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That Philly girl with the BollyHood sound has a single out

Raje Shwari breaks out with a catchy debut, ‘Get Your Life’.

By Deepak Chitnis

Raje ShwariWASHINGTON, DC: After working largely behind-the-scenes of the American music industry for the better part of a decade, Indian American singer Raje Shwari is ready for her big break.

The singer has just released a single entitled “Get Your Life,” her first solo outing ever. The style of song is something Shwari calls “BollyHood,” a fusion of traditional Indian elements and more urban, hip-hop music from the west.

“As I started to develop my own music and my own sound, people around the studio would call me ‘that girl with the Bolly-hood sound,” Shwari recollects in an interview with The American Bazaar.

Born to traditional Gujarati parents, Rajeshwari (she simply split her name in two to make it easier for non-Indians to pronounce) was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She and her sister were brought up in a highly religious household, where academics came first.But Shwari always had a passion for music – likely borne out of the fact that both her parents are musicians – that she couldn’t ignore, and credits her father in large part for encouraging her to nurture that passion in addition to doing well in school.

“My parents would let me go buy records and CDs as long as I did well in school,” she says. “While I was growing up, they would take me to record demos and covers, so as religious and traditional as they were, they gave me the freedom to sort of figure out who I was,” she said.

Shwari enrolled at Temple University, in Philadelphia, after graduating from high school. During her third year there, however, is when music went from being a hobby to becoming her career.  At the time, Shwari was interested in pursuing a post-graduate degree in entertainment law, but when she got offered a contract overseas with Sony Records, it was just too good an offer to refuse.

“My parents encouraged me to put college aside for the time being and take the deal,” she said. “I was putting out dance records with a sort of Indian flavor, which was at the time artists like Madonna were just starting to delve [musically] into our culture.”

It was during her time with Sony that one of Shwari’s demo tapes landed in the hands of hip-hop mogul Timbaland, who immediately took to her east-meets-west style of music. They eventually collaborated on his song “Indian Flute” in 2003. The song was included on Timbaland’s album “Under Construction, Part II,” which peaked at #50 on the Billboard Charts upon release.

When asked about Shwari, Timbaland said, in a statement, “As a producer who has worked with every kind of artist, I always look for something new to inspire me, [and] Raje’s definitely that type of artist […] She’s unique for sure, and I’d even go so far [as] to say that her sound is really her own. There’s probably no one out there who can duplicate it.”

SuperstarThrough her collaboration with Timbaland, Shwari can be credited with helping to bring Indian sounds to hip-hop, something that Timbaland has embraced ever since. She can also be heard on tracks by such renowned artists as Jay-Z (“The Bounce” on The Blueprint 2) and Pharrell (“The Flyest” from the soundtrack for the 2003 film Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle).

But Shwari eventually tired of doing the same old shtick time and time again, of being the Hindi vocals in the back of a rap song. As popular as those songs were, Shwari is a talented singer in her own right – why couldn’t she have her shot at being front and center?

“Timbaland and I split amicably but then re-signed, which most people don’t know,” Shwari explains. “But because of the way the music industry works, I was just sort of in an assembly line waiting for my chance to work. So during this time I flew down to Atlanta – which is really the hotspot for urban and hip-hop music, there’s just so much amazing talent down there – and started to record my own album.”

It was during her time in Atlanta in 2009 that BollyHood Records began to form, with the company becoming official in 2011. Although she’s been in the industry for over a decade, Shwari says she waited to release her solo album so that she could get her sound right and gain the financial backing she needed so that “we wouldn’t lose momentum after launching.” BollyHood was the perfect avenue with which to go about that.

She explains that through funding from other Indian and South Asian Americans, BollyHood became a record label that serves a dual-fold purpose for her: to get her voice out without the somewhat stifling conditions of a traditional big-name label, and her desire to put other Indian American musicians into the limelight.

But what is the secret for Indian Americans trying to break into an industry that doesn’t really have many Indian-origin artists at all?

“I think the reason it’s been so hard for an Indian artist to break into the [American] mainstream is because there needs to be that American dream attached to it,” says Shwari. “The artists that have broken in – Panjabi MC, M.I.A., Jay Sean – they’re from India, Sri Lanka, England, wherever, but they’re not from America. If you want to stay on the landscape over a long period of time, you have to speak to more than just your demographic. It takes someone who grew up here [in the US] to bring the right product, sound, and persona so that everybody feels connected to it.”

Shwari hopes that her music helps people come together and celebrate diversity, rather than oppose it. By mixing the sounds and rhythms of east and west, she says “Anything that brings people together is always going to be my mission. There’s no better platform for music to send a bigger message that we are all in this human experience together.”

Although there’s no firm timetable in place for when the Shwari’s full debut album will release – she has amassed countless hours of recordings over the past several years, but prefers to do a slow rollout rather than just drop an album – the music video for “Get Your Life” can be seen below. The video is directed by Paul Coy Allen, and the song, produced by Lectriq, can be downloaded via the iTunes store.

[Photos courtesy of JINGO Media.]

[This story was updated on 11/9/13.]

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