A closeup of singer Rhea Raj, with blond hair, in a white top and gold hoop earrings, against a white background.

Rhea Raj: ‘I want to share my culture with the world’

The rising pop singer on her musical influences, showcasing her South Asian roots in her music, and more

Singer Rhea Raj.

Courtesy of Rhea Raj

Words by Anjana Pawa

Growing up in the age of pop stars and boy bands, Rhea Raj’s journey unfolds in Connecticut, and then takes her all over the United States, and eventually the world. Her story starts way earlier than most in her position; in her own home at a young age before she could even read and write complete sentences, while listening to echoes of early 2000s pop and ‘80s rock, mixed with the intricate beats of Bollywood, waiting for the dinner table to be set, where she would sit and eat with her family.

Raj was raised in a household that always had music filling the room. Her mother, who was a lover of early 2000s pop music, introduced her to icons like Britney Spears and Shakira, while her father's love for rock became the backdrop to weekend drives with the familyquite a juxtaposition. “He was blasting AC/DC and Nirvana,” she recalls, saying that her mother’s love for Madonna was just as strong. Add to this Raj’s grandparents, who brought in another layer to the landscape with Bollywood and classical music, creating a patchwork for her to draw from. These varied musical influences make it clear why Raj’s own music can’t be placed into too much of a box, especially with singles like “Devil In A Dress”—she makes pop music, sometimes with EDM production, but the visuals are often darker, likely drawing from her dad’s heavy rock influence, and her style is ‘90s it-girl, throwing back to Cher from Clueless and Paris Hilton.

Singer Rhea Raj, with blond hair, in a white crop top and jeans, against a white background.

Rhea Raj realized she was meant to sing at a talent show in fourth grade.

Courtesy of Rhea Raj

Not only did she grow up with music, but also with dance, her first love. Raj’s mother ran a dance school out of their home, so spending time around the students was a daily ritual, introducing her to the rhythms of Bollywood dance and Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance that dates back more than 2,000 years. At the age of 2, Raj joined her first dance class, igniting a passion that would intertwine seamlessly with her journey as a pop artist. Her love for traditional Indian dance forms diversified as she grew older. “I was also doing hip-hop, jazz, ballet, tap,” she lists, almost beaming. “I love dancing so much.” The art is in her blood, which is why it may come as no surprise to know that her sister is also a performer. Raj’s younger sister, Lara Raj, was just announced as a finalist of the new global girl group Katseye, a venture between K-pop powerhouse HYBE and Geffen Record’s. The two sisters and their success is an amalgamation of the hard work and artistry instilled in them by their upbringing.

It was in preparing for her fourth grade talent show that Rhea Raj realized she also yearned to sing. Until then, every performance had been dance, and always with the help of her mom. “I felt like I was breaking her heart by not dancing,” she recalls. But after a discussion with her mom, a bit of practice, and some newfound confidence, she belted out Miley Cyrus' "When I Look at You," and with it came the catalyst to her career in the music industry. “This is the sign,” she says thinking back about that night. “I'm meant to do this. I'm meant to sing.”

From then on, Raj hustled hard to turn her dream into a reality. In Dallas, where her family had moved, she studied under the renowned vocal coach Linda Stepan. While kids at school were doing extracurriculars, the stage became Raj’s second home. “At least once a week, I’d go to school, come home, get ready, go perform, come back, and do my homework,” she remembers of her teenage years. Intimate coffee shop gigs turned into performing at larger, iconic spaces like Hard Rock Cafe and SXSW. By 13, she was singing the national anthem at sporting events while most kids were at debate practice.

At 15, a move to Jersey coincided with Raj’s audition for the farewell season of American Idol, which she says was a huge learning experience for her, even though her six-month journey with the show was cut short by a bout of the flu. This is when she realized it wasn't just about the musicit was about representation and carving a space in the pop industry as a South Asian woman. Being the only South Asian contestant that season, Raj realized just how important sharing her experiences as a first-generation immigrant was. “I would talk about my American life as a South Asian girl, and it felt so foreign to other people,” she says about her time on the American Idol set. “I want to share my culture with the world and [show them] this dual life that I've lived.” Raj is her own version of an immigrant, suburban Hannah Montana, living “The Best of Both Worlds,” attempting to showcase how the two parts of her life come together as one. Songs like “Outside” bring that to reality, where she features South Asian women in the video, while singing lyrics referencing experiences from “Bombay all the way to Brooklyn.”

Raj made a conscious decision to wait until 18 before sharing original music, allowing her time to live through high school and discover her unique sound. Autonomy was also a very important part of the discussion. After high school, Raj attended NYU's Clive Davis Institute, where she found herself rubbing elbows with heavy hitters in the industry. A serendipitous encounter with songwriter JKash led to sessions with her dream artists. “He was asking us to play demos for him in class,” she remembers, but was too nervous at first. “I had this demo I was really excited about, it was one of the first songs I had fully written and produced myself,” she explains. After one of her friends pressured her into playing the song, her life changed. “He was like, ‘Oh, my God, like, this is such a great pop song,’ and I felt so validated in that moment.” From that meeting, she was invited to Los Angeles to write with him and eventually be in sessions with the likes of Charlie Puth.

Soon after graduation, in 2018, Raj founded Mischief Records, an avenue to release original music independently and control her journey, as she had intended to post-grad. And with it, came a vision for her debut album, which she’s been dreaming of releasing for ages. Though the pandemic slowed her down and set her slightly back, she still worked tirelessly through the months to make sure her goals were always at the forefront. “I was back and forth between New York and L.A. pretty much every month,” she says. “I was working with a team of writers and producers and they just opened the doors for me creatively.” Recently, her journey has taken her to Seoul, where she went to meet with her sister, on the cusp of debuting in a girl group, and filmed the music video for her single “Oops! Ur Single Now” and worked on some secret projects with K-pop producers. Who knows where this journey will take her next?

A closeup of singer Rhea Raj, with blond hair, in a white crop top, with her left hand up to her lips, against a white background.

When she was 15, Rhea Raj auditioned for "American Idol" and was on the show for six months.

Courtesy of Rhea Raj

Looking ahead, Raj is in the final stages of completing her debut album which is set for release in 2024, a huge step and a goal-achieving moment for her, she admits. Her hard work is coming to fruition in front of her eyes. She described the album as a culmination of different aspects of her life and story, with each single revealing a new dimension of her artistry. As the world awaits the next step, Raj is ready to learn the next thing, and take the next adventure, which may just lead her to another dream yet to be realized.

Published on December 19, 2023

Words by Anjana Pawa

Anjana Pawa is a Brooklyn-based culture reporter who regularly covers music, entertainment and beauty. You can find her on Twitter at @apawawrites.