by Tara Miller
Since her Portland debut in 2000, DJ Anjali has existed as the city’s primary advocate and dance missionary for the many varied electronic sounds of the South Asian/desi diaspora. She introduced “bhangra” & “Bollywood” to the dance floors of Portland and is also known for throwing down other international bass sounds.
Anjali co-hosts several of Portland’s most vital monthly dance parties, the long running Andaz (Bhangra, Bollywood, Desi dance since 2002) & Tropitaal (Desi Latino Soundclash since 2013). She co-hosts 2 weekly radio shows: Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Kush (on KBOO.fm Tuesdays 10pm -midnight) & CHOR BAZAAR (on XRAY.fm Wednesdays 6-7pm PST.), and is most known for incinerating dance floors with the heavy dance floor artillery of South Asia, but scours the globe for any hard-hitting music that combines local music traditions with window-rattling production.
Anjali has performed at numerous festivals including five sets at the Sasquatch! Music Festival tenth anniversary, Decibel, What The Festival?!, MusicfestNW, Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration, Beloved, Photosynthesis, Soul’d Out Music Festival, Portland International Film Festival, Fairytale Music Festival, Kaleidoscope, Vancouver Queer Film Festival & Indian Summer (Vancouver, BC.). From the east coast to the west coast, she has headlined parties such as Basement Bhangra, iBomba, Bhangrateque, Ottomania and Non Stop Bhangra.
I met DJ Anjali at Dig A Pony bar in SE Portland, where she was scheduled to DJ with her musical partner, The Incredible Kid. We had a lovely, badass, and inspiring conversation that went far longer than planned, so I’ve edited to the condensed version below. Read it to the soundtrack of DJ Anjali’s new mix, which can be found here.
Tara Miller: When and how did you first become interested in DJing?
DJ Anjali: Around the late 90s, when all of my friends were into Riot Grrrl and Sonic Youth, I was really into Britpop. I romanticized that whole sub-culture and thought it would be so cool if I could throw a Mod dance party. I had no idea how you go about booking, I didn’t have equipment. I met Stephen [aka the Incredible Kid of "DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid], because we were both involved with the unionizing at Powell’s Bookstore. He always DJ’d the union fundraising parties with a couple of other Powell’s employee guys. And I was just kind of miffed about it, like, why is it always the same three dudes--I should be up there!
I asked Stephen at work one day if he would show me how to DJ and my first gig was showing up at a house party here in Portland. He showed me the mixer—super quick. And he was like I’m gonna go to the bathroom, you got it? And I’m like, I got it. I started playing and when he came back, everybody in the room was dancing.
Tara: How did you start working together playing predominantly South Asian focused music?
DJ Anjali: We started DJing together and that led to this bar gig at the Blackbird, which was a rock club. We did a monthly there and the club would list all our genres--soul, funk, mod, and...bhangra! And all these South Asian kids from the west suburbs would come and some of them would walk in and be like..this place is gross and walk out. And some of them would stay. And party on a Tuesday night. That’s when I was like...oh my god this is so cool...we should throw a big party.
Tara: That was bhangra-focused?
DJ Anjali: Yeah. I love bollywood and I grew up listening to it but we were more excited about bhangra. Around that time it was such a bootleg industry that there was so much remixing with hip hop and drum and bass and garage and two step. I love the folk stuff but mixed with super hard electronics...it just melded all my worlds.
Our first party was sold out and then it just took off from there.
Tara: My partner and I went to Tropitaal, your Desi Latino Soundclash party in February and it was such a cool experience for us. She’s Venezuelan and I’m Indian, so we entered that space and it was incredibly powerful for us because our worlds totally melded together. How did you get the inspiration for that party?
We first came up with the idea back in the early to mid 2000s, when both of our sisters lived in New York and we would go every couple months and do tons of record shopping. In New York or in New Jersey, there are these super deep pockets of South Asian culture, that you don't find as much in the Northwest. But a lot of the CDs there from the 90s, like the British bhangra CDs had this ragga jungle, dancehall vibe and a lot of them would say “bhangra soundclash!” And then vice versa, so many reggaeton artists, like Luny Tunes, would sample bollywood songs.
We noticed a long time ago that there were already so many artists doing desi latinx songs within themselves. Like a mutual love. And we always had in the back of our minds that we wanted to do a specifically desi latinx themed party.
Tara: You’re a dancer and dance teacher too--how did you get into dance?
DJ Anjali: Well, my mom was a Kathak dancer in India and when I was growing up here she would perform sometimes. But she couldn’t afford dance lessons when I was a kid, so the first time I started studying dance was middle school dance team. In college, I took ballet and modern and jazz. A lot of people were kind of forced to do dance, like tap or ballet, as a kid. And I never had that chance. So in college I made up for lost time.
