The word discover “sounds very Christopher Columbus,” says Rekha Malhotra, aka DJ Rekha. The London-born, New York-based producer, curator and educator prefers the term “presented” in regard to her introduction of M.I.A. and Panjabi MC to U.S. audiences, part of her nearly 20-year career mixing American hip-hop with bhangra, the folk music of the Punjab region of India.
Rekha makes her Western North Carolina debut with a performance Thursday, Nov. 12, in UNC Asheville’s Justice Gym — complete with a dance instructor to demonstrate some moves — and a master class Friday at Lipinsky Auditorium. She credits her success in coming across the aforementioned superstars-in-waiting by being a curious DJ, finding artists who move her and then figuring out ways to bring them to the U.S. market.
Rekha says she was probably one of the first people stateside to hear the music of British-Sri Lankan artist Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A. Asked to curate a day at Central Park SummerStage in 2005, Rekha pitched M.I.A. to the event’s bookers, who weren’t well-versed in the singer’s work. By the performance date — one of M.I.A.’s first major U.S. shows — she’d become close to a household name.
“I got lucky there,” Rekha says. She had a similar experience a few years earlier with British bhangra artist Rajinder Singh Rai, aka Panjabi MC, hearing his music before he achieved mainstream success. Rekha tracked him down, praised his music and invited him to New York, providing him with a platform to gain a significant American audience.
Though she claims no direct involvement in getting Jay-Z to rap on a 2003 remix of Panjabi MC’s 1998 hit “Mundian To Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys),” Rekha doesn’t dismiss the possibility of indirect influence. In addition to helping put Panjabi MC’s music into the world at shows, her monthly Basement Bhangra dance party used to be held a block away from the influential hip-hop radio station Hot 97.
But as for being complimented by Jay-Z’s texting buddy Barack Obama, Rekha can explain that one. She’s known Kalpesh Modi, aka actor Kal Penn, for many years. In 2010, when he was the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, he suggested getting Rekha involved in the upcoming Asian Pacific Islander reception. The next thing she knew, she was DJing at the nation’s most famous abode, a gig that, despite the surroundings, wasn’t much different from her usual sets. “I mean, I was drinking scotch and playing bhangra — there were no restrictions,” Rekha says. “You have to get vetted in the first place and work some logistics with gear and equipment, but they didn’t really give me any directives.”
When the time came for President Obama to deliver a brief address, he thanked Rekha for “spinning a little East Room bhangra for everybody, mixing a hip-hop beat with the sounds of her heritage, making a uniquely American sound that may not have been heard in the White House before.” She was one of a select few attendees invited to meet the president privately and have a picture taken with him, all of which Rekha feels fortunate to have experienced.
Coming off recent talks about her craft at the University of Texas, Harvard University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Rekha’s intellectual curiosity has her constantly reading and staying informed. Lately she’s turned her research to collaborations, exploring the need for them in a world of Eastern and Western music. Key to that concept is discovering how communities create natural connections instead of forced ones motivated by shallow interests. The latter, Rekha says, often leads to terrible crossover results.
For the UNCA master class, which is free and open to the public, Rekha is leaning toward what she calls “kind of an artist background” and delving into DJing and the art’s history, tailoring the content to the attendees. “I’m going to have to sort of gauge what the students already know,” she says. “I’ll do a little bit of context on hip-hop, and then I’ll go into more specifics about South Asian music and explore different genres, play some examples and then have a little open Q&A.”
WHO: DJ Rekha
WHERE: UNC Asheville, cesap.unca.edu
WHEN: Performance in Justice Gym Thursday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. $6; Master class in Lipinsky AuditoriumFriday, Nov. 13, at 12:30 p.m. Free.