Tamil-Swiss artist Priya Ragu on channeling her ancestors through music


COLORS showcases exceptional talent from all around the globe, focused on the most distinctive new artists and original sounds.


Tamil-Swiss artist Priya Ragu on channeling her ancestors through music

While Priya Ragu’s musical ambitions were supported from a young age, her conservative parents didn’t approve of musical aspirations outside of traditional Tamil folk. It wasn’t until 2017, when Priya was already in her 30s, that she took the leap to pursue her unwavering passion professionally, setting off to New York for 6 months to write. During this time, she created her celebrated debut mixtape, ‘damnshestamil’, in partnership with her brother Japhna Gold.

Priya and Japhna’s collaboration is defined by their fusion of sounds from Tamil-folk music with western hip-hop, R&B, and pop. ‘Santhosam’, Ragu’s upcoming debut album, expands on this approach, and reflects on the artist’s journey to finding spirituality, a purpose in her work, and above all, her own happiness.

Following her A COLORS SHOW performance of ‘Black Goose’ and ‘Let Me Breathe,’ we spoke with Priya Ragu about embracing her roots, gaining her parent’s blessing, and finding her purpose through music.

Your parents immigrated from Sri Lanka to Switzerland in the ’80s. What was it like growing up in the country as a child of immigrants?

Growing up with two cultures was difficult to balance. I didn’t feel connected to my Tamil roots, it took me a while to embrace them. As a teenager I was surrounded by Swiss culture, but in school I was a loner. Digging for new music was a passion for me from a young age, but it wasn’t something I could share with my schoolmates. Aside from my brother, I couldn’t find anyone who liked the same styles as me.

Your brother, Japhna Gold, is now your producer. When you were 10-years-old you were in a band with him and your father. How did this experience shape your current collaborative relationship?

I didn’t choose to be in the band, my dad asked me to join because he couldn’t find a female singer. I found singing Tamil songs quite difficult, mainly because of the high notes and the runs, but Japhna had to remember all the interludes, all the intros, and all the chords for each and every song, which is what was most crazy. I believe all of his inspiration comes from learning those interludes back in the day.

As a child you were inspired by your brother’s music collection, specifically his hip-hop and R&B records. What attracted you to these styles?

I connected to hip-hop at a young age. Even though I didn’t speak English at the time, I felt very comfortable with the genre. Black music had a huge influence on me growing up. It’s interesting to see that influence and Tamil music fuse in my own music today.

Initially your parents only wanted you to perform culturally traditional music. When did you feel confident enough to share your music with them? 

My parents were very strict, to the point that I had to listen to western music on low volume. As a result, I never thought that a professional career in music would be a possibility for me. I lived my life safe and secure, but the music always accompanied me. I tried to suppress my musical ambitions for years, but eventually I felt strongly that I shouldn’t waste my talent. I needed to see what I was able to create, so I traveled to New York to write my first mixtape, working on it with my brother remotely.

Once we’d finished the first 10 songs we were ready to share them with our parents.I was so proud that I had implemented the Krishna chant on the track ‘Lighthouse’ and I wanted to see how they would react. They were emotionally touched and so proud of us, firstly, because we’re siblings creating music together, and secondly because we are representing our roots.

Priya wears a t-shirt featuring Rajinikanth, a star of Tamil cinema.

“When I first recorded the song in the studio it felt like something took over me. I felt a lot of anger, rage, and frustration, like I was channeling my ancestors.”

You often showcase aspects of your culture in your music videos. Where do you pull your inspiration from?

Films are my main point of reference for our culture. I was born and raised in Switzerland, so I only know about this stuff from watching thousands of Kollywood movies. Watching them, eating traditional foods, and speaking in Tamil also bonded my family together. It was important to my parents that we could experience elements of our heritage so we can pass them on to the next generation.

Tell us about the tracks you chose to perform for your debut A COLORS SHOW. 

My brother started to write ‘Black Goose’ and ‘Let Me Breathe’ after he saw the video of the murder of George Floyd. He didn’t come out of his room for two days after he saw it. It affected us both very strongly. The tracks speak about police brutality, as well as the brutality that continues to take place in Sri Lanka.

When I first recorded the songs in the studio it felt like something took over me. I felt a lot of anger, rage, and frustration, like I was channeling my ancestors. I didn’t experience the war in Sri Lanka, but my parents did.I believe that transfers through. Performing them at COLORS was very different though. I felt pain while singing.

Both ‘Black Goose’ and ‘Let Me Breathe’ are from your upcoming album, ‘Santhosam’. What else can you tell us about the project? 

‘Santhosam’ means “happiness”. The songs on the album describe the journey to my own happiness, finding spiritually, and finding a sense of purpose in what I’m doing.

"Known for his dedication to helping the underprivileged and being a symbol of resistance in his movies, Rajinikanth continues to inspire millions," says Priya.

Tell us about the cover art for the album, and how you think it reflects the album’s themes. 

I worked with the Indian artist Manuja Waldia on this piece. It depicts me looking back on Jaffna, a city on the northern tip of Sri Lanka. While its houses are destroyed and there is still a lot of work to do, the sky is pink and the sun is shining. The pin in my hair is my brother Japhna’s ring. It symbolizes how, musically, he holds everything together. I may be the face of the music, but in reality, it’s the both of us. For our merch, we created the opposite perspective: you see me from the front, with the Swiss mountains behind me. The purple road winding up represents the road to Santhosam. It was important for me to have both Switzerland and Jaffna represented in the art work.

As someone who broke into the music industry in their 30s, what advice would you give to people questioning if it’s worth chasing their dreams?

I think it’s nice to see more and more women in their 30s making music and being successful in this industry. It’s becoming more normal—we’re on the way. It’s also important to show that it’s okay to change careers at a later age, regardless of the pressure many of us face to settle down. It’s not one or the other, we can have it all.

Priya Ragu is a Tamil-Swiss artist based in Zurich whose A COLORS SHOW was released on the 5th October 2023. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Katerina Lytras
Photography: Megan Courtis
Videography: Lucas Maibaum & Lucas Sanou
Video Editing: Katia Fisenko



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