Yung Raja, Unravelled
Yung Raja removes his shades and diamond-encrusted $3,600 grills for me. Taking both my hands, he offers a heartfelt apology for his tardiness. Fresh off a gig at It’s The Ship, the young hip-hop phenom has been hustling non-stop, zipping from city to city, show to show, and set to set, ever since this video shot him up the Internet charts. Back then, he was still going by the moniker, MC Raja, testing the waters with English-Tamil rap remixes. But in just two years, he has released a debut single Mustafa, and a follow-up Mad Blessings under MADEYOUFAMOUS (both of which garnered more than a million YouTube views), and is now signed to the Southeast Asian arm of Def Jam, the label that represents Kanye West, Big Sean and Justin Bieber. Before you think he’s just another overnight sensation, Raja, as a child, possessed a precocious talent for the arts. At age 7, he won a national art competition with a rudimentary yet somewhat abstract crayon rendering of “insects and plants in action”, and went on to score a speaking line in a TV drama on his first try at a countrywide audition seven years later. Since then, he has been acting for a decade playing a variety of roles from recruit Balan in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen, to tattoo artist Rohan in Channel 5’s Fiends & Foes, to very early on in his career, a boy who found a cockroach in his soya bean milk in Fighting Spiders. These days, the top half of his face is plastered onto the sides of 7-Eleven stores. And every time I see him, I see Rajid Ahamed—the charismatic, ever so slightly coquettish Will Smith fanatic who looked like he’s got his life all figured out at 18, and did not need a diploma in mass communication to “go places”. Five years ago, he once said to me, “One day, you’re going to write about me.” I remember shrugging it off as a joke. Call it luck or clairvoyance. Perhaps it was written in the stars that our past and present selves would cross paths. A throng of Caucasian pre-teens interrupts our photoshoot and runs up to Raja for a selfie, before chanting his name. A waiter at Tanjong Beach Club recognises him as well, and presents a slice of a chocolate cake on the house with the words, “Mad Blessings”, written on the plate in fudge. It’s becoming harder for Raja to go unnoticed without getting ambushed by autograph requests (and his light green 'do isn’t helping either). While fame is a part of success for artists, it can also be a slippery slope. Raja admits that some of the attention has gone to his head, and it isn’t something he is completely immune to. “I had difficulties adjusting to fame... I didn't spend a lot of time trying to understand it. I just went with the flow, and while I was doing that, I made some mistakes and pissed some of my friends off,” he says. “Now, my friends would catch me when I’m not handling myself right, when I get a bit too arrogant, or when I say things that might be coming from an empty head.” Despite exploding into the zeitgeist, Raja is right in the middle of a metamorphosis. In the last couple of months, the newly-single rapper has uncovered parts of himself that he never knew existed, discovered the joys of solitude and introversion, and even warmed up to the taste of wine. Yet, the one thing that hasn’t changed in all the years that I’ve known him, through each of his incarnations, is his optimism—”I’m just a crazy guy that will make you happy.” In a world that runs on cynicism, Raja is a breath of fresh air and views his music as a vehicle to spread hope and positivity. “I found an old tweet from our poly days,” he says. “I tweeted that I'd be a millionaire by the time I was 25.” With another year left, who says lightning can’t strike twice? After all, he was right the first time.
ANGELA LOW: How have you been?
YUNG RAJA: I'm good. It's been a crazy two years.
ANGELA: Have you always been into rap? I don’t recall hearing you rap when we were in school.
RAJA: I didn't tell anyone! [laughs] I used to record rap covers and post them on SoundCloud. During those days, I didn’t know how to rap as myself. I only knew how to emulate other rappers. I used to love getting the words right, in terms of diction, the pace, the flow. It made me feel so satisfied, especially when it sounded impressive to me.
ANGELA: Was it a secret talent?
RAJA: It was a hidden talent for the longest time, until I decided to work on it. When I was 15, Not Afraid by Eminem came out, and I was impressed by how fast and cool that song was. Everybody knew that song! I listened to it so many times, I memorised the lyrics. I used to perform it for my classmates in secondary school, who would react, saying, “Woah man, that was so cool! You can rap!” I never thought much about it though. In the first year of polytechnic, when we got our Macbooks, which had the GarageBand app, I started playing around with it... recording stuff. If it sounded cool, I’d upload it. Nothing more.
