The world is heavy right now. Let's dance?

With bad news coming from seemingly everywhere, music and the community it builds can offer a reason to hope.

It's difficult to ignore the bad news these days, and unfortunately many of the incidents occurring are hitting close to home.

A 24-year-old Bergen County resident inexplicably drove upstate earlier this month and repeatedly stabbed the author Salman Rushdie while he was on stage giving a book talk, purportedly over a fatwa issued by Iranian clergy nearly a decade before the attacker was even born.

The New Yorker did a good job of contextualizing how irrelevant the fatwa seemed to be in recent years, and how this New Jersey-raised vigilante thought he was helping any cause with his actions is beyond me. Whatever you think of Rushdie's work, he is an icon and his books are a major contribution to modern literature about the South Asian experience. Nobody should ever feel threatened for expressing ideas, as so many of the speakers at the Stand With Salman rally last week noted.

This terrible act came as Asian and Muslim Americans in the Garden State have seen a rise in hate crimes and bias incidents, from a man who found bacon stuffed into his work boots to teenage girls being harassed for wearing hijabs. In New York City, Be Tran is the latest elderly Asian person to be killed in what feels like a horrific nightmare of relentless tragedy. (Hate, it seems, has no boundaries. Just this week, two Jewish men were targeted in another incident.)

While the Asian community is being attacked from the outside, there is also deep-sown division that is rearing its head in ugly ways. Someone decided it was a good idea to drive a bulldozer with a photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attached to it through the India Independence Day Parade in Edison, a clear reference to the clearing of Muslim dwellings in India that the Modi government has declared illegal. A Muslim attendee told Middle East Eye's Azad Essa that he felt unwelcome at the parade, which should have been a celebration of democratic India and its plurality (1 in 10 of the world's Muslims are Indians).

Where can we find hope in moments like this? We can look the other way, at the countless number of people speaking up in favor of unity, community and peace. On Aug. 15, Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi posted a moving call for Indians to remember the inclusive narrative of their constitution. Rushdie himself lamented the state of things in PEN America's massive collection of reflections on the 75th anniversary of Partition, which includes this hopeful nugget:

"Young India, you held such promise. Dreaming of your freedom, my teenage grandfather left home to join the Mahatma on the banks of the Sabarmati in the 1920s," Mira Kamdar writes in her contribution. "We must not give up on the dream of a free India. In a world slipping toward totalitarianism, it is the dream of freedom everywhere."

Let us keep dreaming together. In this issue, we turn to the place I often find comfort in dark times: music. DJ Rekha, an icon of South Asian American music, spoke to Central Desi about the 25th anniversary of Basement Bhangra. And NJ Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer talks about the legacy of Partition and what it means for Desi Americans. As she puts it beautifully:

"We should take inspiration from the fact that our people were able to overthrow colonialism against all odds and can continue to accomplish great things," she says in the Gup Shup interview below. "Let's honor the struggles of those who helped us enjoy the rights we have today."

TAAZI KHABAR: DJ Rekha throws an epic party

DJ Rekha performs at Summerfest

DJ Rekha performs at Central Park on Aug. 6. Photo credit @sharmeenc

It's been 25 years since DJ Rekha launched Basement Bhangra in New York City, bringing Punjabi folk music into the American consciousness and popularizing a new form of club music that became the anthem of a generation. The music marked a turning point for the diaspora by infusing Desi music with house and hip hop influences, creating a homegrown sound that was as hybrid in its identity as the people listening to it.

Earlier this month, DJ Rekha threw an epic birthday bash for Basement Bhangra in Central Park, an encore that was co-produced by Jashima Wadhera and Deepa Jeeva and inspired by the years that people have had to stay apart since the pandemic. Jasmine Sandlas, Red Baraat, Ganavya and Raaginder were among the eclectic group of performers who brought a diverse crowd out on a sweltering day in New York City.

"Basement Bhangra was an important anchor and part of my career. I just wanted to bring people together again," said DJ Rekha. They performed online for the first time during the pandemic and have started doing live shows again only recently.