I was always drawn to kathak, but there aren’t many kathak teachers here in Portland, because most of the Indian community is from South India. So I studied bharatanatyam, [a classical dance form of southern India], for years and kathak here and there. But I’ve realized that what I so wanted in my 20s isn’t necessarily what I want now--that I’m not disciplined enough to be an Indian classical dancer. Bhangra and bollywood are so much more spazzy and especially bhangra--that’s actually my dance. I think I was so into the idea of being a classical dancer that I looked down on folk dancing. And it’s funny how the tables turned because I love it now.
I don’t know if you experienced this, but I had always rejected my Indian identity and didn’t want anything to do with it. I experienced all those things that people talk about now, like kids coming over to your house and being like “your house smells,” “why does your house smell like weird Indian food.” And the flip side of that was kids never having had a mango before they came to your house and being like “wow what’s a mango, I want to eat that!” All that stuff made me feel embarrassed and I just wanted to be American. It wasn’t until my early to mid 20s that I started to explore my Indian identity--super on my own terms. The music and dance really helped with that.
Tara: Do you remember any specific instances where you felt like you had to make a choice about whether to embrace or reject your Indian identity growing up? Was there a turning point for you in terms of really embracing it?
DJ Anjali: In college, I studied painting and didn’t identify with South Asian things at all. It wasn’t until after college and people started coming up to me and wanting to know about India. People would ask about music or food or geography. Unfortunately, being a person of color and being from a specific country, people think you’re an expert. But I also didn’t want to look like an idiot and that pushed me, because I felt like I needed to know how to answer those questions.
Tara: I think there can definitely be an element of shame or guilt when you’re a person of color here and you’re asked something about a country your ancestors are from, but you don’t have an answer. I’ve definitely experienced this gray area between wanting to identify with my Indianness and then feeling shame or guilt when I can’t be an expert.
DJ Anjali: Yeah and I think as you grow older you get less…territorial about it. And fully accept that some people are going to know way more about some aspects of India and Indian culture and that’s okay.
I didn’t grow up Hindu, I grew up Christian, so that’s another gray area like you say. People want to hear or assume you’re an expert on Hinduism and I’m not. You wouldn’t assume that someone who grew up Catholic is an expert on Catholicism--it just isn’t the same.
Tara: It reminds me of this instance I had when I was teaching at a University in Chiapas, Mexico, and there was a student who was very into India, mostly yoga and Hinduism, which was really awesome in that space. But sometimes he would ask me questions about assuming I knew the answer and it brought up a lot of that shame when I couldn’t answer. One time he asked why I got my nose pierced on the right side.
DJ Anjali: Whoa that’s such a personal question.
Tara: Yeah! And I was like I don’t know...it just happened. And he said, “you’re not supposed to do that according to Hinduism,” and gave a reasoning that I don’t even remember because I was so taken aback.
DJ Anjali: What the fuck!
Tara: A huge part of me was so ashamed that I didn’t know, because my mom’s Hindu. And I didn’t grow up with a lot of Hindu traditions. My father’s Jewish and that was much more present. But it still felt like something I should know. And this other person who studied Hinduism is telling me that I’m ignorant about a very important part of my identity in many ways. And it’s also my body. And they’re telling me I did something wrong with my body, according to my mother’s family’s religion.
DJ Anjali: That’s so weird that someone would tell you that. And it’s also one of those things where you read something in a book, but it might not be true, culturally. It might be some esoteric information that you read and need to back up in the real world.
People say interesting things, right? (laughs) I feel like I’ve had to let so much slide off, because otherwise you’ll just be in pain all the time, if you hold on too much.
Tara: Do you find other ways to process that?
DJ Anjali: I feel like I’ll probably be pretty pissed for a day or two. And then I get over it. It was never really intentional, but music and DJing and then the dance is the other side of that.
I’m a halfie as well--my mom’s Indian and my dad’s white. So I’ve experienced all the things that you have to deal with not just being a brown kid, but then being a mixed kid, right? Because there are all the South Asian kids and all the Jewish family that you grew up with. And you’re in between. So we have so many sides of our identity we have to deal with.
Tara: Your website describes you as Portland’s “primary advocate and dance missionary for the many varied electronic sounds of the South Asian/desi diaspora.” As a brown woman and as someone who’s part of the South Asian diaspora in often very white spaces, it’s wonderful to see photos of you DJing with a wrist full of bangles and to hear the sounds I usually only hear when visiting my grandparents in Bangalore, India at your parties and on your radio shows. What does it mean to you to be in that role, and how do you see your work contributing to the larger community of the South Asian diaspora?
DJ Anjali: I feel super humble about it. And it still trips me out. But I feel very fortunate.
We just DJ’d this South Indian wedding on Saturday and they wanted me to give a dance lesson and dance with them all night. It’s so interesting because I still feel like such an outsider, on the edge of the community. And it was sweet because some of the aunties were like, we never dance. I think they felt super comfortable with me, so they were like, just stay right here, just dance with us for a little. And I love that that’s my job--in some weird way, because we don’t even advertise that we do weddings, people just ask us.