ANGELA: Do you freestyle?
ANGELA: Are you good at it?
RAJA: I wouldn't say I'm good at it. I definitely need practice because I don't get as many chances to freestyle as I’d like to. Fariz [Jabba] and I always do that, whenever we have a night out.
ANGELA: How did you and Fariz meet?
RAJA: Remember Ah Boys to Men 3? During the third year of poly, I actually skipped my internship to do the movie. I met him at the auditions. He also got in. The description of the roles were, word for word, “funny Indian guy”, and “cool Malay boy”. Now that I think about it, that was pretty f***ed up!
ANGELA: Have you ever experienced discrimination?
RAJA: This is a touchy thing to talk about. I mean, everyone faces some sort of discrimination. I was bullied in school. I started acting when I was 14, and I used to tell everybody that I wanted to be an actor in secondary school. My classmates would make fun of me for that. It was really demoralising, but it fueled me to work harder. I wanted to prove to myself and to them that I have what it takes to make it.
ANGELA: Would you say you're a very positive person?
RAJA: I don't remember being so positive when I was younger, but I remember being resilient. Nothing used to faze me in school. The only thing that really fazed me was when people didn’t like me. I think the reason why I’m very positive now is because I learnt how to deal with the idea of people not liking me.
ANGELA: Why didn’t people like you?
RAJA: I used to talk a lot in school—a chatterbox who couldn't shut up. [laughs] I'm not like that now. I've learnt from that.
ANGELA: Why did it bother you so much?
RAJA: I've always wanted to be well-liked. I was a huge people pleaser. I didn't know why. I grew up with three sisters, my mother and grandmother, so I received lots of attention. By the time I turned 8 or 9, I had already gotten so used to it. At 10, the level of attention decreased when one of my sisters got married and moved out. And I’d subconsciously try to fill that void in school. I was never able to verbalise this until now. I never used to understand why I always craved attention from people. I love being the centre of attention. I love going up on stage. My teachers used to ask if anyone wanted to go to the front of the classroom and everyone would just shout, “Rajid! Rajid!”
ANGELA: You got special treatment as the only son.
RAJA: My dad was 46 and my mum was 39 when she gave birth to me. They weren't supposed to have another baby, but my mom always wanted a son. My parents are from South India, and the cultural and traditional aspects of things were important to them. When I was born, they called me a gift from God, God’s child, and all that. Everything that I ever wanted was given to me. Still, I wasn't a spoilt brat because we weren't rich. We were slightly below middle class. My mom is a housewife, and my dad is a private tutor who taught physics, chemistry and math. My sisters are incredibly smart too.
ANGELA: How old are they?
RAJA: My eldest sister is 18 years older than me, my second sister is 15 years older, and my third sister is 11 years older. Imagine me, growing up and not fitting in anywhere because the sibling age gaps were so wide. For the longest time, I was just “the baby”. You wouldn't believe it, but I used to sleep in between my parents until I was 12. It got a bit weird, so I suggested getting my own room, but my mom said, “No! You have to stay with me!” When you grow up with that many eyes and ears on you, it affects you. I had too much love around and on me.
ANGELA: How did it affect you?
RAJA: All I think about are good things because that's pretty much all I had during my childhood. It’s like my mind was designed for good things. If I’m getting a bad vibe from someone, I’d think, “Is he having a bad day?” For my friends, if someone ticked them off, they’d probably want to beat that person up. I don’t get triggered like that. On the flip side, I have a very low tolerance for negativity and pain. I didn’t know how to deal with rejection until I was about 16 or 17.
ANGELA: What sort of rejections do you remember facing when you were young?
