Yung Raja is, in a word, intense.
It’s not the first adjective that springs to mind for anyone encountering the Singaporean rapper. His hair has, over the past few years, been shocking shades of green, pink and blue. On social media he retweets videos of cute babies and shares wholesome selfies. Going off his two music videos – for breakout single ‘Mustafa’ and 2019’s follow-up ‘Mad Blessings’, both of which have passed the million-view mark – Raja has a sense of humour and a gleeful love of visual absurdity.
But seated across from NME and next to his manager in his label’s boardroom, Raja is all business: lengthy, thoughtful answers, bolstered by prolonged eye contact to let you know he means what he says. You almost wouldn’t believe we were here to talk about something called ‘The Dance Song’. His first single this year and the sequel to ‘Mad Blessings’, it’s 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.
‘The Dance Song’, out this Friday, is pure Yung Raja – and it’s work being Yung Raja. “I would like to approach [music] like a job, you know?” he says. “I’m doing this full-time, so I want my approach and my mindset to be in a way that allows me to operate at a 100 per cent – maximum efficacy or efficiency.”
If Yung Raja comes across like a Serious Artist, he has license to: the 24-year-old is a rapper with a major label deal in a country where costs of living and old-fashioned notions of success make full-time musicians practically unicorns. He and his best bud Fariz Jabba are the Singaporean faces of legendary hip-hop label Def Jam’s Southeast Asia outpost – and also two of the most popular rappers in the city-state. Both have drawn screaming crowds of teens wherever they’ve performed and been asked to rap in Singapore’s annual National Day Parade. Twice.
Mere years ago, he was just Rajid Ahamed, a first-generation Singaporean son of Indian immigrant parents who knew, after earning his diploma, that he didn’t want to continue on to university. “I come from a family of scholars. I’m not one of those, and I knew it early.”
He spent years trying to break into the entertainment industry through small acting roles in film and television. “I was so unhappy because I was going nowhere, I was just running in circles,” he recalls. “But it was through that wave of unhappiness, resentment and lack of fulfilment that I was feeling that led me to Fariz.”
“I needed to grow into the flesh of being a full-time artist. And it hit me so hard, it hit me like a truck”
It was at an audition for the film Ah Boys To Men III (the third instalment in filmmaker Jack Neo’s film franchise about Singapore’s mandatory national service) that the two men met. Raja lays out their ensuing trajectory with something akin to awe in his voice:
“Little did I know that Fariz was going to be my best friend and was going to share the same amount of love and passion as me, or maybe even more, for hip-hop. Little did I know that this guy was going to spark something that I hadn’t seen in myself just yet. Little did I know that those sequence of events would lead us to Zeke [aka FlightSch] outside [hip-hop and dance club] Canvas on a random Friday night, which would lead us to having sessions, which would lead us to getting signed by M03 [Records, his first label] and [Malaysian rap lifer Joe Flizzow’s label] Sony Kartel, and next thing you know, Def Jam, next thing you know, ‘Dance Song’.”
It was a dizzying rise that left little time for contemplation, but when the pandemic hit, Raja was finally able to put it all in perspective. “I had to figure out my game – my personal game, the kind of game that I need to be sure of before my team is sure of it. I needed to grow into the flesh of being a full-time artist. And it hit me so hard, it hit me like a truck,” he says.
“[Life] is no longer moving at a speed where I’m unable to smell the flowers in the garden. Now I can properly just slow down a bit and just see things with a clarity that I wasn’t able to see before, and I’m so grateful for it.”
The biggest realisation this newfound clarity has brought him is that Yung Raja is bigger than Rajid Ahamed. “It’s at a level now where the fun I’m having and the joy that I’m getting out of doing what I do is spilling over to my family,” he marvels. “My parents now get to enjoy the fruits of my labour. My sisters get to enjoy it. I’m able to provide for my family in a way that I never previously expected or saw coming.”
Raja has known since the tender age of ten that as the only son, whose elder sisters already have families of their own, he needed to make a living and, eventually, take care of his parents. When he was a kid, his parents encouraged his interests in acting and music, and never tried to impose career choices on him. “They didn’t want me to hate them, they didn’t want me to grow resentful toward them, they wanted me to love them. What was the approach going to be? Let me do what I want to do.”
“I’m able to provide for my family in a way that I never previously expected or saw coming”
On ‘The Dance Song’, Yung Raja says he wants to spark joy – and, though he won’t immediately admit it, show off, too. Midway through its second verse, he ups the ante and begins to rap at a rapid-fire clip, dropping winking references to legendary Tamil poet Vaali, the Hindu goddess Bhadrakali and Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani.
It marks Raja’s first time putting this breathtaking flow on a single, though his speed won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched his various freestyles or his scene-stealing appearance on the online rap cypher show 16 Baris two years ago.
A longtime admirer of rappers with supercharged flows like Eminem and Twista, Raja says his ability to rap at this dazzling pace can be partly explained by his facility for the Tamil language: “It has to do with the cadence of Tamil, and the phonetic elements of Tamil are tongue-twisting, to a certain degree.”
Yung Raja’s seamless bilingualism has been a calling card for him since the very beginning. It was his viral ‘Poori Gang’ freestyle – a tongue-in-cheek flip of Lil Pump’s ‘Gucci Gang’, its repetitive hook turned into shoutouts to various beloved Indian foods – that caught the attention of Tamils around the world. Those new fans included M.I.A., who got in touch and hung out with Raja while on a visit to Singapore.
“Meeting M.I.A. was an eye-opening experience,” he recalls. “She was very kind, she told me she was a fan of ‘Poori Gang’, and while she was talking, I remember realising the cultural weight of what it is that Zeke and I were trying to do. It wasn’t just Tamil raps. There was a cultural weight to it that we later realised.”
With the global Tamil diaspora in his corner, Yung Raja is poised only for great things. But first, he has to release more than one song a year – and he will, he promises: ‘The Dance Song’ marks the end of that era, and next year more collaborations and music will flow, at a higher frequency than before.
“The first three years was really just marinating and getting to understand what the job scope is. Now we have a good understanding of it,” he says. “You’re always going to be learning, but now I feel I’m spiritually ready to take on whatever is lying ahead of Yung Raja, the brand – and Yung Raja, myself. We used to be separate, but now I am the guy, I fully embody it, I’ve fully grown into it. There is no disassociation anymore.”
Yung Raja’s ‘The Dance Song’ is out October 9