Though Basement Bhangra officially ended in 2017 after a 20-year stint, DJ Rekha continues to perform and collaborate with artists on stages virtual and live. The music has always had a unifying effect on the South Asian community, bridging the divides that often keep Desis in their own religious and sectarian silos.

"I always say that bhangra is a music that comes from Punjab, a region divided by India and Pakistan. It's important for me to say that and detach it from the nation state," they said. The music bring people together in other ways, too, including bridging first and second-generation Desis. "Definitely as a DJ and curator, I wanted this space to be open to whoever wants to dance."

The Central Park event was the first time DJ Rekha also spoke on stage about their own queer identity in front of family members, even though they say that Basement Bhangra has always been a queer space where drag queens would perform and all were welcome.

"I'm of a generation where it was not safe to be out. Over time, I too have come to a place that feels more authentic to myself," they said.

Marina Budhos, an author and Maplewood resident, was among the many longtime fans who braved the heat to attend the concert. She said it was like a big reunion of people who have been drawn to DJ Rekha's work over the years.

"I love seeing DJ Rekha in action. They are so masterful at creating house-music sound and getting everybody involved," she said.

Budhos remembers how the original Basement Bhangra parties seemed to bring Desi people together in a way that felt exciting and energetic.

"The scene is still pretty vibrant, but it may be more diffused now," she said. "At the time, it was such a turning point. It wasn't just Basement Bhangra, but this sound and space that was taking off."

GUP SHUP: Meet Sadaf Jaffer, NJ assemblywoman and trailblazer

Sadaf Jaffer speaks at an Eid celebration in Central Jersey.

Assemblywoman Jaffer speaks at an Eid celebration in Central Jersey. Photo courtesy of Sadaf Jaffer.

Sadaf Jaffer (D-16) made history as the first woman of South Asian descent to become mayor in New Jersey a few years back, and she made history again this year as one of the first two Muslims to join the NJ State Assembly. What's with all the recent "firsts" in a state that has a long history of South Asian and Muslim residents? Here's Sadaf to explain:

What's it like being a Desi woman in the NJ Assembly?S: I'm proud to be able to represent the Desi community in the legislature and ensure that our issues are addressed by the state government. Some of our initiatives this year have been to invest in translation services and seek more specific data regarding the needs of diverse AAPI communities in New Jersey. In terms of women's rights, we have passed legislation protecting reproductive rights in New Jersey. I also think it is important to bring the perspective of the mother of a young child, which helped motivate me to support gun safety legislation that was just signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy.

On a more personal note, I remember walking into the legislative chambers for the first time after I was elected and thinking it was quite remarkable that as the child of immigrants, I was afforded the opportunity to serve in a leadership capacity at the state level. I hope to see many more Desi women in such positions in the years to come.

What's your favorite and least favorites parts of the job?S: My favorite part of the job is connecting people to the resources they need. Least favorite would probably be dealing with open hostility and misrepresentation during the campaign.

Given how many Desis there are in NJ, why do you think it's taken so long for our community to see more representation in local and state politics?S: There have historically been barriers to diverse groups gaining access to power and authority in their local communities. It is also an issue of lacking the formal and informal networks needed to break into the field. I do think that is changing, which is why we were able to elect South Asian women to the legislature for the first time and finally have an Asian American Legislative Caucus.

You were at the Pakistan Day parade over the weekend. How do you reflect on Partition and the independence days for both India and Pakistan?S: I try to remind myself and others that democracy is something very valuable. Our ancestors in South Asia fought and died for the right to determine their own destiny just as the founders of the United States did. If we truly value democracy, we have to participate by voting in every election and resisting cynicism.

Cynicism can be very seductive, but ultimately it's a way to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to make things better. Especially when discussing South Asia, I've heard many people say the situation is hopeless. But we should take inspiration from the fact that our people were able to overthrow colonialism against all odds and can continue to accomplish great things. Let's honor the struggles of those who helped us enjoy the rights we have today working to create a more perfect union in the United States and supporting pro-democracy initiatives in South Asia as well.

Finally, what's your favorite Desi restaurant in NJ and what do you recommend ordering there?S: That's a tough one, so many to choose from! My daughter loves the nihari at Gulberg Bistro so I'll go with that :)


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