Bhangra lovers in North America owe their gratitude to DJ Rekha, a pioneer in the world of bhangra and hip hop fusion who brought the popular South Asian music genre into the mainstream. It all started in 1997 when London-born Rekha Malhotra launched Basement Bhangra, a monthly club night in New York City that became an international phenomenon, playing party mixes of South Asian bhangra music, hip hop and electronic sounds, creating a unique and exhilarating genre earning her the title international ambassador of bhangra.
DJ Rekha went on to achieve great feats in the world of international music. Along with her frequent collaborator Dave Sharma, she performed compositions at the Chicago Symphony Hall for the Sinfonietta in 2015. She was a sound designer for the award-winning Broadway Show Bridge and Tunnel, the associated producer for the NPR Radio Documentary A Feet In Two Worlds and worked on the play Rafta Rafta which earned her a Drama Desk Award nomination.
DJ Rekha/Times of India
There are too many to name, but my close friends, many of whom are artists, are a constant inspiration.
After the release of her debut album, DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra, she was inducted into the New York City People’s Hall of Fame for her stellar contribution to the art and culture of the city. Her deep cultural influence in North America (particularly in New York City) as a person of South Asian heritage is unparalleled. DJ Rekha’s curated events for Central Park SummerStage and Celebrate Brooklyn and her appearance as the Grand Marshall of the 9th Annual NYC Dance Parade in 2015 have left a significant impact. Her work has also been featured on The Huffington Post, PBS, NPR and CNN.
So great has been her influence in the world of international music, that she has given lectures and held workshops on South Asian art, bhangra and hip hop at various academic and governmental institutions such as Columbia University, the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, and she taught courses on bhangra and Bollywood at New York University.
I think — as an artist, you have to strategize in how you can follow your passion. I’m really pragmatic. It’s like, you can be passionate all you want, but if you can’t make your rent, there’s no passion, and if you have financial stress, there’s no passion. The most important things are building and finding community — like-minded people that can support you, challenge you, strategize with you and engage you intellectually. In terms of following your passion, if it’s what you want to do, then be in it 100 percent. Take yourself seriously. Passion isn’t enough, it’s work too. Just wanting to do something is not enough. You have to be responsible, accountable to yourself and people around you.
DJ Rekha’s club nights have also been credited for providing a more inclusive space for South Asians of all orientations to be able to express themselves while having a great time. Artist and writer Swati Khurana notes that while other desi parties tended to be heterosexual-heavy, the Basement Bhangra parties “drew writers, activists, artists, community organizers, teachers, people in queer circles.” She also mentions people coming in drag, an act that is only now picking up pace among the desi drag queens of North America.
Known as the longest running monthly party in the history of New York City’s nightlife, Basement Bhangra came to an end in 2017 when DJ Rekha started exploring other creative projects. She can be seen performing live the first Thursday of every month at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, and on her weekly musical podcasts Bhangra and Beyond.
DJ Rekha was included in The ANOKHI List 2015 coffee table book and was a proud recipient of The ANOKHI Award that same year.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: www.facebook.com/DJRekha
Main Image Photo Credit: www.wnyc.org