I'm excited to introduce a new profile series "Creatives & Changemakers." I have always loved to surround myself with creativity. The intention for this new profile series is to highlight creative people that fascinate and inspire me. These changemakers are igniting shifts in our consciousness through their unique contributions to our world. I am proud to introduce this interview with internationally renowned DJ Rekha, hailed as the “Ambassador of Bhangra” by The New York Times. DJ Rekha is founder and producer of one of the longest running & most successful parties in NYC, Basement Bhangra and Bollywood Disco. She produces a weekly radio show Bhangra & Beyond & has an international audience...including President Obama when she was spinning in the East Room of the White House! Her accolades go on and on. We actually go way back since our childhood in Westbury, Long Island and I'm thrilled to be able to spread the love and share her inspiring gifts. The next Basement Bhangra's 19th Year Birthday Bash on Thursday, April 7th. I hope you can join me on the dance floor.
Hope's Q: When I think back to our childhood in Long Island, for me personally, music ruled my world. Fast forward a decade and I would hear our friends say, ”Hey, did you know Rekha is a DJ?” The Westbury crew was oh so proud. You introduced me to the world of Bhangra, as you have done for countless others. What were your early influences in cultivating your love of music?
DJ Rekha's A: I had a array of early influences. One of them was Indian music that my parents listened to. We had a car and yes, I'm that old—where we had a 8-track player in the car. They had this one cassette called Film Hits '72, the best film hits from Indian movies of 1972, and if you know what an 8-track is, it's endless. It just keeps repeating. The other thing I listened to was the radio...and the radio in the '70's was magic, or it feels that way. When we moved to Long Island from Queens, I was introduced to a whole new world, because the community there was very mixed, African-American, Caribbean-American, and so I got exposed to a whole other range of music. But the other major influence at 9 years old was that John Lennon died. Due to John Lennon's death, there was so much Beatles music everywhere---it was 20 years ago that The Beatles came, it was 10 years that this happened, it was this anniversary--I just felt like even though they were not exactly of my generation, I was surrounded by The Beatles and I really got involved. The thing that really helped me discover music was the public library. The Westbury Public Library had a tremendous music collection and there were these magazines that printed lyrics. I learned the lyrics of a lot of songs before I knew the songs.
Hope's A: Wow, such a broad range of influences. Reminiscing over that library.
DJ Rekha's A: That's kind of my earliest rounds of influences, and then at some point in Long Island I got into this radio station called WLIR, which played what we would call now electronic dance music. Then it was called New Wave. There were all these different things happening, the Indian stuff, Casey Kasem's American Top 40, KISS FM which was tremendous for us growing up. It was everything.
Hope's A: I loved WLIR and was obsessed with 'new wave'...loved the punk 80s looks and vibing off The Smiths and The Cure! But then again... YES, KISS FM was my everything, my life revolved around that music, classic soul, hip-hop, R&B, reggae. Oh we are aging ourselves...the good ol' days.
DJ Rekha's A: I started listening to this station called WBAI who had these great music shows.. and one time they did a whole Prince special. And we were into Prince then anyway--Purple Rain--but I got to hear old Prince. And I was just hooked and hooked.
Hope's A: Oh, my God, yes. Absolutely. Beyond hooked on Prince.
DJ Rekha's A: I mean, I gotta tell you this Prince story.
Hope's A: Please do.
DJ Rekha's A: I was so hooked on Prince, and going to Westbury High School, I remember being let out of class with a friend, so we could call up from the office in school to get Prince tickets. Our assistant principal Mr. Reed, rest in peace, actually asked his cousin who worked at the school if we could use her credit card! So I went it to the show and it gets better. The ticket stated to wear something purple. So the only thing I had was this sweater that had strawberries on it, but it was purple and I wore it. I felt like such a dork--wearing this weird sweater that had purple strawberries on it. But I was like, 'it said wear purple.'
Hope's A: LOL! That is unbelievable. Well, my devastating Prince story is that my brother and I begged on our knees (literally) to my mother to see the Purple Rain tour. I think I was 14 and he was 12. Of course her answer was no way whatsoever. Because it was raunchy, and she knew it, and--to this day my brother & I will never forget, yet still trying to forgive. We both made it up to ourselves a decade later when we saw Prince at an intimate performance at the Palladium with surprise guest Lenny Kravitz and his gorgeous then dancer-wife Mayte. Don't let us start going on and on about Prince, this is about you!
DJ Rekha's A: I have the booklet, I have the tour book. I've seen him more in concert probably more than anyone else.
Hope's Q : You are known for single-handedly spearheading the Bhangra scene in NYC and beyond. A mutual friend said to me, “Yeah, I went to one of Rekha's parties all dressed up, not knowing what to expect. I didn't know Indian people get down like that? If I would've known, I would've been sweating it up on the dance floor I would've worn something else. I had the time of my life.” What was the first step you took on your path towards getting the party jumpin'?
DJ Rekha's A: Well, it's interesting that she said “ I didn't know Indian people could get down like that” because I feel like that's a really loaded statement, and I have my own version of that with our mutual best friend. But first...I got my first set of turntables when I was in college already, my cousins & I decided to start a DJ crew, because we saw other people in our community doing it. I knew I could do better than that because I was a music head, always. We started doing parties using CD's, we literally didn't know anything.
