Badminton by day, music by night.
That is how Rahul Prasad a.k.a Renao wandered into the world of music. Growing up as a talented badminton player, Rahul who had represented Karnataka at the national level, was pretty sure the Olympics was where he was headed. That was until he attended an Avicii concert.
“It was my first music concert and I learnt all his songs so I’d be cool in front of my friends,” he candidly admits, adding, “I was blown away by the experience! When I got back home, I spent my spare time on YouTube trying to figure out the special effects and the entire electronic music experience.”
Like many a sportsperson, Rahul was exempt from regular classes. “The option to appear for PU exams without attending classes gave me ample time to train; on the flip side, it left me without too many friends and that is when I turned to music.
By the time he was 19 and ready to enrol in college, Rahul was the state topper in badminton and among the top 10 in the country. “I knew I had to choose and though I was better at badminton than music, I couldn’t think of giving it up. That decision saw me relocate to Leeds in the United Kingdom to study music production.”
Once there, Rahul began to appreciate the nuances of ambient EDM (electronic dance music). “I saw other artistes were also playing instruments or participating as backing vocalists for their music; it encouraged me to take up voice lessons too.”
Catapult to fame
For almost a year after that, Rahul began to work on the kind of music he wanted to make as well as perfecting his sound. Towards the end of 2021, he posted his song , ‘Nobody’ on TikTok. “It was just the last 30 seconds of the song, but when I woke up the next morning, it had garnered 400,000 views! It was unthinkable!”
Rahul says his life took a turn with the success of ‘Nobody’ — any video posted with that song would get numerous hits.
“My life became fast-paced soon after and I signed my first label; I was working on my EP. The problem is when you enjoy a moment like that, you want to keep hitting those numbers; you get lost in the likes, the number of views and the attention. I started making videos on TikTok that I knew could go viral.”
“However, the reason I went viral in the first place was because I made something honest and authentic to myself. Once I began working for the ‘likes,’ I realised I had started losing my personality and my focus and I broke away from that mindset.”
Brown skin, white voice
When you move to a new place, you try to fit in and Rahul was no different. “In pop culture, the brown guy is always the IT chap, the sidekick — never the main role,” he says, adding that though the scenario is changing now, it is not fast enough. “I wanted to fit in so bad I changed my accent, despite being able to sing well.”
“I can’t name a single brown artiste who sings in English,” says Rahul. “I think it’s because Western culture looks at the Indian accent as a bad thing and we ourselves look at it in that context. Most artistes, such as ABBA and myself as well, go with an American accent as it is rather generic.”
“I wish I didn’t have to do that. I would tell people I went to an international school in India with a lot of American kids, that’s why I have an American accent. But now, I’m honest about my accent because I don’t want another kid who comes here to feel compelled to do the same thing.”
Collaboration with Zach Nahome
Rahul began working with producer Zach Nahome soon after the success of ‘Nobody’ in 2021. It was Nahome, who has worked with other popular UK-based artistes such as Slowthai, Bakar and PinkPantheress among others, who urged Rahul to tell his story.
“Zach encouraged me to tell people ‘where you’re from and what you’re trying to achieve’.” And I realised I didn’t come all this way to not be authentic. It gave me the confidence to be open and honest about my music.”
Though Rahul was born in Bengaluru and grew up listening to Western music with his parents, as a family they hail from Kerala. “I didn’t listen to a lot of Indian music as a child, but my grandmother used to sing to me all the time. I felt instead of using ‘bhangra’ beats or other typical Indian stylings, I would use my grandmother’s voice / song in my music.”
‘Always Be Me’ with the vocal stylings of Rahul’s grandmother, Yamuna Bhai, is part of his recently-released nine-track EP, A Space Between Orange and Blue. The EP which came out on June 2 has garnered over 500k hits on various streaming platforms since then.
“I’m not British, I’m Indian and the idea behind ‘A Space Between Orange and Blue’ is that when you add orange and blue together you get brown. Orange stands for the colours that make the Karnataka flag and blue for the British one. I know there are a lot of artistes making English music in India right now, but they should be able to do it globally as well.”
“I think it’d be so cool to have an Indian girl band,” he adds.
Talking about his stage name, Rahul says he was googling names in different languages when he came across ‘Renao,’ which is Chinese for “lively or bustling”. “That is how I wanted my work to be so I took it up as my stage name. Besides Rahul is quite common in India now — I know two other Indian artistes with the same name,” he laughs.
As a songwriter, Rahul believes his best work and inspiration come from experiencing life. “I need to be able to live my life in order to be able to make the music I want to.”