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‘This is the golden era for hip-hop in Asia. I'm getting a front-row seat.’
Gems in this
Yung Raja can’t stop talking about Singapore. The incredibly humble rapper credits his home nation for everything he has — giving his family a home, connecting him to other Southeast Asian creators, and allowing him to be a full-time hip-hop artist and share his culture on the world stage.
When he first set out to pursue music in 2017, there were no Singaporean rappers for Rajid Ahamed to look up to. Fast forward to now, and Yung Raja and other Southeast Asian creatives have helped to usher in the golden age of Asian hip-hop. A first-generation Singaporean with Indian parents, Yung Raja fuses both his cultures together in his work, performing his songs in a blend of Tamil and English. This unique approach has seen him land on the NME’s 100; amass millions of streams; attract the attention of hip-hop giants Lupe Fiasco and M.I.A.; and work with brands including Gucci, Louis Vuitton and adidas. Despite his frequent global travels, Yung Raja can’t imagine ever leaving Singapore. We chat with him about finding solace through hip-hop, his dreams for a Southeast Asian Coachella, and his buzzy Singapore Travel Playbook.
On being a first-generation Indian-Singaporean
Growing up in the Indian community as a first-generation Singaporean was an experience with a great depth of duality built in. The moment I leave my house it’s uniquely multicultural — everybody's bilingual, a mix of races and ethnicities — but when I come home, it’s Tamil culture through and through. For my friends who are second or third generation, the connectivity to their culture is not as strong. They're not as exposed to it day-to-day, so their grasp on the language or culture is something that they have to put more effort into. I didn't have to try — it is foundational for me, and is one of the biggest blessings.
On rapping in Tamil and English
When I decided to pursue music, I was trying to write raps fully in English or Tamil. I was trying out different things, and that one moment when I combined Tamil and English, I felt a freedom in my creativity; a level of smoothness in my thought process. My brain thinks in Tamil and English, so creating in Tamil and English was a eureka moment. It felt like the truth, like this is my DNA. The music became the glue that brought me closer to my culture and ethnicity, which became a source of inspiration to my peers, who have always felt a sense of disconnect with their culture. Seeing that unfold has been a great source of pride.
On discovering hip-hop
When I was 10 years old, I took my sister's Walkman to school. On the way home, the first song I heard was, ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up.’ It was filled with all these vulgarities and words my mom would whoop my ass for saying. I had goosebumps. Everything about it created a permanent impression in my mind, and I kept going back to it.
On the power of music
I used to be a short, chubby kid. Nobody took me seriously, girls never paid attention. I used to be bullied. But when I was listening to Kanye, I felt like, ‘Nobody can fuck with me.’ So there was always that disconnect between how hip-hop made me feel, and how people saw me. I never got to share my love of hip-hop until I met my best friend, Fariz Jabba, who is the most important figure in my entire career. One day, we decided to become rappers and do it for real. We recorded ourselves rapping, posted it on Twitter, and the video started trending in Malaysia and Singapore. That put me on a path that I never saw coming, holy shit. I never want to take it for granted. It’s truly incredible how things unfolded.
On putting Southeast Asia on the map
People in Southeast Asia are so diverse and rich in terms of what they can offer. And to be in a place where you have the privilege of connecting and collaborating with these people, and put Southeast Asian art on the map, is truly a blessing. For the longest time, people have been fighting for representation in this part of the world. And to have hip-hop as the medium — this was not our culture initially, but at some point, it impacted our cultures to the point where we took it in, we ate that shit up, and we contextualized it. We made it ours in our own way.
‘The music became the glue that brought me closer to my culture and ethnicity.’
On the golden era of Asian hip-hop
I am one of the luckiest motherfuckers in the world, because this is the golden era for hip-hop in Asia. I'm getting a front-row seat, watching how it blossoms and having the opportunity to creatively collaborate with key players from every city. It’s a matter of time before this hits the global stage. We are on our way. Collaborating with these artists is the bedrock for us to get to that place. It is one brick at a time, one step at a time.
On bringing it to the motherland
No other place comes close to what India means to me. My biggest dream is to make the dots connect between Singapore and India; to go back to the motherland to have that full-circle moment. I went on tour to India a couple of months back. Coming from a place of five million people, to go to a place that has over a billion people and feel that energy was such a strong moment of realignment to my purpose. If the day comes where India recognizes me as one of their guys, man — I'm so energized when I think about what I can do in India and what kind of waves we can create.
On shapeshifting through travel
I've always loved traveling, even before the music. I love meeting new people, being exposed to different cultures, and learning about the people of the world. I realized that every time I go to a place that I have no familiarity with, meet somebody totally new, have a conversation with a stranger, it puts me in a place of discomfort. I grew up in a household with a lot of adults, so I had to develop the ability to adapt to whoever you're talking to. I’m always shapeshifting, so travel changes me — it has a great impact on how my spirit expands. Traveling to all these places to connect with people is wonderful. I'm always looking forward to the next time I get to be on a flight and on the move.
On sharing your Singaporean pride
In Singapore we are called the ‘Little Red Dot,’ because we are a little red dot on the map. Having traveled to all these places has just recontextualized how tiny we are and how big the world is, and therefore how important it is to go out there and let motherfuckers know how dope Singapore is. I've had enough of people asking me, ‘Which part of China is Singapore in?’ Come on, bro! I can't let that shit slide anymore. I’ve got to do something with the voice that I have. If I can bring some value to that, maybe the next generation of artists won’t have the struggle that we're having. As a Singaporean artist and creative, these opportunities that I get to travel fuel me to go out there and fly the flag high and proud. Singapore baby!
