Yung Raja cannot believe what he has achieved in the short half a decade that he’s been in the music business. Besides a steady string of infectious raps in his trademark Tanglish – a mix of Tamil and English, he has had buzzy gigs in Malaysia and India; got a shoutout from Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show; earned a billing at this year’s Rolling Loud festival in Pattaya, Thailand (where the headliners were Travis Scott and Cardi B); launched his own streetwear label Peace Oeuvre and then his own Indian-Mexican restaurant, The Maha Co; which might all explain how he landed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia list last year. (Oh yes, and he’s performed at the National Day Parade, or NDP, here a cool four times.)
“Typically people have to grind for a long time – they put out albums and mixtapes, and are working hard for a record deal. (My team and I) on the other hand have been so blessed to have had some of the most amazing opportunities just line up us,” he says. “I count myself mad fortunate, but it’s also gotten all of us thinking, what next?
“There is no reference because how many rappers do we have in Singapore? I’m at a stage where I’ve to figure out certain things and, without saying too much, my team (comprising producers as well as fellow musicians such as Fariz Jabba and Flightsch) and I have been preparing for our next couple of moves that will be very important in laying down the foundation to the next chapter of our careers. Very soon you’ll see what I’m talking about.”
Ice, ice, baby: Yung Raja models the latest addition to the Rimowa Personal family, a silver aluminium case with straps in an ocean‐inspired shade the brand dubs Arctic Blue. Like the bag, the rapper can be said to embody cool and versatility with his confident style and diverse endeavours that span music to fashion to F&B.
Tell us the truth, Raja: Just how hard is it to make it as a musician in Singapore?
“It is damn hard, guys, especially when you are trying to make money out of it. That there are not many full-time artists here is proof of this. Singapore is optimised for many industries, but – while things are evolving – it’s still not as robustly built for creatives. When I started, it was so hard to get funding or to book shows. People looked at me up and down when I told them I’m a rapper. It took my team and I a while to figure out how to get people’s attention: the NDP shows, the gigs in Malaysia. What I’ve learnt is that it needs to be a team effort.”
You mention your team a lot. Tell us about how your community shapes you as an artist.
“Community is very important because without like-minded and like-spirited people, trying to pursue what you believe in can feel like an uphill battle. Imagine fighting to find your place in society when you’re just being yourself – that’s not how things should be. One of the reasons why it’s hard to make it as a musician in Singapore is because the creative community is small – we’re a small country to begin with and, as a Tamil rapper, I’m part of an even smaller subset of creatives here… All the musicians I’ve been inspired by – ASAP Rocky, Drake and Lil Wayne – are able to put out such a high calibre of work because they have so many other amazing talents to collaborate with. You need a network of creatives whom you can work with to elevate artistry. I believe in people coming together to make each other better and my aim is to – with the team – push the creative envelope to the highest degree that we possibly can. Hopefully the next generation of artists can be inspired and do the same. This is what’s required for us to see some real change in the next five to 10 years.”
Raja dripping with the Rimowa Personal in white polycarbonate with grey leather straps. Modelled after the German luxury luggage maker’s signature and sturdy grooved luggage, the Personal is designed to hold all of one’s daily essentials, with the shoulder strap detachable so it can also be carried as a clutch.
What else would you say is crucial for an artist to “make it”?
“My definition of making it is to be able to support yourself and your family. Today artists don’t actually make money off putting their songs on Apple Music and Spotify. You make money from the shows, the brand deals – all these other things that surround the music. The bigger your songs become and the more markets they reach, the more opportunities you’ll have to do shows in new places or to work with brands. To achieve this, I’d boil it down to four things: hard work, talent, strategy and your team. And remember: It always starts with the music because that is what connects you with people in the first place and builds your community.”
Are your other businesses such as the streetwear label and restaurant an extension of your brand or simply to help sustain yourself?
“I’m inspired by rappers such as Jay Z and Diddy who are entrepreneurs at heart. To be a hip hop artist calls for an entrepreneurial spirit because you’ve to build your brand from scratch, and I see my side hustles as other manifestations of my brand and creative spirit. For example, I see The Maha Co (his restaurant selling fusion thosai tacos that opened last year) more of a creative venture than an F&B venture because we’re selling something that didn’t previously exist. These are ventures that I invest time, money, energy and resources into because I believe in them and they’re born of the pure intention to do something creative, fun and enjoyable. As long as one is clear about what excites this creative spirit within you, there’s no ceiling to how much one’s brand can evolve. I could do something for the sole sake of business, but I wouldn’t because what I’m set on is evolving the Yung Raja brand – what is it for 2030, 2040 or the Yung Raja who’s a father of three? The sidelines aren’t crucial in sustaining the music career. They’re crucial to you becoming a brand that grows.”
What do you want fellow and aspiring musicians to know?
“I want them to know that it is possible to live a creative life – the life of a full-time artist – in Singapore. There was a time when (my team and I) didn’t know if we could, but the situation is different now. It’s a matter of who you’re doing this with and how you’re doing it. And I want musicians here to know that they cannot do all of this alone. There’s this beautiful quote: He who wishes to travel fastest travels alone; he who wishes to travel furthest travels together. In a place like Singapore, it is possible to make it, but it is only possible with a team. Find your people and you can move mountains. Anything will be possible.”
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR CLARITY AND BREVITY
Photography Phyllicia Wang Grooming Sha Shamsi Clothes Tod’s, Kenzo & Raja’s own Jewellery Raja’s own
This article first appeared in the Sept 2023 Make It Work! Edition of FEMALE