At home in the world
Meet Abhi the Nomad, the Indian rap breakout Desi kids have been waiting for
Halfway through his early January Free Week show at Stubb’s, Indian rap phenom and current Austin resident Abhi the Nomad pauses to address the crowd.
“I love this city, dude,” he says. “I know I'm one of the imports. Hopefully I've done some good.”
The club is at capacity with a long line out the door. His excellent 2018 album “Marbled” is a dominant force on year-end music lists from multiple local publications and public radio station KUTX has a few of his tracks in rotation. A grip of kids crowd the front of the stage rapping along to every word on singles such as the sing-song confessional, “Sex and Drugs.”
“I appreciate you all for being welcoming,” he says.
It’s a diverse crowd, but there’s a noticeably high percentage of Indian Americans and Indian nationals, a group collectively known as Desis. It’s a slightly nerdier scene than the average hip-hop show, one might say.
“It’s absurdist to be Indian in America,” the 25-year-old artist also known as Abhi Sridharan Vaidehi says a month later when we meet in a sunny coffeeshop in an upscale strip mall tucked into the tony West Austin hills. “It’s not common. It’s not like being African American where you have a very specific experience and that experience is written in books. It’s documented. The Indian experience, aside from Aziz Ansari’s show, which I loved, is not there.”
He thinks the Desi kids relate to his music, “because they are also seeing both sides of the coin. Being a child of an immigrant family or coming from an immigrant background in America gives you a lot of perspective,” he says.
“They come with their white friends,” he adds with a laugh.
Self-defined as a nomad, Vaidehi calls the ability to find a place for himself anywhere in the world his “one non-musical skill.”
“I am a chameleon,” he says. “You can throw me in the middle of the Amazon and I’ll adapt.”
His father is a diplomat. Growing up, the family did three- to four-year stints in Beijing, Hong Kong and Fiji as well as his hometown, Chennai, India, where he spent his early childhood.
He was educated in posh international schools, subsidized by the Indian government because of his father’s foreign service, but Vaidehi comes from humble origins. His father was the first person in his family to earn a Ph.D and leave India. Judged by American standards, he says, much of his Indian family lives in poverty.
“I felt kind of weird in a lot of my schools because our family wasn’t as rich or flashy,” he says. “International schools, I mean, those are rich, rich families.”
Vaidehi picked up an American accent hanging out with American kids at school, and he refined it as a defensive measure.
“Back then, if you were Indian, it was OK to say you’re weird, or that your lunch smells, or you have stinky breath, or you have bad B.O. or whatever,” he says.
The accent was like a shield. “And then I just fell into it, into my own persona,” he says.
As a 13-year-old in Beijing, he listened to the standard artists, “anyone in my age group would know: Green Day, Linkin Park, Blink-182.”
His father was never particularly interested in English music, but, one day, he downloaded an exercise mix to his click-wheel iPod that included the track “New Workout Plan” by Kanye West. Knowing his son’s arguably misguided affinity for Linkin Park, he shared the track.
“He was like, ‘Hey, this is cool, it’s got rapping,’” Vaidehi says. “And I was like, ‘This is crazy, I’ve never heard anything like this.’”
He began to delve into rap music. Starting with Kanye and 50 Cent’s catalogs, he branched out, listening to artists like Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Tribe Called Quest and Jay-Z.
“I worked backwards with a lot of music ... the newer stuff introduced me to the stuff that influenced it,” he says.
“Marbled” is a rich platter, loaded with soulful golden era grooves, so it’s no surprise to hear Vaidehi is most influenced by “legacy music.”
“That’s the stuff I’ll still listen to,” he says.
Though he immersed himself in American culture, Vaidehi didn't spend time in the States until he arrived to study music production at California Lutheran University, a small liberal arts college in the far northwestern suburbs of Los Angeles. It was “less glorious” than Vaidehi thought it would be. The college’s rural setting lacked the Hollywood glamour he was expecting, but he quickly came to love it.
“The different variety of people that came here, the different styles of music, art. All that stuff was just free flowing. I loved that,” he says.
By the end of his college career he was creating his own music. His senior year capstone project was his first EP and when it was well received, he released a second EP that did even better.
“I was seriously thinking, ‘Wow, I could actually do something with this,’” he says. But then it all fell apart. He applied for a work visa through the lottery system and wasn’t picked. Forced to leave the country, he went to stay with a friend of the family in Lille, France. He was despondent.
“We had spent so much money ... I had spent so much time. … My family had taken out loans from like the bank obviously. We didn’t have the money to pay for my school,” he says.
To make matters worse, he hated his new housemate, and his serious girlfriend in California was now a long-distance love.
He poured his pain into “Marbled.”
“I was alone, you know. That really was kind of like the driving force for a lot of it. (Expletive), I’m alone again,” he says. “And I think I’d felt that subconsciously throughout my life, because we kept moving. I kept having to lose friends and people I knew. Here I was once again, 10 years down the line, alone again. ... It was like the worst outcome. My dad had always said, ‘You’ll figure it out,’ but at the time I was like, ‘What if I don’t?’”
The bleakness comes across loud and clear on title track “Marbled,” which begins with the lyric, “Wasted at 3 a.m. with the homies/ Girls I donʼt know, and I still get lonely,” then goes on to repeat the word lonely five more times before the song is up.
But the love of his family, who supported him through the whole ordeal, also emerges as a powerful theme on the album. His mother was always adamant that he make a song about her, “because it’s the most Indian parent thing to do,” and she gets a big shout out in “Mama Bling,” a tribute to family love that doubles as a critique of modern hip-hop. In “Letter for God,” he stands on a balcony with his father, marveling at the mysteries of the universe.
While he was working on the album, he was in communication with a friend who did A&R for Tommy Boy, the record label that launched the careers of hip-hop legends such as Queen Latifah and De La Soul. After the first two tracks began generating heat online, the label agreed to release the album.
Around the same time, Vaidehi had a breakthrough on the visa front. He was granted a student visa to return to the U.S. He was reunited with his girlfriend and on a whim they moved to Austin, where he enrolled at Austin Community College. He liked the school, but wanted to focus on music. He applied for and was awarded a highly coveted talent visa.
Now he’s focused on moving forward. He’s released several new singles including “Run” and “Fresh” that take a harder rap tack than many songs on “Marbled” that dabble heavily in hooky melodies.
“A lot of people felt that there was a lot of singing and melody on ‘Marbled’ but I wasn’t really rapping my ass off to be considered a rapper,” he says. “So it was like, ‘OK, I’ll rap, I’ll show you.’”
He wanted to be taken seriously by the rap community at large. “I think that’s important, because to be honest, I don’t think there’s a lot of Indian people spitting bars out there.”
Which brings us back to the Desi kids at his shows.
“I don’t think society has enough brown role models to give you the idea that there are options,” he says. “In the Indian community, celebrities and the common man are so far spread apart, there’s such a gap ... with indie artists … music (that) happens sort of in independent space ... you feel almost closer to the art and the artists. … I think that’s great for people. It gives them some sort of hope or allows them to try out (personas) and be whoever they want to be.
“I think that’s what all brown kids should do. If you’re failing med school, it’s OK.”
More Austin360 Artists of the Month
ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Abhi the Nomad
Recordings: "Marbled," 2018; "Catharsis," 2016; "Beginning" EP, 2014
Upcoming performances: Abhi the Nomad is an official South by Southwest 2019 artist. Check schedule.sxsw.com for showtimes.
Facebook live: Noon March 14, on the Austin360 Facebook page; performances archived on the Austin360Video YouTube channel.