‘As a Singaporean artist and creative, these opportunities that I get to travel fuel me to go out there and fly the flag high and proud. Singapore baby!’
On Singapore’s creative progress
When I started, there were no major label-signed rappers or hip-hop artists. Singapore is not a city where being an artist is encouraged — it’s not a place where everybody is telling you to follow your dreams. There was this article that said that the creative field was 0.00001% of Singapore's population. We're talking about the entire creative and art space. That is the scale of where we’re at and how far we have to go. When I was starting out, there was no Tamil rapper for me to look at and go, ‘Oh, you could do that here.’ I'm so proud of what has happened in the last five years. It's truly beautiful. I see a lot more younger artists that are pursuing hip-hop full time, all these guys that came after us. I wouldn't have been able to imagine any of those things five years ago. It was all just clouds, there was no way forward. I won’t rest until there's a Singaporean version of Coachella, and it's all Singaporean acts and people from all over the world fly down to catch the show. Why not? It's a new era of Southeast Asian representation.
On your creative ecosystem
I opened a café recently called the Maha Co. It’s my first venture into F&B; Indian-Mexican fusion. I created that place for it to be a second home for my family and friends. We close whenever we want to, we drink however much we want. It’s a fucking amazing vibe — craft beers, dosa tacos, rice bowls, dosa quesadillas. I'm still a full-time musician, but I have a clothing brand as well. All of these different avenues of me being able to tap into the creative part of my mind roll over. I’ve built an ecosystem that enables the creative side.
On showing friends around the city
If my friends are coming to Singapore, the first place I'll bring them to is Little India. It is so cool that a country as small as Singapore has different representation across different race groups. I was born and raised in Little India. I'll bring them to the spots that I went to growing up and all the iconic spots. I would bring my friends to Arab Street. They used to have a lot of shisha lounges, and growing up I used to shisha every night. It was a very big thing in my family. They banned shisha a couple of years back, so that place has evolved now — it’s filled with a lot more cafés and coffee spots. It holds a special place in my heart.
On the best South Indian food
Komala Vilas is an Indian restaurant that my parents would bring me to two or three times a week. It would always be the same order: the South Indian thali set, which is rice with a whole bunch of stuff on the side. It’s delicious. It holds great significance to me and also is of great cultural significance. Komala Vilas is by far the best South Indian vegetarian food that you can get. Even though it exists all around the world, people in Singapore, especially Indians, travel to Komala Vilas to get their fix. So they got to know what’s up.
‘I opened a café recently called the Maha Co. It’s an amazing vibe — craft beers, dosa tacos, rice bowls, dosa quesadillas.’
On a cultural fix
National Gallery is one of my favorite places. If you go every couple of months, they’ve got a whole new exhibition by all different artists. It's also another great source of inspiration — an avenue for me to stay connected to Singaporean artists that have come before, and current artists too. It is a great place to be exposed to art.
On pockets of nature in the city
From Marina Bay Sands, on one side you see the city, and on the other side, we've got Gardens by the Bay: a man-made, gigantic garden. They have the Flower Dome there: an enclosed, temperature and humidity-controlled building. Every couple of months they change the flowers. If you go in March, they’ve got the sakura season, where they fly in sakura from Japan. It’s fucking wild. I’ve learned so much about flowers and plants! I've performed there several times. I'm not saying these just because they're touristy spots — I am a Singaporean and I do go to those places and bring my family, hang out with my friends. So you can't miss these spots.
On where to party
I love hip-hop clubs. CÉ LA VI at the roof of Marina Bay Sands is a place that we used to party at a lot. It is on the 57th floor. The view is incredible. Imagine getting drunk looking at the skyline of Singapore. It’s really something. Talk about city skyline vibes.
On your relationship with Singapore
Singapore means so much to my family. They had to leave everything behind, and they moved here because this was the equivalent of the American Dream — this was the city that everybody wanted to relocate to, but only the chosen ones made it. I'm a Tamil rapper, the rarest of rare. So many things had to evolve: the city, the infrastructure, the market had to evolve to where we're at today. I had to be at the right place at the right time for me to live my dreams. When I look back, it makes me realize how insane it is for me to be here. It fulfills my spirit so much. I want to travel and see the world, but at the end of the day, Singapore is my home. It's the place that allowed me to be the version of myself that I am today — that gave me and my family a place to call home. It gave me everything that I have. The connection that I have is almost like blood. No matter what, Singapore will forever be my home. 100%.
‘I want to travel and see the world, but at the end of the day, Singapore is my home. It's the place that allowed me to be the version of myself that I am today.’
On a song that represents Singapore to you
We had a project with Singapore Tourism Board two years ago. I made my own version of this iconic Tamil national song called ‘Munnaeru Vaalibaa’. We gave it our own vibe and our own spin. When I listen to that, it makes me think of Singapore.
On a window or an aisle seat
Window seat forever. I'll never forget the first time I was on a plane at seven years old, on the way to India to visit my relatives. My parents let me sit by the window and I was so excited. When I saw the clouds for the first time, my jaw dropped. That was the moment that made me fall in love with getting on flights. Shout out to the Wright brothers for figuring this shit out and letting us fly! It makes me feel like I’m taking a huge breath, and I get so calm when I'm in the clouds. It inspires me. It energizes me and motivates me to want to keep going to places.
On Singapore in one word
We're so small, we can’t afford to have conflict. There's a sense of what they call the kampung spirit. There's a certain vibe in the air in Singapore, where everybody's just in harmony. Of course, every city has its problems from time to time, but you zoom out and you look at the city as a whole, in its entirety. The way it operates, the way people live together, is just so beautiful. Singapore is truly unique.