Instead of living in a mud brick house in Zambia and working at a school with not enough books (or really not enough of anything besides dedicated students), I could have been living in an apartment in New York and working for a snazzy record label or publicity firm. That was the plan. That’s where I thought I’d be a year post graduation. But I made a different choice. Not because I didn’t love the music industry- I did, and I do. Maybe I’ll even go back to it at some point. I knew that despite my love of music, I needed to have some sort of immersive service experience, so I went for the extreme and landed in rural Zambia. I also knew that music could still be a big part of my life even if it wasn’t my job.
When I was working in music, I learned so much about what goes into us getting to discover our favorite artists, like why certain artists appear on the iTunes homepage, what it means for a song to be featured on an episode of GIRLS, or the importance of NPR Tiny Desk concerts early on in an artist’s career. But now, living in Zambia, away from Spotify and festival season and reading my Twitter feed full of music blog updates every morning, I’m experiencing the influence of music in a new way. I’m noticing new things, appreciating new things, and feeling new things.
We take a lot for granted in the U.S., including easy access to music. I hadn’t realized what a fundamental constant it was for me to know about and be able to listen to any new music as soon as it dropped. Or how privileged I was to be able to see most of my favorite artists on tour, even to meet some of them, and to write about them. Without all of that for the time being, I’ve been latching on to any semblance of that comfort, invigoration, and in fact, necessity I can find in Zambia, while watching others around me do it too.
Music has been incredibly grounding for me in the past year away. It’s like a familiar friend in the midst of an environment where although I’ve adapted a great deal, I am always being tested and where nothing will ever feel completely normal. One of my friends told me that music can make us feel at home no matter where we are in the world. That sentiment has resonated every time Hozier sings me to sleep at 7pm because there’s no electricity and I think back to the cathartic experience of seeing him live at the 9:30 Club. And when Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” serendipitously tends to come on my iPod just as I’m reaching the final stretch to the village after the 20km bike ride to get groceries. Or when any Chvrches song plays and I remember the time I served them bagels.
In addition to recognizing my reliance on music in Zambia, I’ve been touched watching Zambians display an equally, and maybe more deeply rooted, connection to music. For the most part, they only need the radio and themselves. My host mom seems the most at ease and relatable to me when she comes home singing the songs from her church choir. The students in Grade 1 all the way up to Grade 9 become frankly euphoric every time I or one of my friends teach them a new song. When they see me with my iPod, the joy radiates just from the chance to put in the ear bud for a few seconds, regardless of if they can understand a single word. Dancing doesn’t require the radio (although that helps) or anything other than people’s voices singing the song and their hands clapping the beat. When the radio occasionally is on, playing the same Justin Bieber song, they’ll say me, “Madam, shaneniko!” (Madam, dance!). Adele’s “Hello” has already been translated into several Zambian local languages. But the moment I’ll never forget is when six year-old Aggie Chulu asked me, with the most certain look on her face, if my name was Emily Beyoncé.