DJ Rekha spins bhangra, hip-hop and leads master class at UNCA

SPIN DOCTOR: DJ Rekha was the first to present M.I.A. and Panjabi MC to U.S. audiences and thinks Jaz Dhami may be the next breakthrough South Asian UK artist. “He’s putting out these singles, and each one sounds different than the other, so he’s really demonstrating his abilities,” she says. Photo by Nisha Sondhe

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,
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.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.