written by Elissa French; published July 30th, 2015
clothing courtesy of Pistolette NY
“Ushka is a Brooklyn-based deejay, cultural organizer, and immigrant rights activist. She is part of the music label, Dutty Artz, a collective of deejays and producers creating sonic cultural production and events in NYC as well as one half of iBomba, one of NYC’s premiere parties for global bass music. Having grown up in several parts of the world, her musical influences are as transnational as she is. She is originally from Sri Lanka and grew up in Thailand.”
USHKA AND I MET UP IN CROWN HEIGHTS BROOKLYN
where we both reside, and talked about personal style, childhood, and the changes happening in the neighborhood.
We joked about how seeing an increase in runners is a sure sign your neighborhood is being gentrified, while we observed a woman in head-to-toe running gear, reading the magazine “Runner’s World” on her newly renovated steps. We discussed how, aside from being a form of expression, fashion can also reflect what’s going on around us. Along with the increase in running gear, What other ‘visuals’ do you notice that indicate a changing neighborhood?
ushka: Those indicators of a changing neighborhood include baby strollers, and hipsters with their tight pants. But certainly that’s also connected to race. The demographics of a neighborhood shift have a lot to do with race and class – and perhaps that’s narrated through dress as well.
In the context of the runner we saw, I would say that how you dress in a particular neighborhood can very much label you within that neighborhood. So for example, a runner reading a “runner’s world” magazine in Crown Heights seems absurd because that particular block historically had a lot of shootings on it, and now there’s a white woman in running shoes and her magazine chilling outside her apartment. It’s not even a “fashion statement” per se, it’s just gentrification.
elissa: In addition to DJ/organizer/activist you also have a great sense of style. I think you dress like the Sun, if the Sun were a New Yorker. What is it about fashion that you enjoy?
ushka: What I enjoy about fashion is the agency of being able to make and remake yourself however you want to look and feel that day. I enjoy fashion for the colors (I’m a colorful dresser) and I enjoy how every outfit can look a little different with a twist. I’m a huge earring collector and have a giant earring collection of all shapes and sizes- and what i’m wearing on my ears is such a critical part of any outfit. Sometime I dress just so the earrings will make sense, and not the other way.
elissa: Where do you collect your earrings from?
ushka: I collect earrings at street markets, when I travel home or to other countries or states, or friends gift me earrings on their travels as well. It’s really been a process of years of collecting earrings.
“BEING FASHIONABLE ISN’T ABOUT FITTING A MOLD, IT’S ABOUT BEING UNAPOLOGETICALLY YOURSELF.”
So what are some things you dislike about the fashion industry?
ushka: I dislike when fashion isn’t inclusive – particularly in regards to body image. When you shop at these chain stores like H&M and Forever21, I know many of us have the experience of feeling like these clothes weren’t “made of us” – they don’t fit or are made for a particular body image. That really needs to change because it limits fashion and it limits creativity. Fashion and being fashionable isn’t about fitting a mold, it’s about being unapologetically yourself.
elissa: I agree. With many of the chain stores, its all about fast-fashion and mass production, so there is really not a lot of room for creativity or inclusiveness involved in the design process. In fact often times, they are just replicating other designer’s work and selling it cheaper.
ushka: I also don’t like when fashion is contextless – for example American Apparel (AA) has this tendency to recreate prints from various cultures (Native American, African, Desi) and sell it for so much money. They sell it as “hip” but no one has any context for those colors or prints. I think it’s important to know what you are wearing and wear it with intention. I think there’s a big difference between buying some appropriative piece of clothing from AA, versus supporting a local immigrant vendor who is selling hand-sewn pieces, with specific cultural context and intention to share beyond her culture.
elissa: That’s a great point to share. these days I don’t think a lot of thought goes into where something originated, because now everything is so quickly and easily reproduced.
Ironically when I visited Thailand a couple years ago, I noticed the street markets were selling a lot of American clothing. I remember being impressed that they were on top of all the new trends. What was the fashion like in Thailand and Sri Lanka when you were living there?
ushka: The fashion in Thailand very much mimicked what was hot in the West or the U.S. I guess – but you could get all the cheap knock-offs in the markets in thailand. Thailand was very fashion forward because it was both influenced by east asian styles coming out of Seoul and Beijing and what was hot in New York. And clothing is cheap. Mind you a lot of this has to do with the fact that a lot of the factories where all of the clothing in the H&Ms and Forever 21s and Old Navys of the world are manufactured in parts of Asia – so often you could find those brands at markets as well, only it would be the left over clothing that has some small defect in it. In Sri Lanka there are lots of outlet malls too with a lot of that defect clothing. Sri Lanka’s also one of the largest producers of Victoria’s Secret underwear.
Were many people dressing in western clothes, or did it depend on culture, class, accessibility etc?
I grew up in major metropolises, so it was very westernized. How you dressed certainly was based on class. The wealthier you were, the more access you had to western brands and labels. I would say in Thailand, even if you weren’t wealthy, it was easy to get cheap clothing from street markets. But the high school I went to was a private, international school – so certainly class evoked status and wearing brands made you “cooler” than most.
