DJ Rekha talks of the new online challenges facing performers like her

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DJ Rekha playing to an audience of thousands
from her Jackson Heights studio April 26, 2020,
for upcoming Mindy Kaling show “Never Have I Ever”
on Netflix, starting April 27. (Photo:courtesy DJ Rekha)

The waves of highs and lows that DJ Rekha went through over a space of two days has not dimmed her determination to conquer the Brave New World of online streaming.

The popular New York fixture whose “Basement Bhangra” performances went on for 20 years, tapping a need in the cultural mosaic of the Big Apple, is now working from home, and has lost all her gigs, is making no money, But  she is thankful for other blessings, and still wanting to help fellow artists by doing promotions.

Over the two days, April 25 and 26, DJ Rekha spent her time in intense preparation for hosting an online jam session promoting Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix flick, “Never Have I Ever” a biopic of sorts, to disappointment it was shut down midway, and a new high over the thousands who cheered and enjoyed the April 26, 2020 “Bollywood Party” from their respective homes. No longer was the floor thrumming with the pumped up crowds dancing to the popular disk jockey.

Rather, she was amusedly watching the constant reactions from people communicating from their glorious self-isolation, including big influencers like Kaling, Farhan Akhtar, Anoushka Shankar, Mahershala Ali, Padma Lakshmi, to name just a few. (poornagraphy_ on Instagram). Her fans from before COVID-19 also signed on in the hundreds. Overall, she estimates around 5,000 people had come into the “virtual room” and left, and at one point there were around 1,100.

“We are (on fire)” said Kaling with an emoji of a flame. And then again, “Love this song so much,” when “Chhaiyan Chhaiyan” began playing on DJ Rekha’s mix.

And then — all of a sudden — “It was shut down,” Forty minutes into what was to be a two-hour concert on Instagram live, things went dead. Why?

“Because we are in a brave new world and there are copyright rules around live streaming content Instagram does it.” But, she conceded, “It was a calculated risk,” on her part to hold the concert that she was approached to do by her old friend Poorna Jagannathan, who plays the role of the mother, Nalini, in “Never Have I Ever.”

When shows like this are held in big venues, the large businesses foot the bill for use of music for the mixes, notes DJ Rekha, and smaller gigs usually get by. But undeterred, she says, “We are going to try again tomorrow,” April 27, 2020. Twitch, she opines, may be less likely to shut artists down.

Poster for the show DJ Rekha hosted for Mindy Kaling’s new series on Netflix “Never Have I Ever” airing from April 27, 2020) (Photo: courtesy DJ Rekha)

Asked how she is making her money, DJ Rekha is blunt. As a DJ, in a normal world, she used to have a very small window for bookings. Now, “It’s almost hard to know what the financial situation will be.”

“All my gigs are cancelled. As an artist I am losing my main income source. Now, will I be able to pivot and do something else? I don’t know. We have to invest in order to do something else and to see how it works,” she says.

She is not happy that the same thing is happening to almost everyone not just in the performing arts world during the pandemic.

“I live in Jackson Heights and I see the devastation that is happening,” she says.

At the same time, she says South Asian artists are somewhat better off as many come from privileged backgrounds and have some cushion.

“So I have resources, savings. And I’m in a committed relationship with a person who has a real job. A lot of the South Asian artists I know are middle or upper-middle class,” she contends.

As for how to adjust to the new reality, DJ Rekha believes it will be on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s a challenge figuring out the best practices. Just what happened to me today, is a concern on any platform. It’s kind of like the days of file-sharing – where the gatekeepers try to monetize” what had been free.

“It’s like the Wild West right now. The beginning of people trying any number of ways, depending on the medium you are using,” as a performer.

While the self-isolation presents artists with a “captive audience” DJ Rekha says, “You still have to labor … only the results are not sure. Thos with assets and big names still get the benefit. Mainstream artists always have a lot of money and teams behind them.”

The gig she did for her friend was a promotion not a money earner, but rather a labor of love. “All the artists came together to do the project. That’s how we got this response,” she said.

While there appear to be many sources of support, she says, one has to know how to apply and go through what seems like a tedious process.

“I have applied for one grant for $5,000, from Artistsrelief.org. Haven’t heard anything back,” said DJ Rekha.

But on the whole, the promotion event for Jagannathan and Kaling, had its own kind of excitement, she says.

“It’s good,” she says, but adds, “It’s not great,” like having a live audience on the floor.”

She pauses to think over what happened just a few hours ago in the online streaming, then says, “It’s the new reality. Actually, it was kind of interesting. I was surprised by the livestreaming and how it could be pretty exhilarating and exciting.”

She puts in a caveat. “It’s not the dance floor, and its a little more intimate. But not at all like the live dancing. That energy is missing.”

“But … this generates a different energy,” she said.

 

 

 

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