“I realised from a young age how hard it is for me to do this as a South Asian person,” Raveena Aurora tells NME over the phone from New York City. This is something she’s been challenging her entire career, but none more so on debut album, ‘Lucid’. On it, contemporary R&B and traditional Indian sounds are the base upon which the album is built; emotional lyrics sung by Raveena’s honeyed, unmissable voice.
Within the album, South Asian identity and culture are entangled with apt descriptions of finding yourself at a crossroads. This honesty has allowed Raveena to garner a sizeable following: she has over 95,000 followers on Instagram, with South Asian fans quoting her lyrics in tweets and Instagram posts. Most of them feel exactly like her: stuck in this perpetual cycle of self-discovery.
Born in Massachusetts and raised between Queens, NYC and Connecticut, Raveena, like many others in the South Asian-American diaspora, was brought up on Bollywood music and culture. South Asian icons like Lata Mangeshkar and Ravi Shankar were mainstays in her house but Raveena’s earliest notions of making it as a singer were when she heard of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. “Once I heard their voices, I was hooked,” she explains. “There was no turning back. I really fell in love with the voice and how to use it and study it and be as expressive with it as possible.”
Starting out in musical theatre, Raveena knew from an early stage that she wanted to sing, but when looking around at Broadway and the entertainment industry, she realised she had no role models. “I think that was a very shocking thing to realise as a child that because of your race, it’s going to be a lot harder. Having that self-awareness made me want to become a really good songwriter.”
With a desire to practice on her skills every day, she focused intensely and watched as the British-Sri Lankan artist MIA blew up, finally showing Raveena that it was possible for her as well. “The focus on trying to fit into someone else’s role in acting and musical theatre got out of the way,” she says. “When I saw someone like MIA go mainstream, I thought this is a path I could potentially take.”
“When I saw someone like MIA go mainstream, I thought this is a path I could potentially take” – Raveena Aurora
Raveena would come home from her 9-5 job and then work on her craft – that relentless work ethic resulted in garnering enough money to self-fund her projects. Her 2017 EP ‘Shanti’ brought her to the attention of the South Asian diaspora and she quickly gained a dedicated following, with the project racking up hundreds of thousands of streams.
This, coupled with a scintillating performance of her track ‘If Only’ on Colours – a YouTube channel featuring live sessions of artists all over the globe – saw Raveena’s popularity increase rapidly. “I went into survival mode when I started self-funding and also supporting myself,” she says. “I just knew that if I didn’t figure out a way to make this work, I wouldn’t leave this life happy and I just had to go after it.”
After her solo tour last year, she signed to management company 4 Strikes, the team behind heavyweight acts such as Odd Future and Brockhampton. By the fall of last year, Raveena was appearing at Camp Flog Gnaw, Tyler, the Creator’s beloved Cali festival.
Then she released ‘Temptation’. The 2018 single was the signifier that Raveena was a different kind of South Asian artist. Taking place in a ‘70s style salon, the video is opulent and colourful, acting as an ode to her roots and her love for Bollywood blockbuster movies. Raveena also used the video to come out as bisexual to fans and family.
A few months later, Raveena also opened up about also being a sexual assault survivor: a fact that she used to create a house for ‘Lucid’. The album helped exorcise her demons, allowing her to “tell a very hard and emotional story.” Songs like ‘Stronger’ and ‘Salt Water’ help address trauma through their lyrics before the album slowly shifts into a space for healing. She says final track “‘Petal’ is kind of being at peace with the idea of death. I think that was the moment of clarity that I wanted the album and myself to have.”
Despite the attention she received with fans flocking to her for inspiration, Raveena finds herself unsure of her footing. “It’s something that I still go through every day,” she says. “Is there a ceiling with how much I can achieve literally because of my race? And it’s something I consider all the time, on a weekly basis. I remember that I just have to go back to the truth: that if you make beautiful things, you can try to maintain a pure spirit and pure heart about you.”
Raveena is happy to be one of the diaspora artists to be mentioned as a success story, but finds herself playing it down. “I think it’s just a drop in the bucket,” she says. “There are so many people doing the work and so many underground South Asian musicians who are equally putting themselves out there. I think it’s going to be a really exciting time for us in the next couple of years.”
Though it’s too early for her to say anything concise about a project after ‘Lucid’, she is back in the studio working on music. “I feel like there’s more work to do than ever,” she asserts. “I obviously feel very deep gratitude and deep appreciation for everything that has happened. You have to look to how can I push what’s next even further. You can’t ask for much more than what’s going to be your destiny.”