food? Specifically why thosai? Are food and rap strange bedfellows?
Food and music bring people together and they’ve always had. Both of them are for the soul. Thosai is my most favourite South India food and I’ve had it pretty much my entire life… It’s just so good and I want everyone to know how good it is!
What advice would you give Yung Raja who was just starting out?
Patience, buddy. And of course, push the limits!
Finally, I know where you would bring Snoop Dogg for those, but where will you bring him for prata when he comes to Singapore?
ABC Nasi Kandar Restaurant.
Photos Joel Low; Styling Daryll Alexius Ye; Makeup + Hair Sha Shamsi using Dior Beauty and Keune Haircosmetics respectively; Manicure Rebecca Chuang; Photography Assistance Eddie Teo; Fashion Assistance Crystal Lim
This story first appeared on Augustman Singapore.