Barely out of school and Rhea Raj already has a number of hit songs under her belt, with a few more expected in the next couple of months. The most popular among them is “Venom,” which is a brilliant R&B pop number, mixed with glimpses of her Indian-American roots.
She’s like a lethal brand
Too much for any man…
The girl’s got rhythm.
These lines from the song “Girl’s Got Rhythm” from AC/DC’s hit album, “Highway to Hell,” best describe Rhea Raj.
Raj is a pop artist, songwriter, producer, and dancer and creates her own path, muddling her South Asian culture to create her own style of music. Her father, originally from Sri Lanka and an old-time headbanger, loves classic rock, including AC/DC. Her mother was born in Chennai, India, and raised in the Middle East. So, for Raj, there was a plethora of musical influences right there at home while growing up in these different places. They ranged from Western rock and pop, to Indian classical and also Arabic music. Enchanted with diverse music ever since she was a toddler, she is now making some enthralling music herself.
Raj is thankful for both her parents being surprisingly supportive of her, somewhat unconventional career choice, at least for South Asians who have their mind set on STEM careers for their children.
She says, “My parents have been so supportive since the very beginning, which is such a blessing, and has just made this whole journey, so exciting for me. My mom taught Bharatanatyam for 10 years and has always been very artistic. My dad has been part of corporate America his whole life, but he was a music lover. They grew up in an environment where their parents were not supportive of them embracing arts and music. So when they had me and my sister, they wanted to give us the freedom of exploring art and letting us choose what we love doing.”
The message from her parents to her was clear: If you want to be a musician, and you want to be in the entertainment industry, you have to do it with all of your soul and with all of your time. You have to give it your 100 percent, and you prove to us that it’s not just something you want to do for fun, they laid down the rule.
Backed by an understanding set of parents supporting her pursuance of music as a career, meant that Raj had to make time for both school and song. Time management is something that Raj has mastered from a very young age, juggling school with a foot in the door to the music industry. She shares the secret of managing time, “I’ve always been a really focused person, even when I was younger. I started making music and doing this professionally when I was like 12 or 13 when still in school. So I kind of learned very young how to get all my work done, come home, record, make music until I went to sleep and that has just been my life every day.”
The early devotion of time in developing her talent led her to auditions for American Idol when she was just 15. At the audition, she performed in front of great musical icons, such as Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez. She picked two of the most powerful songs of Whitney Houston – “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Difficult songs for sure, but wisely chosen to demonstrate her powerful vocal skills. She recalls her surreal experience.
“They really loved it and were super supportive and said that they loved my voice and style,” she says. “It was really validating to hear that at that age from these great artists. That was the moment where I realized that I wanted to do this forever. I loved performing, and I loved being on stage in front of people.”
However, luck didn’t favor the 15-year-old as she came down with flu a day before one of her performances. Her voice being sore, she was eliminated from the competition. Even though it was heartbreaking for the teenaged Raj, she did not let it bother her; instead, it instilled resilience in her. She focused on the bright side,
“Soon after, I was like, let me look at the positive side of this. It gave me a platform,” Raj says, “I have all these people now waiting to see what I’m going to do next.” Buoyed by the experience, she started doing a ton of YouTube videos, which became pretty popular. A few of them even got picked up by MTV Glamour magazine. She had turned an opportunity into a launch pad for herself.
She says, “It inspired me to just keep going, it wasn’t a setback at all it was in fact a platform for me, an opportunity to show people what was coming next.”
Like any other industry, the music industry is no bed of roses for women, especially when you are just 21, and trying to make a mark as a South Asian woman of color in the studios of LA. It was two steps back for every step forward. Things were no different for Raj, who had moved there from the East coast.
Raj gives a glimpse of her mettle when she says, “There’s going to be many challenges, there’s going to be a lot of no’s before you hear the yes’s. That’s just the way it works, and you take it personally. It’s not about you or your art. You have to wake up every day and be like, I’m the baddest alive like I’ve got this. Trust in your art, trust in your creativity and your vision. So that’s what I remind myself every day.” Sage advice from someone so young.
Talking about her single, “Venom,” the lass reveals her young enthusiasm and energy, which till now had been shrouded in a veil of maturity. Raj wrote the single during the pandemic quarantine. It was produced by her friend Cal Castro. She wanted to write a song about a relationship that was somewhat vengeful.
“I wanted to take that power and wanted it to feel like I was telling this person, you can’t do that to me,” Raj says. And if you push me to the edge, my venom is going to come out.”
To have the freedom to create music unimpaired by the dictates of a record company, at just 18, Raj founded her own record label, Misschief Records. She initially set it up to produce and promote her own music, but now represents other artists as well. She explains her reason for setting up Misschief:
It’s always been my goal to sign and develop other writers and producers like myself, and especially shine a light on female producers. I think their talent is often undervalued and that they don’t always get the same platforms to show up and make beats.
Raj currently manages the marketing herself and scouts for fascinating talent on TikTok and YouTube.
She is most excited about her first ballad, which will be released just before Valentine’s Day. The single titled “In Your Hands” is a romantic number thatwill be followed up by “Devil in a Dress” in March. The single is written and produced by women and will coincide with Women’s Day. And now that the world is gradually inching back to normalcy, she will be performing for the first time in March at SXSW, best known for celebrating tech, film, music and culture. Raj is also working on her first NFT collection.
Raj’s lyrics, videos and persona may project an image of fire and fury, but during our video interview suggested a demure, mild, soft-spoken, modest girl, full of feminine energy. A young woman who has been working diligently to make her mark in the music industry. Like the persona she portrayed in her video “Venom” – coiled in wait, ready to unleash herself on to the world.