Even by South by Southwest standards, Abhi the Nomad is in for a hectic week. Along with an official showcase put on by his record label, the rapper—who moved to Austin last fall—also signed on for a half-dozen unofficial shows to promote his debut album, Marbled. Like many other musicians, he’ll be using the weeklong frenzy of shows, parties, and “brand activations” for networking opportunities with industry types and other artists, looking for connections that could help get him to something bigger. He, like the other artists who will spend the week navigating the Sixth Street throngs, is hoping for the SXSW success story.
But for 24-year-old Abhi the Nomad, the stakes are a lot higher than the average musician’s. For him, it’s not just Apple, or Pitchfork, or C3 Presents that needs to decide if he’s the next big thing as an artist—it’s the Department of Homeland Security.
Abhi Sridharan Vaidehi was born in Madras, India, in 1993. Sitting at a coffee shop in North Austin, where we met a few days after the release of Marbled, in February, he gestures to the cramped room of people pecking away at laptops on tiny tables; until he was four years old, he, his parents, and his paternal grandparents all slept on the floor of a room smaller than the one we’re in. But his life changed when his father, a diplomat, was assigned overseas. Suddenly the nomadic part of Abhi’s existence began: he lived in Beijing, Hong Kong, New Delhi, the Fiji Islands; returned to Beijing and Delhi a few times; and finally—fulfilling his dream of living in the U.S.—landed in Ventura County, California, as an eighteen-year-old student studying music production at California Lutheran University.
Abhi’s journey to music was a little more direct. When Abhi was in high school, his dad—who liked working out to hip-hop—first introduced him to rap through Kanye West. Shortly after, the teenager began using GarageBand to make beats on his laptop. He admits that he was more enthusiastic than he was skilled at first. “My friends were always just, like, ‘whatever’ about it for the first few years, and I don’t blame them. It wasn’t good,” Abhi says.
He eventually found a groove. His tastes are omnivorous—he likes modern rap stalwarts such as Jay Z, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye West, but also the Foo Fighters and Phantom Planet. Those influences collided when he put together a college capstone project, a rap EP called Where Are My Friends, which he put on Spotify and other streaming services at the end of 2015. After spending much of his college career playing small shows around campus, Abhi was surprised when the EP found a sizable audience. Spotify’s algorithm identified him as an alternative hip-hop artist, and recommended his music to listeners of Chance the Rapper, who dominates that genre. Soon, his moody, melodic hip-hop and pop songs racked up a staggering number of plays—hundreds of thousands of monthly listens—making him the rare independent artist to secure meaningful checks from streaming music royalties.
He also began to build a life for himself. He started dating a fellow student, an American girl from Orange County named Sarah. They eventually moved into an apartment together, and adopted a cat named Archie. He balanced school and a job doing audio and video content for a small record label. Abhi was on his way toward the sort of successful adulthood most people aspire to—creative fulfillment, stable income, domestic happiness.
But he was also about to graduate from college, which meant that the student visa that brought him to the U.S. would expire. His company agreed to sponsor him for an H-1 work visa, but even that didn’t offer assurance: only one in three H-1 visa applications make it through the lottery system to allow the applicant to remain in the country. Abhi’s wasn’t selected, and, raised to be a rule-follower, he promptly left the country. “My dad works for the government, so I don’t push the edge too much,” he says. “[Overstaying] was never a thought.”
With no way to legally stay in the U.S., no roots in India, and no home anywhere else, Abhi felt adrift. He had no clue where to go. He’s only lived in his home country, India, intermittently, and never for more than a few months at a time since childhood. “If all else fails, I’m gonna have to go there, but I don’t know if my girlfriend would like it,” he says. “I don’t know what the hip-hop market is like for English-speaking artists.” So Abhi, who speaks fluent French, relocated to Lille, France, for a ten-month stay. Meanwhile, his music continued to find an audience. While in France, he got an offer from the venerable hip-hop imprint Tommy Boy Records, which had been following his career with interest since Where Are My Friends. He took it.
