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Karis Pierre

‘I was suppressing my desire to do music’: Priya Ragu is finally listening to her inner-voice

Our final featured one to watch artist for 2021, Priya Ragu, talks career changes, South Asian creatives and why family means everything.

31 Jan 2021

The Tamil-Swiss artist Priya Ragu makes music with her brother, producer and rapper Japhna Gold. It’s a genre they call “Raguwavy”, melding lush, glowing soul and intricate south Indian sonics. Though she’s officially only got one song out, she’s got some more magic lined-up this year and we’re very excited for the world to hear it.

It’s relatively rare for South Asian women to make it in the mainstream music world in the West, which is why it’s so great to watch Priya’s rise. Not least given she is based in Switzerland – itself, not exactly known as a big music export – rather than the UK or North America; or indeed, given that she is Tamil, with her family hailing from Sri Lanka. After the civil war meant they left, the family would often visit Chennai in South India which means she’s also shining a light on sonics from part of the subcontinent that is rarely given space in western platforming of South Asian-ness.

But make no mistake: this isn’t us shouting out a diaspora artist for the sake of it. ‘Good Love 2.0’ is a stone cold banger, and what Priya and her brother are creating together makes me yearn for dancing at a sunny festival, the smell of grass sweet in the air, a dewy cold cider in hand and just straight-up vibes.

And so, we figured we’d have a little video call with Priya while she’s at home in Zurich. We chatted about music, family and being a South Asian creative.

gal-dem: So, your career has all been taking off while you’ve been locked down with your parents in Switzerland? That must all be quite surreal.

Priya Ragu: I’m in this internet realm right now. I can’t really grasp what’s happening because I’m still here with family doing everything online – then I’ll see an article in Vogue or Rolling Stone and be like ‘Oh shit, this is serious! I’m really out there!’ So it’s taking a while to understand what is going on right now.

“I was suppressing my inner-voice which was telling me to do music, but it was too loud in the end – I had to listen to it”

How are your parents feeling about your career taking off? I read in an interview from a while ago that they weren’t that keen about you pursuing music – which I guess is a relatively standard immigrant parent thing, wanting us to go for paths that offer security.

I mean, it’s totally understandable that they didn’t support me initially. My parents came from a civil war and of course they just want the best, safest thing for their children. Also, they didn’t see any opportunities or possibilities to become successful here in Switzerland – you rarely see artists making it big internationally from Switzerland. So I was just seeing how I could make it here in Switzerland, but that was also kind of a hindrance for me because I was brown-skinned, I was singing in English, not German or French, I was doing soul music (which not a lot of people in Switzerland listen to). 

But clearly you kept going anyway.

Yeah, I still had my safe job, everything was good, I had good friends – but it just wasn’t enough, you know? I just thought, ‘this can’t be the purpose of my life’. I only started taking music seriously a few years ago, me and my brother, then we put a few songs out by ourselves. Everything I was earning with my office job, I invested back into my music. You were asking how my parents felt – of course, they were strict for a long time. Like a lot of South Asian parents they wanted me to settle down, but I knew there was something else I needed to do. I was suppressing my inner-voice which was telling me to do music, but it was too loud in the end – I had to listen to it. It wasn’t an easy thing to do – especially when I’m in my early 30s. You don’t see a lot of people changing their careers, risking things or starting something new, especially in music.

We’re glad that you took the risk. When did you and your brother start making music together? Growing up together did you have similar music taste?

Definitely, I grew up looking up to him and always wanted to know what he was listening to. But he wouldn’t share [laughs], he was like ‘find your own music!’ So sometimes I would just hack his computer to see what he was listening to. When we were kids, we played at events with our father – I sang Tamil songs. That was for about two years or so. Then in 2017 my brother and I started making music – before that, he was producing and rapping. I was confused, doing backing vocals for other artists. When we started working together it was kind of a clash, pulling in different directions – I wanted to be more soul-y, jazz-y, sax, flute, he wanted to do boom-bap, something more experimental. But then after we had made one song, it was easier to keep going – it became easier for me to trust where he was going with it. Then at one point he was like ‘let’s bring in some of these South Indian melodies and rhythms’. And so we did – I think it makes a good mixture of both worlds.

I was on Instagram and saw that you’d worked with the stylist Neesha Tulsi Champaneria – she’s so good! In general is it important for you to work with South Asian creatives, or did that just happen randomly?

I really consciously try to work with other South Asian creatives! It’s important for me to bring both parts of my culture into what I do, musically, styling, visuals, everything. It’s a lot of fun to have this creative freedom. We shot the video for ‘Good Love 2.0’ in Goa, and we worked with talent out there. There’s so much talent there, making art we haven’t seen in the west, so it’s cool to give those artists a platform too.

In the West when we talk about “South Asia” the discourse is dominated by North Indian, Hindu, light-skinned, upper-caste people. But obviously, you’re not part of that.

Yeah, that’s what I see represented in the West as well. So for me, it’s important in my videos to cast South Indian people, dark-skinned people. I did the casting myself, it was really important for me to have darker-skinned talent, and I do whatever I can to make that happen. 

“Success is cool, but what is success if you cannot share it with your family?”

What do you have lined-up for 2021?

More songs! Joyful, uplifting songs. Cool videos. Even during the worst year, 2020, things happened to me that I thought would never be possible, so I’m really excited to see what happens this year.

It’s good that you’ve still had joy through this time, ‘counting my blessings’ is something that’s been helping me cope. What else is bringing you joy right now?

That I’m able to spend a lot of time with my parents right now – that’s been very important. I always fear when the time comes and one day they aren’t here anymore, so now is the time to create some memories with them. Honestly, that I’m able to take this path with my brother. It’s like the best thing. The whole album is me and my brother, we didn’t work with external producers or songwriters, so that’s been special for me.  Cos I mean, success is cool, but what is success if you cannot share it with your family? Everything that’s happening right now, we can share and celebrate.