I went to my first Basement Bhangra as a college student. To walk into a New York City club full of brown people and actually hear bhangra blasting from of the speakers gave me a rare feeling: You’re normal, you belong, and here was something that was made for you.
The underground party was started by Rekha Malhotra, aka DJ Rekha, and was a New York-flavored ode to an infectious, drum-heavy type of Punjabi music called bhangra. DJ Rekha was born in London and spent a few years in New Delhi, but was raised primarily in Queens and Long Island. By mixing bhangra with the music DJ Rekha grew up on in those NYC boroughs—hip-hop, dancehall, and electronica—Rekha brought a traditional South Asian sound to American audiences for the first time.
DJ Rekha was set on bending the rules from the beginning. Whether it was pushing the boundaries of what kinds of music were allowed in clubs or breaking stereotypes about South Asians as buttoned-up doctors and engineers, she wasn’t afraid to step outside of the norm. And so it was that in the midst of a late ‘90s NYC nightlife scene dictated by male DJs, a South Asian woman was orchestrating the start of different kind of party that would eventually become one of the longest running dance nights in the city.
“In a world where white men are often arbiters of culture, not their own, I think it’s powerful for those of us who are from our culture to be arbiters of our own culture, to create our own spaces,” Rekha says. “And to get other people in it, but to do it in our own terms.”
And she was successful. The space somehow attracted every kind of person: finance bros mixed with queer artists and activists. Rekha made being South Asian cool, but more importantly, she helped make being South Asian mean more than a limited number of tropes set by white America. Rekha created a space for young desis to be exactly who they were.
Earlier this month, Rekha hosted her last Basement Bhangra, ending an era. While no one is doing quite what she did with Basement Bhangra, Rekha has left the floor to many DJs inspired and encouraged by her. “Basement Bhangra existed and served a need and cultural void in NYC,” she says, where “there are more South Asian pieces of culture being created in one night than anywhere.” Twenty years later, accessing South Asian culture is no longer a rare thing in New York City. And DJ Rekha played no small part in that cultural evolution.