Tommy Boy, at the time the label pursued Abhi, was in transition. The brand was built by artists like House of Pain, Naughty by Nature, and De La Soul—none of which have been active in decades—and was looking to expand on its roster of legacy acts (current signees include Wu-Tang Clan artists Method Man and Ghostface Killah) by finding rappers whose music sounds more contemporary.
“We try to hop on early with a lot of artists we’re passionate about, and we like to help developing artists take the next step,” says Brian Delaney, who does A&R for the label. “Abhi is leading the way with the developing artists on our end.”
And though it wouldn’t secure him a visa, signing with an American label helped push him back to the U.S., and to the girlfriend (and cat) he had to leave behind when he went to Lille. He knew that he could return to the country if he had a student visa, so he decided to go back to school. He and his girlfriend discussed where to live, ultimately settling on Austin, which neither of them had ever visited. They were intrigued by the city’s reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World, and Shakey Graves, one of their favorite musicians, was from the city. Plus, it was more affordable than California. Austin Community College had a graphic design program where Abhi could continue his education with an eye on transferring to a grad school in the future. He enrolled, and he and Sarah reunited in Texas in August 2017.
Abhi likes Austin, and he genuinely enjoys studying design, toying with it as a backup plan in case music doesn’t work out (he did all of the artwork for Marbled himself, and built his own website). But though Austin Community College is affordable for locals, Abhi’s tuition is four times what someone from the college’s district would pay. With a $10,000 price tag, a second year at Austin Community College isn’t in the cards. And even though Abhi is signed to a label, he still can’t aggressively grow his music career. His visa only allows him to work nineteen hours a week at an on-campus job, which can be his only source of income. He can play SXSW shows, and make the occasional trip to Houston to perform on weekends, but even with a hot record out—it has occupied a spot on Apple Music’s “new releases” page for weeks and received more than 3 million streams on Spotify—touring is out of the question.
So for Abhi, SXSW is the chance to stay in America, the chance to make the Department of Homeland Security recognize that he’s a hot act. In April, a month after the conference, he plans to submit his application for the O-1B visa, which is granted to people “with extraordinary abilities or achievements” as artists or performers (its counterpart, the O-1A visa, is reserved for those who excel as scientists, athletes, educators, or businesspeople). These three-year visas, which can be renewed indefinitely, are the nonpermanent equivalent of the EB-1 green card, called the “Einstein visa” because of the talent required to qualify. For Abhi to secure an O-1B, like pop star Justin Bieber before him, he needs to prove to the DHS’s United States Customs and Immigration Services that his abilities and achievements are, quite literally, “extraordinary.”
That’s a tall order for a few reasons—chief among them is that art is inherently subjective. But Rebecca Schechter, an attorney who focuses on immigration with the law firm Greenberg Traurig, says that there is a method to what sounds like madness. Immigration officials will Google the artist to get a sense of what’s actually being said about him, and to gain an understanding of their stature within a genre.
“There’s an overarching idea with these that you need to demonstrate that you’re one of the few best in your area of expertise,” Schechter says. “In my experience, the narrower the field you can define, the more likely you are to find success. If you just say, ‘I’m a great rapper,’ there are so many.” So Abhi’s job isn’t to promote just himself, but also the genre of music he works in. “You also need to prove that your sub-genre exists,” she says. “You’ll want to show articles about this cool new thing, even if he’s not mentioned in it, to show that this is something that’s popping right now, and that people are really into it.”
And if he doesn’t get the visa? Things get really tough. Abhi is sympathetic to the Dreamers, many of whom have only ever known America as their home, but he’s not one of them—he’s a nomad, someone who grew up without a place to call home at all. If he’s denied the visa, he could go to Taipei—where his parents currently live—for a while, or maybe go back to India, a country he barely knows. But America might be out of the question.
