Growing up in a Tamil household in Chennai in the early 2000s, I was witness to an eclectic culture of cinema and the music that emerged from the industry. The likes of Ilaiyaraja, A.R Rahman, and more often dominated our collective music preferences at home and it was also a cause for great admiration that I shared with my peers. Years later, we moved to Bengaluru, a more cosmopolitan city with a westernised culture that was starkly distinct from the one I grew up in. While my classmates were well versed with the icons of pop, hip-hop, and rap from the west, I withdrew into my own little cocoon that still held room for the music that I enjoyed.
I grew up and developed a taste for music that excited me and this held no barriers to regionality. However, in my highs and my lows, I found myself retracting into that same space to listen to the melodies that dominated my childhood. There was an inherent shame, I admit, in claiming to love regional music. I do not know where it stemmed from but I know I kept my likes under wraps for years.
Indian music today transcends genres, language, and more. A large portion of the credit for this shift must be owed to the artists who put their passion for music out into the world without fear of judgement. So when I witnessed Tanglish rap (a colloquial mix of Tamil & English) right from the front lines of the music scene 15 years later, I couldn’t help but sing out in the language and behalf of a culture that I had for far too long kept hidden within myself.
The artist who brought this magic alive to the stage was none other Singapore born and bred breakout star, Rajid Ahmed who goes by the stage name, Yung Raja. The 26-year old artist carries along with him impeccable energy, an undefeated love and pride for his Tamil roots and of course, the passion to tell stories with an undeniably charming swagger.
His deft wordplay that intersects his Tamil upbringing with an international community unravels in his eclectic, groovy music that is bound to get you up on your feet. Raja quite truly conquers the stage and blows his audience away with his music. He does not shy away from the influences that Tamil cinema and its legends such as Rajinikanth and Kamala Hassan have imprinted on him and has even released music as a tribute to the same.
His raps may narrate his own life experiences of growing up in Singapore or growing up Tamil, but more importantly, they are indicative of a number of cross-cultural influences. It is these that he aims to bring to a larger arena along with India’s lesser-known traditions and cultures.
On his recent tour to India along with Mumbai-based artist management agency, Third Culture, Raja sits down for a quick chat with Homegrown on his journey, his fashion label, his newfound passion for NFTS and some good old South-Indian food.
Tell us about how you grew up. Of Singaporean-Indian heritage, navigating the third space, how did family and community influence the making of ‘Yung Raja’ a reality.
It was a constant switching of worlds for me. The two worlds mainly being the traditional South Indian one at home and the multicultural Singaporean one I get to experience as soon as I leave home. My family gave me plenty of space to understand and contextualize these two distinctly different and separate worlds of influence.
Little did I know that it’d shape me in a way that allows me to channel the inspirations from both worlds into art seamlessly as they’re so deeply embedded in who I am. The constant duality that was present growing up is what I’m most grateful for, as it laid the foundation for my tanglishness.
How do you so effortlessly navigate the hyphens, as a multidisciplinary artist and entrepreneur?
I have a lot of fun with the things I get involved in. Fun is always at the front and centre of everything I do. I find great joy in collaborating and learning from people that are better than me. That’s one of my main principles. That’s how everything started for me. When I realised I suck at so many things, it was humbling and it also relieved me of a lot of self-induced pressure. That’s where teamwork comes in! I take great pride in working with my incredibly talented and hardworking team and my career is a testament to teamwork making the dream work.
Was music always a part of your formative years? As a Tamil diaspora artist living in Singapore, where did it all start? Tell us briefly about your journey
Sun TV was constantly playing at home. Even to this day. South Indian music was all I knew before I discovered hip-hop when I was 11. That’s when my mind was blown because for the first time I heard something so jarringly different from Kollywood songs. My family loves to sing Tamil songs when we all hang out. That was really cool too.
Your Tamil identity is poetically woven and packs a powerful lyrical punch in every verse; how has that shaped your journey as an artist?
It has allowed me to tap into a place I never knew existed within my spirit and it has enabled me to create freely. I never knew how Tanglish I am in my ways and how much Tamil is an actual part of my day to day, even my thoughts. Getting to know my Tamil identity better allowed me to be me. It has allowed me to have authenticity at the core of my art. It’s a beautiful place to create from.
Your Label ‘Peace Oeuvre’ makes a bold foray into fashion and that has not been surprising, given your uninhibited sartorial expression. How did that come about?
I’ve always wanted to start a fashion brand; something that aligns with my spirit. Peace Oeuvre is a creation by both Darren Chan, my co-founder and creative director and myself and it’s an exploration of the universality of peace and love. We’ve got some really exciting stuff coming up. Stay tuned!
Coming off the pandemic, touring in India with Third Culture, what’s it been like for you?
Super trippy! I can’t believe we just finished an 11-day tour. Post-tour depression is real. These past two weeks have changed me in ways I didn’t expect. It was mind-blowing to meet the people of India and to perform for them was even crazier. The love was so, so surreal. I have never felt anything like it. I need way more time to unpack everything. I’m in love with India.
Dosa’s (thosai) from your mother’s kitchen has been reimagined as tacos at Maha Co, your Indian-Mexican cafe. Following your trajectory, your creative and entrepreneurial expressions are a celebration of your culture. Having recently opened in Singapore; what’s the journey of being a food entrepreneur been like for you?
It’s been amazing!! I have been wide-eyed every step of the way and I’m super blessed to have such supportive friends. It’s the first time for me! My business partner Quan and I have been having a ball of a time doing R&D for new dishes. It’s just another aspect of being creative and that’s what I’ve been enjoying the most. It’s so fun!
If Homegrown readers had 24 hours in Singapore, what would be your recommendations for things they should do or check out?
Go see Gardens By The Bay, Marina bay sands, have some Singaporean food, and check out Little India. That’s just to name a few. Oh yea, come to The Maha Co. and have thosai tacos and craft beers with me. Can’t forget that!
Tell us your views on NFTs and the intersectional future of creativity, music, and the blockchain.
It is the future for all creators and businesses. We are still very early and I think within the next three to five years NFTs will become so integral to the way we create, share, and connect.
Lastly, what’s on repeat on your playlist?
Certified Lover Boy and A.R Rahman Tamil Hits.
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