I feel honored. But it’s a funny place to come to after doing this for so many years, because I never felt like I fit in with other Indian kids. And then to be hired by those same kids, 20-30 years later to DJ their wedding and to essentially be an expert on music and make sure everyone’s dancing and having a good time....
Tara: What about the community beyond the South Asian diaspora?
DJ Anjali: I have had identity crises about being in these roles. Not in terms of doing a wedding, but when we get hired to do a rave in the woods or some music festival where there’s no South Asian artist on the bill and very few women DJs ever. Especially when they want me to be the dancer and Stephen’s the DJ. Sometimes I just feel like a dancing monkey up there. I definitely went through a period where I felt like, I’m the brown girl that gets all dressed up and then I’m like “yayyyy party!” It’s definitely different being the DJ vs. being the dancer. It’s easier to go back and forth now, but in the old days I would have to be one or the other. Dancing can be such a different mindset, because you’re performing and projecting so many different things. Whereas being the DJ is much more internal and I feel like I’m hiding behind the decks--that’s my protection.
I feel like performers often can only have one or two sides, publicly. People can’t accept more complexity. So sometimes it doesn’t even matter what I play. Like in the old days at our parties at Holocene, people just thought I played bhangra all night. And I was like did you not hear that was in Spanish? That was a reggaeton song. That was not bhangra.
Tara: They see you as the Indian performer and that’s it.
DJ Anjali: Yeah totally, that’s just what they associate.
But I am glad it’s us and not somebody super cheesy. And I’m glad it’s music of the diaspora--punjabi kids in the UK or in the States or Canada, making their diaspora music.
Tara: And music that a lot of people don’t listen to or have access to.
DJ Anjali: Totally. And I’m glad we’re the filter for that. I feel really honored and humble.
One of the things I think is really cool is all the young Desi women artists and musicians that are doing really well. When I started, I was so lonely. And it’s still pretty lonely. But I used to go to Rekha’s parties in New York and then we became friends and she started doing gigs with us here and we started doing gigs with her there.
I would read those little magazine write-ups that you would find in the old days, and be like whoaaa there’s another South Asian woman artist! I always felt so alone and I would hear about other people and be like oh that’s so cool! But they definitely weren’t in my city. And it’s not just such a boys’ game--there are so few women DJs, but then even fewer women of color DJs, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
Now with Instagram, social media, it’s so much easier to feel like you’re a part of something. There are so many queer desi women artists, musicians, people doing cool things now, like Hate Copy, Khushboo Gulati. That makes me so happy. The fact that they’re existing and doing their thing is empowering.
Tara: I get so excited anytime I see another queer desi woman artist or publication, like Kajal Magazine. Have you been able to build that supportive desi community here in Portland?
DJ Anjali: The benefits of being a DJ are that I’ve met so many other cool Desi women. And it’s not necessarily that they’re into bhangra or bollywood, but that we have had similar experiences growing up feeling like the odd Desi kid that didn’t fit in. Almost the best part of doing what I do, has been finding my people. Even if our day jobs have nothing to do with each other, we all have bonded over those common experiences.
I feel like because Portland is so small it can be easier to find your people. For me, it’s been easier, because once you’ve found a couple people you can connect that dots and introduce each other to more people. And then it’s like instant family.
I don’t know if you had this experience growing up here, but my mom was somehow able to find all the others…so I grew up with all these other half Indian kids.
Tara: Well I didn’t grow up with them, because my mom didn’t really start finding them until I was a little bit older, like in high school. But you could see the excitement in her eyes when she met another South Asian woman. She’d be like, “Tara, I met this Indian woman!” And I could just see how exciting it was for her and I absorbed that. I think my mom did not realize how lonely she felt being surrounded by white people until she started meeting other South Asians and people of color. Once I went to college and became more politicized and aware of the effects of that whiteness, we started having those kinds of conversations and now she’s much more aware of why she feels that comfort when she finds “her people,” which is awesome.
DJ Anjali: Yeah, staying in Portland has been an interesting thing because I’ve never been really career-oriented and I think if I lived in a bigger city, I could probably be a bigger DJ, but I’m oddly committed to little Portland. This is part of who I am, but I also feel like I am part of a community. I’m providing a space for people, making sure there’s a space for brown kids.
When we started our parties, they were an oddity and brown kids didn’t really come. And now, at Andaz, one of our parties, the first half will be pretty much all white and then around 11:30 it fully becomes a brown people party. And it was never like that in the old days. There would always be some combination, but it was never a large part of the night.
Tara: Absolutely. I know your parties and your work are filling a space where that didn’t exist for a long time. So that’s really awesome. I remember being in high school and being that mixed kid in a white space where I was always going back and forth between rejecting and aggressively claiming my Indian identity. So from one Desi woman to you, I think it’s really incredible and so necessary that you’re creating these spaces.
You can listen to DJ Anjali’s newest mix on soundcloud here, follow her on instagram here, and check out DJ Anjali and The Incredible Kid’s website here.