When you’re a minority, when the many are judged by the successes and failures of a few, you are perpetually struggling with this question.
Are we the terrifying hordes of Browns broadcast to the world each day on the news?
Are we the plucky Brown spelling bee champs slaying on ESPN every spring?
Are we the bullet-ridden dead Brown bodies lying on American streets?
Are we Mindy Kaling’s brother?
Rekha Malhotra, known publicly as DJ Rekha, has been answering this question every Thursday night for the past 20 years as a fixture ensconced in NYC’s nightlife. Rekha’s legendary “Basement Bhangra” parties have been well documented by culture and diaspora writers over the years. In recent weeks, it had become known that she was closing up shop in New York and her final traditional club show was Thursday, August 3.
On Sunday, August 6, a temperate and partly cloudy summer afternoon, the City sent Rekha off in style. Her fans gathered in Central Park to witness an All-Star lineup of diaspora stars on the SummerStage, with Gurinder Chadha introducing DJ Rekha.
The young: Horsepowar, a rapper from Vancouver who took a moment to invoke a classmate from childhood who had the audacity to clown her for her eyebrows, before launching into a diss track.
The experienced: Apache Indian, a legendary UK artist whose career dates back even further than Rekha’s all the way to the early 90s.
The global: Panjabi MC, whose collaborations with Jay Z have gotten him spins throughout the world, even in those exclusive spots where you won’t find any South Asian people.
And the local: Queens rapper Himanshu Suri whose name-checks of Desi hoods and Queens high schools elicited more screams than Zayn at a mall food court.
With Rekha, everything we are is front and center.
In New York and New Jersey, the South Asian community is diverse in every way. The highest and lowest median incomes for immigrant ethnic groups in New York City are both South Asian. We are polyglot and interfaith and whether our families survived partition, violence or famine, or whether we came from South Asia directly or via the UK, Africa, Fiji and the West Indies, we were represented by Rekha’s music and by her audience.
DJ Rekha centralizes our intersections. The beats I heard were pulled from Punjab and the Caribbean. The feet I saw stomping wore Timbs, Vans, Jordans, chappals and Chucks. The heads I saw bopping held every texture of hair and were covered by hijabs, turbans and fitted Yankee caps. The bodies I saw moving were every size and tone, and the couples and friend groups I saw dancing contained every gender identity.
To tie it all together: in her sendoff DJ Rekha wore a Black Lives Matter tee shirt, perhaps to remind her community in the rare moment when we were all together and not divided by language, faith or money, that we still coalesce around our collective responsibility towards solidarity with other displaced people. Even in a celebration of her personal accomplishments her message was not about herself but about her primary value and most important gift to us: not an answer to who we are but a reminder of who we ought to be.
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Rajji is a journalist from downstate New York. Rajji is Punjabi *and* Andhra don’t get it twisted. Rajji has been lucky enough to meet DJ Rekha “two or three times” and she is concurrently down to earth and regal AF.