DJ Rekha Malhotra is a true trailblazer in her industry. Known affectionately as the “ambassador of bhangra music,” Rekha Malhotra— more commonly known by her performance alias, DJ Rekha— was one of the first DJs to mix samples from a Punjabi folk genre known as Bhangra with the synth-driven, four-on-the-floor beats of electronic and hip-hop music. She is most known for hosting monthly “Basement Bhangra” parties, which she has been throwing for the last two decades in New York City. However, Malhotra wears many different hats as a musician. Working both as a professor at NYU and heading her own record label, Entertainment One Music, DJ Rekha has roved all around the country, spreading the gospel of South Asian dance to a diverse crowd of listeners. In the meantime, she has collaborated with various artists including Wyclef Jean, Panjabi MC, and has even spun for then-President Obama in the White House.
Her next stop is The Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday, July 22nd. For the third time, Rekha’s show is co-presented by Ragamala Dance Company and will feature local Minneapolis artist, DJ Chamun. In advance of the show, I had the pleasure of having a phone interview with DJ Rekha to discuss everything from the unique challenges she has faced as a first-generation Punjabi American to her work as an activist and more.
There was something that immediately attracted me to the music of Rekha Malhotra. It could have been the way that my fingers could not help but tap along to her album DJ Rekha Presents: Basement Bhangra the first time I listened to it. Maybe it was because I saw her as kind of an underdog, dominating the male-centered world of electronic music. Or perhaps, as the child of immigrants myself, I was intrigued by her ability to seamlessly meld two distinct elements of her cultural heritage and create art that is so universally enjoyed.
As a first-generation Punjabi American DJ, Rekha Malhotra’s music is a reflection of the elements that constitute her identity— the heart-stomping, looping beats of bhangra dance music, originating in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities in the UK, underpinned by the gritty hip-hop rhythms that characterized her youth in Brooklyn. Malhotra was first exposed to the percussive stylings of bhangra after receiving a cassette from her mother who was returning from a trip to the UK. It was years after that first encounter that the young Malhotra began experimenting with utilizing an electronic framework to weave together samples of bhangra vocals and instrumentation. Inspired by the growing South Asian electronic scene in the UK, DJ Rekha adapted the unique sound coming from that region to fit a distinctly American context, employing the sonic palate and practices of New York DJs that she had become familiar with through her adolescence.
DJ Rekha’s decision to pursue DJ-ing was not exactly welcomed with open arms by her family. In fact, the career choice Rekha made was met with discouraging opposition from her parents, who feared their daughter was making a grave mistake by chasing after a profession that they believed was not meant for her. “The reason there is resistance from parents is because they don’t necessarily understand how art is financially viable. The fundamental belief is to avert risk, be stable, be steady.” Malhotra explains. It is a story I, and other first generation artists, know all too well. While pressures the from immigrant parents to fulfill the ultimate “American Dream” with a shiny law or medical degree can stifle one’s artistic pursuits, Rekha approaches the situation with a lax sense understanding, “In some ways I don’t blame them, you know? Because it’s not a smooth path.” She then offered advice to others who find it difficult to feel supported in the arts without familial backing, “I think the best advice is to take yourself seriously, to find a way to support yourself in your journey. And to try to your best extent, you know.”
To me, this advice exemplifies one of DJ Rekha’s most profound and entrapping qualities as an artist: her resilience. Malhotra’s ability to maintain an air of self assuredness in the face of a cascade of obstacles is key to the longevity of her success.
The broader music industry did not always embrace DJ Rekha’s music. The impetus behind establishing her monthly basement parties came out of Rekha’s frustration with certain individuals in the music industry— the club promoters, the venue organizers, or even her fellow South Asian DJs. “I started Basement Bhangra basically because I kept getting directives, people were trying to police my content. You know, don’t play too much of this, don’t play that, we don’t want to get this type of crowd,“ Rekha recounts. The “type of crowd” Rekha refers to are members of the South Asian community who routinely frequent her events. “I would be told to make sure not to play too much ‘taxi driver’ music,” said Rekha.
Realizing that she could not navigate these club spaces autonomously without having to curtsy to the sensibilities of a predominantly-white, New York City club scene, DJ Rekha decided to take matters in her own hands. She sought musical solace through establishing her own inclusive and musical community space: the Basement Bhangra party. “The common denominator is people who like to dance. So in New York, the Basement Bhangra parties are people of all backgrounds,” she said, “We make the party accessible, which is really important to me, to create a good environment for dancing.”
