“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” These words hold true for Singapore hip-hop artiste Yung Raja, who began his musical journey doing covers of his favourite songs when he was in his teens. He emphasises that is what fuelled his start in the world of music. Little did he know, years later, he would become one Southeast Asia’s most promising hip-hop artistes.
“My musical career journey really took off around four years ago,” he tells us. “But I actually gravitated towards music when I was in my teens.” According to the artiste, he began really immersing himself into music when his father got him a laptop.
“I remember at the time. I was very interested in doing covers of my favourite rap songs. I would record them and put them up on SoundCloud and think nothing of it,” he says. “I wasn’t out to promote them or anything, I just enjoyed the satisfaction I got from trying to imitate my favourite artists.”
Born Rajid Ahamed, Yung Raja would spend long hours trying to get the cover sounding as accurate as the original artist. That strive for perfection would eventually pave a way and kickstart a passion for music, which he didn’t know he had.
“It was my friend Fariz (Jabba), who said I should give music a shot,” he says. At the time, the artiste was plying his trade as an actor, scoring small roles and freelance gigs. He readily admits that acting was his first passion, but as he began to truly develop his sound and music, everything started to fall in place nicely.
Growing up, he names Notorious B.I.G, Eminem and Jay-Z as some of his influences. “These are the guys I was thoroughly impressed by. I realised that my interest came from listening to a rapper and being blown away by their skillset.” But with rap not being a prevalent piece of music in Southeast Asian culture, it raises a question as to what exactly drew him to the genre.
“I grew up listening to South Indian music, so hip-hop was like the polar opposite of things,” he recalls. “The first time I listened to a rap song was when I was 10 or 11 years old, and it struck pretty hard… It had that in-your-face type of vibe, and those hard-hitting beats from the drums and bass, so I fell in love with it immediately.”
But Yung Raja is quick to admit that despite the clash of styles and sounds, he saw a lot of parallels between South Indian music and hip-hop. This in turn helped influence his distinctive sound and lyrics for his songs.
A Mix Of Cultures
Listening to one of his tracks, one can sense that synergy that was born from his roots and his appreciation for hip-hop. His ability to mesh styles and wax lyrical in both English and Tamil clearly puts him on a different level in the music scene. The reason for his bilingual approach is also because he feels that hip-hop is ultimately an accurate representation of one’s reality.
“It’s all about stories, and rappers are some of the greatest storytellers. They tell the story of their life, their struggle, their neighbourhood, what they saw growing up. You know, what they had to do to survive – all these things are part of their lives, that’s how rap started. And that is what makes rap so beautiful,” he says.
“So I figured early on, that the only possible way for me to be a rapper is if I show people what I’m about. Sure, I can release a song in full English, but I don’t want to do that because it will not be an accurate representation of who I am as a person. At home, I speak Tamil and I speak English to my friends, and that is how my cultural inclusivity comes into play. I want people to know where I’m from and give them a glimpse of what makes me, me.”
Driven by passion and his talent for music, Yung Raja slowly begun to come into his own as an artiste. With his music gaining traction and recognition, he told his parents that he had finally found his true calling. The problem is, they had no idea what rap and hip-hop was.
“My parents are from South India, right,” he says with a laugh. “My dad is like in his 60s and my mom was born in 1956. They’re from a totally different world and era.” He recalls how his parents packed up and moved from India to Singapore in the early ’90s.
“I was born here, and they sort of knew that I was very different, as I was raised differently compared to my sisters who grew up in India,” he reveals. “I had a different life experience, and they gave me a lot of freedom growing up, in a sense they allowed me to be my fullest self for as long as I can remember.”
So, when he finally told his parents that he was going into music and becoming a rapper, he admits his parents were clueless about his chosen career path. “I would show them YouTube videos of Drake and Kendrick, but they still didn’t get it.” However, he says things aligned for his parents one day when they came to see a show where he was performing.
“I think we had like 3,000 people in attendance for that show and they were screaming for Yung Raja. And the crowd sang along with the songs, and I think when they witnessed that, they finally realised, ‘okay, our son is doing something right’.”
Dealing With Success
Over the years, Yung Raja has amassed several hits which has solidified his position as a rising star in hip-hop in Southeast Asia. His breakout English-Tamil remix of Lil Pump’s Gucci Gang, titled Poori Gang made him an instant social media sensation.
His first single Mustafa, released in 2018, struck a chord with listeners and quickly went viral in Malaysia and Singapore. His second single Mad Blessings caught the eyes of Lupe Fiasco and M.I.A. and it was also the first English-Tamil song to get airplay on leading Malay radio stations in Malaysia.
His third track The Dance Song also received attention in Singapore, Malaysia and India, and garnered well over six million views on TikTok. Three tracks in, the rapper has already amassed over five million streams on Spotify and over five million views on YouTube. His latest track, MAMI, released in March is also receiving significant attention.
Despite his achievements, Yung Raja admits that fans’ acceptance of his brand of music still surprises him. “To this day it baffles me how many people are following me and liking this vibe of music we are putting out. It’s also because I never once expected myself to be a full-time rapper.”
Looking Towards The Future
Despite his many accolades and accomplishments, Yung Raja admits that his biggest achievement personally is that he finally settled his family’s debts. “To be 100 percent completely honest, that is what has been my biggest accomplishment, because it was something I always wanted to do since I was a kid.”
He adds, “I’ve always wanted to take care of them and currently where I am now, where I am more independent when it comes to finance, this is finally possible.” Yung Raja says that he counts himself fortunate to be where he is at the moment – doing something he loves and finding success with it.
“I hope to continuously make music that I love with the people that I love, which is my team, and to continuously try to push the boundaries of expression,” he says. Moving forward, he also hopes to make more songs and give people more of Yung Raja.
“I’ve been putting out one song a year for the last three years. Now we are putting that concept away because we want to put out more music,” he says enthusiastically. “We are going to make sure people are entertained, you know, because for me, making music is something that is the epitome of having fun.”
Ultimately, he stresses, is that he wants his music to continue inspiring people to be the best version of themselves. “I want to strive for that and to also continuously instil joy and positivity into people’s lives through the arts and music.” Perhaps even one bilingual track at a time.
(Images: Hans Goh/Universal Music)