Abhi may be a newly minted Texan, but he’s taken to it quickly. He loves how friendly everyone is—a far cry from what he found in cities like Beijing, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, or New Delhi—and he’s quickly acquired a taste for barbecue. He’s enthusiastic whenever he talks about Austin—over dinner, he and his girlfriend, Sarah, confess that when friends asked about moving to the city recently, they couldn’t find anything to list as “cons.” Even the traffic compares favorably to Southern California.
“Austin just felt right, and we came. It feels like home now,” he says. “We really sank into it here. Musically, in my career, everything is happening here. I’m used to someone tweeting about me every three or four months. Here, the newspaper was excited about it.”
Sarah is not a big music fan—when I ask her what she listens to in the car, she admits that she often leaves the radio off—and while she’s proud of Abhi’s success, his identity as an artist isn’t something she spends a lot of time thinking about. “He’s not Abhi the Nomad to me,” she says.
And yet his identity as Abhi the Nomad is essential to erasing the heightened uncertainty that the young couple faces in their daily lives. They share a 2001 Hyundai Sonata, and they know it’s going to be time to replace it soon. Abhi’s dream car is a Tesla (he says he’d settle for a Prius)—but even making a decision to purchase a vehicle is difficult when you don’t know if you’ll be able to stay in the country to drive it. “Isn’t it annoying?” he laughs. “Everything is tentative. Watch, I get a car, and they’re like, ‘You’ve gotta leave the country.’ The only commitment I’ve ever really made in my life is to Sarah and that [record] contract, because I don’t know where I’m gonna be.”
So he’s hustling his way through a festival he’s never attended before, let alone performed at, and taking any chance he can get to earn some extra attention for his work. He’s opened for artists like fellow alt-rapper Futuristic in Austin and Houston, and accepted a slot at the Treefort Music Festival in Idaho in late March—all on his own dime, and all to establish further relevance before he submits his application to USCIS. Abhi says that lately his inbox has been blowing up with offers for shows that he can’t commit to given his visa situation, but it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which that changes. If he comes out of this month—and the all-important week of SXSW for young artists—with the right kind of buzz, his whole life can change.
Over dinner at Truluck’s in Austin, Abhi and Sarah seem like most any other young couple on a Friday night. And like most couples in their early twenties, there are a few things they’re not prepared to think about yet: specifically, the possibility that the only way for him to stay in the country might be for them to get married.
“That would really suck,” Sarah says. “We want it to happen naturally. I want to save up money for the wedding that I want. I don’t want to feel pressured into anything.” For a guy who’s never been able to make many commitments, Abhi takes the potential of that one seriously. “From the outside, it’s like, ‘Ah, you guys can get married and just have a wedding later,’ but I don’t want to play around with that,” he says. “I want her to have what she’s been dreaming about, without my situation interfering with that. I don’t want it to be a distraction to what’s going on right now [career-wise], because so much is. I want that to be the main thing later.”
Abhi’s in a tough spot, even if, from the outside, it looks like everything is going his way. He’s happily in love with his college sweetheart, living in a city that for the first time in his life feels like home. His record is on the verge of blowing up, his label wants to sign him to a new deal and get him into the studio with other artists, he’s getting offers to travel the country playing music for the fans who’ve made his record a commodity on streaming services. He’s got a vision of a life he could live, and a career he could have, where he’s finally able to focus on his music with the freedom other artists enjoy. “I would love to start getting to work with some of the artists who inspire and influence me,” he says. “I really don’t work with anyone—all of the behind-the-scenes stuff like production and mixing, I do all of it. Being alone in the same room, staring at the same four walls, it’s not going to drive you forever.”
But he knows that, if the United States Customs and Immigration Services doesn’t look at all of that and see someone who belongs in America, none of it is in his control.
That’s one of the big challenges to being a nomad: When your environment is constantly changing, you don’t have a chance to build the relationships that let you create a life. For Abhi the Nomad, being able to settle down in one place would be the most exciting change of all.