While a Bhangra-inspired, electronic dance party would seemingly only attract a very specific crowd of people, changing trends during the early 2000s in the music industry exposed listeners from all walks of life to the rhythmic complexities of South Asian electronic music. The rise of Rekha and Basement Bhangra was succeeded by an influx of South Asian music sampling on records by predominantly black artists. From Jay-Z to Missy Elliot, it seemed as though the only way to produce a successful rap, hip-hop, or pop single in 2008 was to incorporate the swells and stabs of a Bollywoodesque violin or the subtle pulse of a tabla.
The increasing circulation of this sort of sampling also breached into the realm of a cultural appropriation— a sort of new-age orientalism in pop culture. Whether it was Madonna’s use of Bollywood-inspired moves in concert or Christina Aguilera’s affinity for sporting decorative bindis, it became clear that South Asian fashion, dancing, and music had become the latest in trendy cultures for the West to consume.
To my surprise, however, DJ Rekha was reluctant to wholly denounce cultural appropriation within the music industry. “Yeah, cultural appropriation sucks, but appropriation is a two-way street,” Rekha said, knowing well she was giving me an answer that I wasn’t expecting. That being said, there is a major difference between the cultural exchange employed by Rekha and other black and brown hip-hop artists in the US and the cultural commodification exhibited by mainly white pop stars; a practice steeped in the exotification and fetishization of another cultural deemed “foreign” to a Western audience.
What DJ Rekha is doing is a practice in the art of cultural hybridity. I realize it was this exact praxis that made Rekha’s music so radically unique to me the first time I discovered her. By combining musical elements from two distinct cultural stylings, hip-hop and bhangra, DJ Rekha liberates herself from any expectations. She is writing her own rulebook every time she steps up to the turntable. Her music is more than “just bhangra” or “just electronic:” rather, it is a combination, or hybrid, of both and even more. “Over the years, we’ve programed a lot of artists, trying to be strategic about when they go on, that are not Bhangra, as a way to say that we don’t have to be so literal all the time,” Malhotra said.
DJ Rekha’s show on July 22nd at The Cedar co-presented by Ragamala Dance Company and featuring DJ Chamun is an example of the sort of collaborations Rekha invites as a hybrid music artist. “DJ Chamun, who is a friend of mine, she has a completely different musical aesthetic,” she said “She’s not playing Bhangra necessarily, she’s playing something that is vibe setting, that is good.” The Minneapolis-based DJ samples a wide range of genres during her sets, including Arabic, Latin, reggae, and Afrobeat. Considering the fact that DJ Rekha’s music is a pastiche of various cultural origins, she is able to incorporate the sonic stylings of artists like Chamun without disrupting any expectations.
Malhotra confessed to me that when she first came into contact with Ragamala Dance Company while in residency at an art space, she assumed the director who had paired them together did so thoughtlessly because their artistic mediums were so different, “Initially I was like: did this executive director just put two brown people in the same space?” However, what she discovered was company that both challenged and advanced her way of thinking about performance, “Yet, what happened was that we found synergy. It wasn’t because our art practices were similar, or the content of our art practices were similar, but in some ways, our methods were similar. Or our challenges were similar. Or our desire to build audiences.” DJ Rekha said, “So, we were working with something that has a lot of preconceived notions, and we’re trying to disrupt that.”
At a Basement Bhangra party, DJ Rekha calls all the shots. For Malhotra, her primary goal as a musician is to create safe and inclusive spaces where people can let themselves be immersed in the most universal of languages: dance. “I think, part of my work is not just DJing, it’s creating events and spaces and curating,“ Malhotra explained. “The actual songs themselves may not actually be like, you know, anger in your face, but I think the activism comes in when making spaces, working with organizations and people who want acceptance.“ Her positionality as a Punjabi-American woman and the ringleader of her original monthly dance party in New York City is in some ways an act of radical visibility. For me, it’s a reminder of how important it is to believe in yourself as an artist; that even in the wake of a turbulent political climate, or mounting expectations from family members, or even the harsh sting of rejection, you can make impactful work without having to compromise any part of your identity.
—Michael Karadsheh, Summer Marketing Intern
DJ Rekha and DJ Chamun will be at The Cedar Cultural Center Saturday, July 22nd at 8pm. Co-presented with Ragamala Dance Company. Tickets are $18 advance / $20 Day of show / $50 Ragamala Patron (include a $30 tax-deductible donation to Ragamala’s 25th anniversary season). Get tickets here.