Singapore rapper enters world stage

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Singaporean rapper Yung Raja is oozing confidence: The two songs he launched in recent weeks have attracted worldwide attention.

He now believes he is growing beyond his South-east Asia fanbase.

On Nov 12, he released Damn Freestyle, his first music video fully in English. It has already garnered 34,000 views on YouTube.

"I'm excited to be introduced to the West," he told tabla! "I've set foot on a path of putting out more music which reaches a worldwide audience. It's a new level of confidence and cheekiness."

The debut release under United States label Alamo Records places Raja alongside the likes of popular American rappers Lil Durk, Smokepurpp and 03 Greedo.

The 24-year-old, born Rajid Ahamed, is obviously riding on the success of his previous music video The Dance Song, which was released on Oct 9.

The English-Tamil number, which features several familiar Singapore locations like the Marina Bay area, is a YouTube hit with more than 845,000 views.

"The Dance Song is a potent dose of cheek and swagger, all tumbling brag-filled bars in English and Tamil over a bright, cartoonish beat by longtime producer and mentor FlightSch," noted music critic Karen Gwee on NME.com. "Raja has a sense of humour and a gleeful love of visual absurdity."

It has already sparked a dance craze dubbed #TheWigglyChallenge - named after the moves in the music video which sees Raja waving his hands and body out of rhythm - on social media platform TikTok.

Made by users from as far as the United States, the videos have been viewed more than six million times.

"The Dance Song is all about the celebration of life and embracing of identity," said Raja, who first came to prominence with the 2018 song Mustafa, which clocked 2.1 million views on YouTube. "It is colourful, vibrant, joyous and smiley.

"It has a catchy sound and the video is entertaining and captivating. Overall, people are entertained by it."

The Dance Song, like his previous solo singles - Poori Gang (Gucci Gang Remix, 2018), Mustafa and Mad Blessings (2019), which also had more than one million views on YouTube - feature lyrics in both English and Tamil.

It has winking references to Tamil culture, film superstar Rajinikanth, legendary Tamil poet Vaali, the Hindu goddess Bhadrakali and Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani.

"I aim to inspire one and all with my story of being a first generation Singaporean Indian boy grinding and living my dreams," said Raja, whose parents emigrated to Singapore from Thanjavur, a town in Tamil Nadu, in 1992. "I always enjoy referencing things I am moved by and inspired by, and it's a joy being able to share such references that often are unique to my heritage and culture.

"I've been a fan of superstar Rajinikanth since I was five years old. His style is the biggest inspiration for me - how he was able to transcend generations and impact millions with his unique actions.

"Hip-hop is very much personality and style driven and it was a no-brainer for me to draw inspiration from the one and only Superstar."

Being fluent in English and Tamil helps Raja rap at a dazzling pace.

The Dance Song has lines like "this ponnu (girl) in love with my kolanthe (child) face, her aunty gon tell me how this kolambu (curry) taste, buggers with pulippu (sourness) push me to moradan (rough) stage" which are humorous and raise a laugh.

"Being bilingual is my biggest blessing as it combines my two worlds," said Raja. "It's a huge part of what makes me ME."

Clearly the decision to become a hip-hop artiste has paid off for Raja, who spent years trying to break into the entertainment industry through acting roles in film and television.

He maintained that acting is his first love but has been hooked to hip-hop from a young age.

"My sister's Walkman was the first time I heard hip-hop from," he said. "Sometime, around the time I was nine, I instantly fell in love with how it made me feel. I felt invincible.

"Rappers become superheroes very quickly. I knew it right away that hip-hop was gonna be a part of me from then on."

The bachelor, who lives with his parents, has three married sisters, who have eight children among them.

In recent years Raja has been busy with performances and other music work in Singapore and Malaysia.

The Covid-19 pandemic has given him time to pause and reflect.

"It is a welcome change," he said. "I have definitely become more independent and confident. I am more clear about the direction I'm headed musically."

The youngster is looking forward to pulling clear of other emerging hip-hop talents from South-east Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam by addressing a common complaint levelled against him: That he doesn't produce enough music.

"I have released only one song a year in the last two years. That structure is going to change, and there will be more music and more vibes," he said. "The name of my game isn't fame, it's putting smiles on faces and inspiring people. It's about being great and wanting to become greater."

santosh@sph.com.sg

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