RAJA: In the 10 years I pursued acting, I probably went to about 500 auditions. And out of those 500, I got 50. It was an 85 per cent rejection rate. It was something I got used to not because it happened all the time, but because of what happened when I scored my first-ever acting gig. I went to an open casting call for a TV drama called Fighting Spiders at Marina Square, on 14 March 2009. Before that, I had no idea I wanted to be an actor or anything like that. I saw the casting call on TV and my mom told me to go for it. I went with my sister, and saw 800 other people who also showed up for the audition, not including the rest of the people in the middle of the mall! There was also a live audience. Somehow I got into the top 10. They congratulated me, and told me they'd call me in a week to arrange for a shoot. When the time came, I was in school, playing basketball. Our phones were kept in the lockers, so I missed the call. When I called them back, all they said was, “Sorry, we replaced you with somebody else.” I started crying over the phone, telling them to give me a chance. I said, “Let me just do this for free. Let me come down to the shoot.” She said okay, and I went for the shoot. I’m on set with all these kids, and the director, who I’m still friends with, looked at me and gave me a line. That was the line that ended up on TV.
ANGELA: What was the line?
RAJA: "Eh, got cockroach in my soya bean!" That's it. Just one line! From then on, I became so hardened by rejection. I had this attitude of not giving a f***. I drew my strength from my career. That’s why I was so focused on it. It made me feel like I had a purpose in life. In the process, I could make my parents happy, and learn to deal with the things I wasn't good at coping with.
ANGELA: What else are you not good at?
RAJA: I think I'm not the best at dealing with attention from girls. [laughs] The last time we met, was I in a relationship?
ANGELA: I think so, yes.
RAJA: I probably was. I was in a relationship for three and a half years, before I got together with another girl. We broke up just three, four months ago after being together for three years. Through these six years of always being with someone, I realised that one of my biggest problems is not being able to handle myself around girls that are coming on to me. Not in a sexual way, just in any way. I can't handle it! I've always struggled with that.
ANGELA: How are you feeling post-breakup?
RAJA: Great. I'm definitely the best version of myself now. I'm here and 100% myself. I finally understand the priorities in my life, my life goals, and I'm fully dedicated to fulfilling them. I have no more distractions. I realised that having a relationship was a mad distraction for me. All I wanted was the comfort and a safe haven, which I already had at home, but because all my friends had girlfriends, I thought maybe I needed one too. My intentions were wrong.
ANGELA: Have you ever been in love?
RAJA: You know what? I don't know. I don't think I have. Not true love.
ANGELA: What do you think falling in love with someone would feel like?
RAJA: As I was contemplating such questions of how real love should look like, God put the right people around me to let me see it for myself. My inner circle of friends, comprising five people, are the ones that are very much in love. Will Smith spoke about what true love looks like. It’s when you meet someone and love them so much that you just want to water them like a flower. You want to see them grow in the way they were intended to grow, instead of the way you want them to grow.
ANGELA: What is love to you right now?
RAJA: When it comes to being in a relationship, it shouldn’t be self-gratifying. If I get together with you because I think you’re pretty and you’re able to fulfil my emotional and physical needs, that’s completely self-gratifying. That isn't love, that's fish love.
ANGELA: Has living with three sisters influenced the way you view and treat women?
RAJA: Yes. I was more of a people pleaser towards women as compared to men, because I wanted women to like me more. I was a fat kid though. Girls never looked at me and thought I was hot.
ANGELA: How do you view women?
RAJA: For the first 14 years of my life, I viewed women nearly the same way as how I viewed my sisters and the women in my family. My mom is a strong-ass housewife. All my sisters are madly independent. My grandma could really f*** somebody up. Sometimes, she would just sit at home, and chew a betel leaf while smoking a cigar. All of them are strong women who could protect me if shit went down.
ANGELA: And you saw that in every girl, woman?
RAJA: Every girl. Even the quiet ones, or the ones who cried. I’d always try to do anything to help them feel better. When we got our injections at primary five, there was this big-sized girl that everyone used to make fun of. She cried when she got her injections. I felt so bad and asked if there was anything I could do to make her feel better. I even offered to buy chocolate milk for her. Nobody else cared. I think I naturally have empathy and love for women.
ANGELA: Has anyone ever brushed you off as being too emotional?
