Yung Raja on Representing Minority Voices in Performance

In 2017, Rajid Ahamed started his music career under the stage name MC Raja, releasing two singles, “Bounce” and “Tamilian,” while being part of a music talent programme under the youth development non-profit *Scape. Fresh on the local music scene, he sought to create music that gripped him. “Being a fan of hip-hop pretty much my whole life, I’ve always found rappers impactful and inspirational — to have a voice and spreading the messages you stand for was something I’ve always been drawn to,” he says. 

In 2018, he took on a new moniker, Yung Raja, a stage name that he has used since, given by his manager and mentor, the Singapore-based music producer Flightsch. He deems meeting Flightsch the most important moment of his career. “It was this man who steered the ship in a direction I’d have never [thought to travel] in,” he says. “You don’t meet many mentors in your life.”

The Singaporean rapper and songwriter of South Indian descent is now known for his feel-good hip-hop tracks in which he raps, with youthful abandon, in both Tamil and English. He has had two single releases and three remix tracks in the past three years, all of which quickly gained him local and regional recognition, especially in Malaysia. Youths who have had to confront their Indian heritage, often in conflict with the metropolitan, Western-leaning culture of the region, are particularly taken with Yung Raja’s linguistically hybrid style that celebrates both his roots and his experience growing up as a first-generation Singaporean. While he may not be the first to do so, he might be the first to lend an insouciant cool to the distinct style, bringing it mainstream. “Now, it’s about adding more layers to my craft,” says Yung Raja. “It was a lot of exploring in the beginning but now I’m driven by my sound and my intention to touch people with my art.” 

If I don’t talk about my roots then who will?

Being a rapper in Singapore — a space that, to Yung Raja, is “constantly evolving and expanding” — is not always a field day. “Staying inspired and creative is one of the biggest challenges, I’d say. For me, momentum is one of the most important things when it comes to creating,” he points out. “There’s a flow in work and not losing that is key.” 

Yung Raja wears Moncler Collection jacket, hoodie and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier ring and bracelet, Ecrou de Cartier ring.
Yung Raja wears Moncler Collection jacket, hoodie and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier ring and bracelet, Ecrou de Cartier ring.

He also sees that the steady increase in new artists and support from music labels has allowed the scene to grow significantly, though there are not many rappers who are pursuing hip-hop music in the mainstream. Having worked overseas and been identified as a Singaporean artist, the 24-year-old feels that the exposure, with the help of social media, has helped change local perceptions of him. And if there is anything that he hopes to witness change in the local music industry, it is “to see a diverse and rich scene, with all kinds of sounds and personalities,” he says. “I think we’re well on our way there.”

The pandemic has served to help Yung Raja grow as a musician and become more independent as a creative, though live shows, an inextricable aspect of music-making, have been put on an indefinite pause. “Not being able to see people standing in front of you and sharing the energy with you is something that I truly miss,” he says, recognising that even with the help of technology such as Zoom, which has enabled artists to collaborate despite social distancing measures and provided workflow conveniences through virtual facetime, the live experience cannot be replicated.

Doing more, and showing people it’s possible, is something I never want to undervalue.

Prior to a career in music, Yung Raja pursued acting. He started out as a child actor, working in minor roles in local television and films from the age of 13. The pivot toward music, in 2017, encouraged by a fellow actor-turned-musician Fariz Jabba, was liberating for him. “I had uncovered a powerful form of expression within myself and it was so relieving,” says Yung Raja. “I felt a whole new level of confidence within myself.” Music allowed him to explore the depths of his identity and turned out to be a life-changing transition. His comfort in front of the camera also gives him an edge in the entertainment industry. Apart from performing as a rapper, he takes up hosting gigs, his most recent stint being a co-hosting role on the reality series “Yo! MTV Raps” from 2018 to 2019.

Burberry jacket and shirt, Cartier Clash de Cartier earrings, Ecrou de Cartier ring, Santos de Cartier watch.
Burberry jacket and shirt, Cartier Clash de Cartier earrings, Ecrou de Cartier ring, Santos de Cartier watch.

Yung Raja’s brief discography begins with his first single “Mustafa,” released in 2018; to “Mad Blessings,” released in 2019; and “The Dance Song,” released this year. He has used his cheerful sound to celebrate youth culture while embracing his South Indian roots, and created a sphere of influence that empowers minority youths in Singapore. “If I don’t talk about my roots then who will?” he says, asserting that the urge to protect and celebrate his heritage is more a natural propensity than deliberate social activism. “I’ve always been immensely proud and attached to my heritage.”

On set at T Singapore’s December cover shoot, Yung Raja elaborates on the positive impact of music.

 

He credits his upbringing, which has always upheld a “cultural framework,” for his confidence in his own skin. For an individual responsible for representing a minority voice and changing stereotypes of the local Indian community, Yung Raja’s public persona is remarkably liberated, with a wide-eyed visage amped up by a buzz cut that changes in colour (usually neon shades) ever so often. The signature look, enhanced by a carefree disposition, draws a multitude of fans on social media. One comment on his Instagram account reads, “Shtambiiiiiii (slang for “thambi,” a colloquial Tamil term of endearment) looking skrrrtt”; another, under a celebratory post on Deepavali in November, exclaims, “Happy diwali kingg!!” In person, at T Singapore’s cover shoot, he radiates an infectious enthusiasm that uplifts his team: “Yeah! Let’s go!” 

Moncler Collection jacket, hoodie and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier ring and bracelet, Ecrou de Cartier ring.
Moncler Collection jacket, hoodie and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier ring and bracelet, Ecrou de Cartier ring.

Yung Raja thinks that being a performer is “all about expression, and expression isn’t unidimensional.” In order for local musicians and artists to thrive, there is a need to “always go beyond their sight, as they are looked at as role models.” Striving for more doesn’t necessarily dilute an individual’s primary craft. “Doing more, and showing people it’s possible, is something I never want to undervalue,” he says. 

It is no small feat that the young rapper was tapped to represent his community — a people long overlooked in the fabric of the nation — in Singapore’s 2019 National Day Parade. His Indian identity, which he fiercely wields as an edge over detractors, especially during a time of racial reckoning, knocks down the stereotypes that have plagued minorities in the nation — and makes him a role model for youths. Success, to him, is “when you know that [what you’re doing] isn’t growing old.”

On T Singapore’s “Holiday” December cover are musicians Aisyah Aziz, Benjamin Kheng, Jasmine Sokko, Tabitha Nauser and Yung Raja. All clothing and shoes by 6 Moncler 1017 Alyx 9SM and Moncler Collection.
On T Singapore’s “Holiday” December cover are musicians Aisyah Aziz, Benjamin Kheng, Jasmine Sokko, Tabitha Nauser and Yung Raja. All clothing and shoes by 6 Moncler 1017 Alyx 9SM and Moncler Collection.
Photographs by Stefan Khoo
Creative direction by Jack Wang
Styling by Jenine Oh
Subjects (clockwise from top left): Benjamin Kheng, Yung Raja, Tabitha Nauser, Aisyah Aziz and Jasmine Sokko.
(Benjamin Kheng and Yung Raja) Grooming: Sha Shamsi using Dior Makeup and Hanz de Fuko.
(Tabitha Nauser) Hair: Den Ng using L’Oréal Professionnel, Makeup: Fiona Bennett using Fenty Beauty.
(Aisyah Aziz) Hair and Makeup: Manisa Tan using Dior Makeup and Keune.
(Jasmine Sokko) Hair: Samuel Sim at Hairloom, Makeup: Larry Yeo using Charlotte Tilbury.
Manicure: Rebecca Chuang at Fluttery Tips.