Moving from Dubai to California, Spotify allowed me to stay in touch with my culture

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In 2017, I moved 8,345 miles away from my family – from my childhood bedroom painted pink and green in Dubai to a dorm at USC. Overnight, my world changed. I went from a child being pampered by my parents to an adult who had to do his own laundry. The whiplash was heavy and the images of my old life kept ringing in my head. When I woke up to hear the birds outside my window, I half expected to hear my mother playing her Suprabhatam devotional music, loud enough to shake the ground. I remembered late morning in Dubai, listening to the radio after missing the school bus, sleepily ingesting the Bollywood Top 40 that my parents had in the car. After class, on my way to cram school, I blasted Mura Masa hard enough to crush my eardrums. On the way home, the bus driver, Yadav, played Malayali songs through the school bus speakers.

In my new life in Los Angeles, I was cut off from this music. Home radio stations did not have internet streaming. My Hindi and Tamil were uneven, so I couldn’t google the lyrics or ask my mom what song was running through my head. At parties, I pretended to know the words to “Mo Bamba” and “Sicko Mode”, and went without music the rest of the time. The silence was lonely.

Music streaming was a relatively foreign concept to me growing up in Dubai. My family didn’t pay for Apple Music and Spotify only reached the Middle East in 2018 after I had already moved away for college. My experience of these songs was tied to the South Asian community in Dubai, which supported its own world of radio stations and dance bars. Frat Row at USC certainly didn’t have that infrastructure, and neither did the rest of Los Angeles. So I started looking elsewhere.

When I finally gave in and downloaded Spotify, I felt like I could see color for the first time. I found myself thinking, day after day, “This is the song that’s been in my head for five years!” Playlists curated by Spotify like Desi Hits were a start, but they felt contrived – like an algorithm had just scraped a database of the latest Bollywood releases. I was seeking shelter in nostalgia, and user-created playlists scratched that itch. I relentlessly Googled keywords, consuming as much music by and for the Browns as possible. I was listening to Akshiti’s popular millennial Bollywood playlist while cooking and crying for hours of desi sad boi while taking a shower. I felt like I was back in Dubai, listening to music in the car with my mom, like I had dug a tunnel through the world.

Pudding.cool’s music AI software, which roasts your musical tastes, calls mine “former-boy-bander-stan-music-to-stalk-boys-to-Please-read-my-manuscript-bad” (unfortunately , a precise description of who I am). And eventually, Spotify’s algorithm adapted to my Bollywood listening habits, matching and expanding my tastes.

It was comforting to rediscover the old ones that I remembered from my parents’ parties, but it was even better to find the music of my own generation. Soon I could put my friends on up-and-coming Desi artists, grab recordings from them, and create new playlists like the ones I sought out in freshman year. I felt like I was finally part of my own culture – a community of strange, lost young kids from the diaspora who are carving out a musical niche for themselves on the internet.

For us, music has become a way to reach out or ask for help. I keep in touch with my friends in my hometown by sending them links to Blend with me on Spotify. I ask for songs from my loved ones like most other people would ask for a word of comfort. I record playlists that channel “vibes” and feel my feelings with a layer of songs to shield me from what would normally be too intense to resolve on my own.

Spotify’s attempt to make music a lifestyle worked for me. I’m a paid Premium member who, as of last year, listened to more music than 94% of listeners in the United States. The company’s business model is flawed – they don’t pay their artists enough to be the backbone of their streaming service. Despite stories like mine, their product team is still catching up with emerging needs and trends from the South and East – a depressing common story for Western tech companies.

But despite all its problems, Spotify allowed me to reconnect with my personal history. Being able to close my eyes, put on the right song, and imagine being in the back seat with my dad behind the wheel can put me to sleep on particularly nostalgic nights. Being able to relive my mother’s childhood through her playlists helps me understand why she is who she is. This music is a way of life – and I can’t imagine what the past five years would have been like without being able to connect to mine.

Nisha Venkat is a graduate student at the University of Southern California. When they find the time, they like to write, create playlists to walk, and walk to those playlists.

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