In Sri Lanka, there’s a variety of modes of dress as Lanka is a very ethnically diverse country (although the State itself is extremely sinhalese buddhist nationalist and violent at that). Among the groups of people are Tamil, Muslim, Sinhalese, Burgher (mixed portuguese/dutch), Christian. Some people dress more culturally (women in sarees for example, women in hijab). Sri Lanka is also very influenced by Indian fashion due to its proximity, so shalwar kamises (which at least when I was growing up in SL in the 90s wasn’t as popular it seemed) became very big over the last ten years. And certainly a lot of folk are in jeans, shirts, etc.
” I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU ARE WEARING AND WEAR IT WITH INTENTION.”
How did you like to dress when you were young, and how did your style evolve as you got older and moved to the US?
I always dressed like a western kid. It was only on special occasions that I wore a saree or a half saree (what children wear). I certainly developed more of a love for sarees (the cloths and patterns) as I became older, probably because of nostalgia and a longing for my culture that I’ve been many times removed from because of distance.
I think I got bolder in terms of my dress style but that had less to do with being in the U.S, than becoming a rebellious young adult who was more in tune with my style. I wouldn’t even shop in the U.S that much but wait to go home to buy all the cheap clothing I wanted and rock it in the States. I definitely get a lot more compliments on dresses and skirts and shirts and earrings I’ve bought in Bangkok and Colombo than what I’ve gotten at H&M.
Do you think your taste in fashion and in music are somewhat reflective of each other?
I think my taste in fashion is eclectic as are my music tastes. I dress very colorfully and I wear elements of fashion from all of the places I live – similarly my taste in music is also a mix of tastes, the global meets the local per se.
You recently had your last iBomba party at Bembe. What was the motivation for that and what are your upcoming plans?
DJ Beto and I have been throwing the iBomba party for 3 and a half years at Bembe. It’s really where I got my start as a deejay. Bembe’s been a good starting ground to carve out our vision, but it’s just time to move on. I think that after awhile, things get stagnant and you need something fresh to keep yourself motivated in throwing events that embody one’s vision of the world. One of Beto and my main priorities is making sure that all our communities feel welcome and safe in the venue/space we’re creating and that iBomba is catering to everyone – immigrants, people of color, queer folks, and more. So that’s what we’ll be working on. Night life is really, really difficult. You are dealing with owners, bar tenders, bouncers, people being inappropriate, gentrification – there’s a lot of factors to think about when throwing a party. So I’m glad to get a little break to refresh and think through what’s important to us as deejays and event planners who are also active in social justice movements.
We can’t wait to see what’s next from you two! While we wait for the next iBomba, where can we find more information?
iBomba has a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ibombanyc and a twitter:www.twitter.com/ibombanyc. You can also hear all our guest dj sets to date athttps://www.mixcloud.com/iBomba/. We’re not going anywhere, we’re just evolving.
Where can people hear DJ Ushka, or find your music online?
Folks can hear mixtapes of mine on soundcloud.com/djushka. I’m also on twitter@ty_ushka, on facebook look for Ushka and my website is www.djushka.com. I deejay all over the place – you can find gigs of mine listed on my pages.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP 5 FAVORITE SONGS THIS SUMMER?
1) Destra, “Lucy”
No NYC summer is complete without some good soca. This is one of my favorite’s to dance to right now. And there’s some incredible female soca artists like Destra, Alison Hinds, Faye Ann-Lyons, Denise Balfon and more who really define the genre. This will be blasting all summer, especially leading up to the West Indian Day Parade on September 1st.
2) Burna Boy, “Soke”
Geko Jones passed this my way to up my Nigerian playlists. It’s such a nice afrobeat song, perfect for closing out a party, listening to on your fire escape, or at the beach.
3) Bomba Estereo, “Fiesta” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPT90x5UzN8
Bomba Estereo hails from Colombia, and in an ode to carnival in Barranquilla, made this video with a great electro-champeta tune with a fun dancefloor drop.
4) Fadda Fox “Ducking” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qunog47EVo
Continuing my love for soca, here’s another 2015 banger. This song is basically about skipping out of work to go to the party. I was invited to a Trinidadian fete in Crown Heights recently and it was awesome to see everyone to the coordinated “ducking” dance (ie. hiding from your boss at a party).
5) M.I.A also just released a video called “Matahdata – broader than broader” that features a new song “swords.” It’s a self-directed video as part of her new audio-visual project. I’m a big fan of M.I.A and like to follow what she’s bringing to the table in terms of controversy, music, and vision. This new project seems to talk a lot about borders. The video features young South Indian girls practicing a type of martial art with swords called Kalarippayattu, common in Kerala. I appreciate that she references things from South India and the North of Lanka- and she features images of south asian women who are dark-skinned and emphasize their strength. You rarely see that in mainstream south asian media. You can watch and listen here: http://www.stereogum.com/1815406/m-i-a-matahdatah-scroll-01-broader-than-a-border-video/mp3s/
elissa: Thanks for sharing. That Bomba Estéreo is a banger, and that MIA video is incredible!
Last question- What are you most excited to eat when you go home at the end of this month?!
ushka: oh my god. just everything. i just miss how everything tastes. My favorite thai food is Isaan food. That is food from the northeast region of Thailand. I ate som tum and nam tok moo everyday in highschool. I inhale good pad kra pao kgai.
I also always make my father take me to MK Suki – which is a hot pot place that you can find only in Thailand with one of the best secret sauces in the world.
I grew up eating a lot of seafood so I really like anything with fish – fish curry, steamed fish stuff with lemon grass. My mouth is watering just thinking about everything I’ll eat. I’m a huge foodie. ♥