RAJA: Yes, a few times—for being overly positive. It's people I know, who’ll say things like, “I'm worried for you. You look like you're delusional.” They think that I don't acknowledge negativity at all, and for any healthy human being to survive, you have to, otherwise your paradigm will be completely imbalanced. There were times when people thought I was nonsensical for wanting to go to Hollywood one day.
ANGELA: How do you experience grief?
RAJA: It’s the only time I completely lose myself. I feel completely handicapped when experiencing grief, loss or pain. I also realised that the things that made me sad are the things that directly impede my career. There were times when I fought with my manager, and these fights don’t pertain to my career. They pertain to my personal self like how I was handling my relationship, how I would behave and talk differently to people who could help my career.
ANGELA: How would you act differently?
RAJA: If it were someone important and I wanted to make that person like me, I would unlock a charm and become someone else.
ANGELA: Do people see through that?
RAJA: Only the people from my inner circle would see through it. I didn't know I was like that though. When someone tells me they see through my bullshit, and I need to fix myself, I'm like, “Wow, I didn't even know I was doing that!” During the times I acted that way but didn't understand what was wrong, I just cried.
ANGELA: Did you try to self-reflect?
RAJA: I did. I realised I like to be alone, which is very odd.
ANGELA: Because it's unlike you?
RAJA: Yes, it's not like me. I love having people around me, but this year, I'm realising that I might just be an introvert. An introverted extrovert. Do you think I’m an extrovert?
ANGELA: I thought you were.
RAJA: The only time I feel completely chill is when I'm not talking to people, when I'm alone. Just me and my thoughts, which I've been liking a lot lately.
ANGELA: How would you describe your identity and who you are when nobody’s watching?
RAJA: I’m a thinker. I got it from my dad, who’s always quiet, not because he doesn't want to talk to anybody, but because he's thinking of stories. He's a poet. When I'm quiet, I think about what I am, where I'm at, how far I've come, where I'm going, and what I’m doing right or wrong. I like to go to Starbucks alone with a book and put my headphones on. I also like to take super random long walks by myself from Somerset to Little India. Besides being a thinker, I'm also quite a problem solver and dreamer. I dream-set a lot when I'm alone. It's like goal setting, but instead of having one particular goal, you create a vision for yourself. Within that vision, a lot of goals are already fulfilled. I literally just chill and imagine myself, say, owning a farm that I've built. I also think about getting driven around in a really nice car, and flying in first class and not having to pay for it. I want a whole bunch of kids, maybe 8 or 9, and a big house with all my kids, my family and their families, and different wings like Tony Stark’s house. It'll be so big that my sister has to take a buggy to get to the other wing. [laughs] That's my dream.
ANGELA: You're basically describing Rhonda Byrne's bestselling book, The Secret. When did you start visualising things like that?
RAJA: Two years ago, right about the time when all this started to pick up. A lot of things that have happened in my life, especially in the last two years, have been spoken of and thought of before. It's unreal.
ANGELA: Do you subscribe to a religion?
RAJA: I'm trying to find it. I'm quite an explorer these days, but in terms of spirituality, I believe in a higher power. I believe in the godly timing of certain things, the kind of timing you can't plan as a human being. I don't believe in coincidences. I believe that everything is meant to happen. I believe in silver linings.
ANGELA: Do you believe in a specific God?
RAJA: All gods. My family is Muslim. They're very religious, but I'm very spiritual. I do yoga.
ANGELA: Since when?
RAJA: Just this year. It keeps me calm. A friend of mine introduced me to it. I go for classes once a week.
ANGELA: Have you always been sure of what you wanted to do?
RAJA: You can never be too sure. Your reality is moulded by what you're thinking of, what you surround yourself with, and what you occupy yourself with. That's how my reality has been moulded. I felt like I had to excel in whatever my reality was. For a while, it was school. Then, it was acting. Now, it's rap and music. Whatever dreams I used to have during my acting days, I'm fulfilling those dreams through music. It's not that different. I've always wanted to be famous. I don't know why. Maybe because I like the attention, or because I know I'm resilient enough to handle the price of fame.
ANGELA: When you’re famous and feel like you're on top of the world, it’s easy to get stuck in an echo chamber and lose track of the bigger picture.
