DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders

Rekha Malhotra, better known as DJ Rekha, is a musician, DJ, producer, curator, and activist. They are credited for popularizing Bhangra music in North America, with their first album, DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra, released in 2007, fusing the Indian genre with Western hip-hop and drum sounds. DJ Rekha spent their first years of life in London, followed by a few years in India, a period she credits with providing them with exposure to their roots and the Punjabi language. They briefly returned to London before their family relocated to Queens, New York, where they spent the majority of their adolescence. They earned a degree in Urban Studies from Queens College while also experimenting their craft on the turntables. During a session with TINDS, DJ Rekha shared their story of coming this far in the industry making a name for themselves.

TINDS: Where were you born & what was your childhood like?

Rekha: I was born in West London. My parents had a love marriage which was unique at their time. We moved to the United States when I was about five, and I lived in different parts of New York during my adulthood and am now settled in Jackson Heights. My parents probably did not like where they were living in London and decided to move elsewhere. Also, migration was relatively easier back then.

DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders
DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders

TINDS: Did you ever visit India?

Rekha: Funnily enough about India, while I was born in London, I was sent to India for two years when I was just ten months old. Part of it was for me to get to know my family so my parents could work and my sister could grow old enough. Even though I do not remember much about that time, it helped me form a better connection with my homeland, and my language skills have benefited from it.

TINDS: 3 words that describe you the best.

Rekha: Desi, Community & Joy.

TINDS: Tell us a little about how you got into music when you did.

Rekha: We moved to a neighborhood in Long Island that was heavily populated with a Caribbean-American community. I grew up at a time when hip-hop was emerging, and it was terrific. I had cousins from India who were living in Queens, where there were a lot of South-Asian students, and they had music being fed to them. My parents went to England to attend a cousin’s engagement ceremony and brought back a cassette from there, and I fell in love with the music. My parents spoke fluent Panjabi, but the media we consumed were always in Hindi. Later when I was around nineteen, my cousins started bringing in music and C.D.s they got from their friends at school, early remixes of classical songs. Back then, my cousins and I saw a lot of D.J.s coming up, and we thought to ourselves that we could do that too, and that’s how it all started. 

DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders
DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders

TINDS: Have your parents always been supportive of what you do?

Rekha: You’d know if you google Dj Rekha CNN. It was done back in 2006 when my parents both appreciated what I did on camera until the reporter broke my mother down. Because I snuck in through my cousins initially, my parents did not notice or probably thought of it as a bonding activity among siblings. They did not know this to be permanent, and to be honest, neither did I. My parents were proud when I was talked about and written about on several platforms, and it is understandable because all parents want a certain kind of stability for each of their children. I appreciate how my parents supported my desire in their ways because I was immensely engaged within our culture.

TINDS: Tell us a little bit about Basement Bhangra.

Rekha: I was introduced to this kid through a friend at work who happened to live far from where I lived. He was a natural and was very musically inclined. We had an understanding of Hip-Hop, and he was good at mixing and knew his way around the turntable. I had a gig booked, and when I approached him about it, he agreed. At that time, it was the beginning of the South-Asian party scene in New York. It was a time when there was a critical mass of second-generation brown people looking to attend a party. One thing led to another, and we had a gig probably on Tuesday night at a club called S.O.B. When asked what I wanted to do, I mentioned I wanted to throw a Bhangra party. My idea behind Basement Bhangra was Bhangra music, hip-hop and a place accessible to everyone. At that time, there was nothing like it, and I still think there isn’t any. 

DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders
DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders

TINDS: What would you be if not a D.J.?

Rekha: I’d probably be running a business or something, I guess, or doing something for the people.

TINDS: Coming this far, what have been your biggest struggles? 

Rekha: The lifestyle of an artist is very challenging. It always feels like we’re taking it a month at a time, and that kind of instability is definitely a struggle. A DJ is never going to be available for weekends or holidays. I think I was too naive in a good way not to realize the sexism and misogyny I had to deal with in my industry because I just kept doing my own thing. Also, sometimes the struggle is to be understood artistically. It’s often hard to find the right people to work with or people you connect with. 

DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders
DJ Rekha: The Bhangra Ambassador beyond borders

TINDS: What would your advice be to someone who wants to pursue the career of a D.J.?

Rekha: Don’t give up your day job. Fake it till you make it. Get a trust fund. Make rich friends. I think it’s crucial for anybody who wants to be a D.J. or anything. It’s essential to try to do your best and be nice to people. Build relationships and be dedicated to what you’re doing and trying to achieve and do it for the right reasons.


Find Them

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/djrekha/

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