So, I eventually got turntables and my high school friend Phil, who was a DJ, would come over to show me a few things. One day he just said, “you just gotta be loose, you just gotta feel it, it's just kick/snare, kick/snare, 1-2, 1-2.” That was my first lesson about really listening to the music without just playing song after song.
I remember being really excited and proud that I had this DJ setup. And our friend came over and I showed it to her, and she said something I'll never forget--- “Look at Rekha trying to be black.” And I was like, “Wow”, and that was really interesting, because--it just speaks volumes about the complexity of race and about cultural access. We grew up together, we had the same cultural experiences, yet, at that moment in time and--I would say rightly so, hip-hop was seen as a black art.
Hope's A: Yes it was and many would argue still is, despite it's current worldwide universal appeal.
DJ Rekha's A : Now the top DJ's in the world are white men, you know, a very particular looking white guy. It goes both ways, right? “Look at Rekha being black” and then “I didn't know you people get down like that?” What is that conception coming from? I just sit around and do yoga all day or go to elaborate weddings, I don't know?
Hope's A: We could go on and one about this issue of race, stereotypes and misunderstandings. I do want to revisit this in the future.
Hope's Q: Sometimes we all have grand ideas about changing the world for the better, but I see over and over again, it's about one person having an idea, taking a chance and then connecting the dots with other like-minded individuals. You can look through history and see all the powerful movements and inventions began the same way. How did Basement Bhangra, your genre-defying, massively celebrated in New York City nightlife institution, evolve into becoming Bhangra's introduction to music today?
DJ Rekha's A: Basement Bhangra caught on quick, and it was a little right place, right time. The party started as a counter to the young South Asian party scene I started becoming a part of and also, a sort of activist space. I think that the magic of Basement Bhangra was that I would not play Top 40 music. At that time there was an aversion to hip hop and Bhangra, because within South Asian music there's Bollywood which is a music from the films, and Bhangra is Punjabi . Bhangra is seen as cab driver music/low-class, and hip hop is seen as thug music, so I was like, f*ck y'all, I want a party that plays both! To avoid the cut-throat world of event promoting in NYC I decided I would hold the party the first Thursday of every month. Subsequently, I am one of the first monthly parties in New York. I was just like appointment, first Thursday, just know that's where you have to be. That really helped solidify Basement Bhangra. And let me tell you, girl, for the last 18 years the first Thursday, I've been in the same place.
The initial crowds were people of my community and the first event we did was with Bally Sagoo, who is this producer and artist that's very influential to me, from the U.K. and our first night was super-packed. But the party built organically on its own, and I think the crowd that came over were refreshed to hear Bhangra in a club space loud. And the music was new, Bhangra was becoming more accessible dance music and blended with dance hall rhythms and hip hop beats and it sort of jelled. We would play a Bhangra set and mix it seamlessly into a hip hop set, cause it just made sense, or a dance hall set, going back and forth, and the people that came like all those genres, like me.
Then I was a musical fascist. I was like, “No, we're not going to paint a broad brush. We're not playing every kind of Indian music. We're going to play Bhangra, and we're going to play it hard, we're going to go heavy. We're going to play stuff that you don't think we should play at a club. We're gonna get really--there's a word in Punjabi, it's called pendu, which is "we're gonna get really village.”
It was also about making sure like the right people are in the space and really rewarding people who dance, and really creating a space that is about dancing. Always about movement.
Hope's A: My kind of party.
Hope's Q: What does creative expression mean to you?
DJ Rekha's A: I'm very much of the mind that art needs to be the art, and I'm not the kind of artist that directly imbues messaging or whatever in my art, it's not overt. One responsibility I feel I have, in regards to my art, is cultural representation. Bhangra is from Punjab, the land divided by India and Pakistan, I try to be super careful with cultural representation.
Hope' s Q: Newsweek has recognized you as one of the most influential South Asians in the US. That is huge! What does that say to you about the power of your work?
DJ Rekha's A: I don't know, I wish I had more power, so I wouldn't be stressed about the rent. With that and subsequent CNN profile there's been a lot of mainstream media attention to what I do and it's like immigrant does good, does different. But I do think that there's a desire to come up with lists, and some people make the lists and some people don't, but it doesn't mean you're better than people who are not on the list. But I just take it all in. You got to just keep your sh*t in check.
Hope Q: What can you share about following your heart and living out your passions?
DJ Rekha's A: I think the idea of following your passion can only happen when you're in a position of privilege.
Hope's A: Absolutely. We must have so much gratitude for our lives, no matter what is going on.
DJ Rekha's A: So 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.
* Rekha's wisdom is truth.
Come join me this Thursday, April 7th for Basement Bhangra's 29th Birthday Bash!
If you want to meet me there, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll get it touch about when to meet on the dance floor. You may need a disco nap. :)
As Transformational Coach+ Fashion Consultant my innate passion and intuitive talents involve supporting creatives and changemakers on their own personal path towards self-empowerment, aiding in the rediscovery process of one's authentic self and standing as support to achieve goal and make major shifts. Relationships and career transitions are my specialties.
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