RAJA: I know what you mean. That's the danger...
ANGELA: Have you ever felt that way?
RAJA: Yeah, a few times. But I'm super blessed to have people around me who keep me grounded, and call out my bullshit. When I was 19, I used to go to Japan a lot. Remember that? I was doing a lot of business stuff, and I used to talk about these activities with my family. I’d be really excited about it. And my sister would tell me, “You’re still schooling. Just focus on school.” My family tried to set my perspective straight even though I was so sure of myself because they felt like I might end up ruining myself. Now, my friends would question me, tell me to stop, and I'd reflect and apologise for getting caught up in my shit. I'm able to pick myself up pretty quickly—I'll be in my little bubble for about half a day, and then I'm back up, baby!
ANGELA: What's the lowest point of your life so far?
RAJA: At the beginning of this year, my inner circle of friends started to disassociate themselves from me and I didn't know why. Those were the roughest couple of months of my life. I also remember being broke, having to emcee at clubs every Friday and Saturday, and borrowing money from my family. But I was so sure everything was going to work out. In retrospect, I was still really hopeful during that period even though it was probably my lowest point. I got sick all the time as I wasn't getting enough sleep.
ANGELA: When was this?
RAJA: Two years ago, in 2017, when I realised pursuing music could bring some good and I hadn't decided to chuck away acting yet. I was also having a lot of relationship problems. Things were a hundred times more wack then, but I don't remember feeling any differently about it.
ANGELA: So it never hit you?
RAJA: Not really. I just kept going and thinking about what I should do next. I never allowed myself to spiral into the feeling of questioning if things were working out. Acting wasn’t really bringing me anywhere, so when music came along, I went so hard. I had no chill at all. I directed the pent-up aggression into music. As soon as the idea of pursuing music came into my mind, the first thing I did was to approach the guy who used to emcee at Canvas. I told him I wanted to be able to hype up a club like him. He said, “Yo, we’re in the club. Hold the mic!” Right then and there, I became a hype man. Three days later, I went to Cherry Discotheque as a hype man, and that was where I met all the music producers that I’m currently working with. I met Flightsch who signed me outside Canvas. Everything just fell into place.
ANGELA: Are you working on an album right now?
RAJA: Working on a lot of songs. It's a singles game, so we're releasing another single. I might release an EP next year, but until then, it's just going to be singles.
ANGELA: Do you ever feel burnt out?
RAJA: Yes, but I think I've figured out the secret to dealing with burnout. You take the number one thing that fulfils you the most, besides your career, and you put everything into it.
ANGELA: And what's that for you?
RAJA: Family. I may be dead-tired having just done six shows, but I’ll still give my parents some money, bring my mom to the jewellery store, buy a bunch of gifts for my nieces and nephews, and take my sisters out for drinks. For my dad’s upcoming 71st birthday, we’re going to the Taj Mahal because that's his biggest dream. He's never seen the Taj Mahal, so it's a surprise trip.
ANGELA: Do you remember when you were your happiest in your life?
RAJA: I was in America with my whole family. Everybody was there for the first time. We rented a big caravan and went on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon. That, to me, is my happiest memory. When you've been the baby for so long and now you're someone they rely and lean on, that's a different level of fulfilment.
ANGELA: Do you have a grand vision for yourself?
RAJA: I want to have the power and resources to improve the social fabric by making it less fractured. Some things I've already been thinking about are building a bee sanctuary so there’ll be more bees in the world and giving away free honey; starting a non-profit and feeding children; providing children with free education; and providing clean water through non-profit ways.
ANGELA: Do you think you'll stay in Singapore?
RAJA: I might go back and forth between two countries. Perhaps India or America, I don't know. Might be India.
ANGELA: What do you think is your life's purpose? And what is all this leading up to?
RAJA: To provide people with hope. I'm the perfect vehicle for spreading hope and positivity. My whole life, everything I’ve been through since I was a baby till now, has been strengthening my mental fortitude for greatness. I feel like I can give people joy and happiness—real happiness, that is not solely entertainment.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap