Maryam Qudus is a Bay Area-based producer and engineer who performs as Spacemoth. Her debut record, No Past, No Future, is out now.
“I want you to be famous like Beach House!” said my 62-year-old Afghan mother. Her markers for famous musicians are Celine Dion and Beyonce… but she also happens to know and love Beach House.
Navigating the world of indie rock was nothing short of a challenge growing up in an Afghan-American, Muslim household. My parents both emigrated from Afghanistan in the late ‘70s, and their raw determination to start over and build a life in America in turn inspired my own efforts as a musician — even if they haven’t always understood exactly what this means.
My parents were born in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in a small village three hours south of Kabul. They married young, had a baby and worked as teachers. Two of my father’s students, a couple from Berkeley, CA whom he had grown close with, were making plans to return home and offered to sponsor him. My father always dreamed of going to school in the US, and he saw this as his opportunity to build a better life for his family. My mother supported the idea, and with my sister at just three weeks old, he kissed them goodbye and landed in California.
Shortly after he enrolled in classes, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In a panic, he immediately changed course and spent night and day working to get my mother and sister out. After a year, with only letters and pictures to connect them, he saved enough to get his family to the United States. One day in 1980, my father found a note from his roommate that said, “Your wife and daughter will be landing in SFO today.” And just like that, the three of them were reunited and their new life in America began.
I was a quiet, reserved child, but music would awaken something in me that I could not explain. Suddenly, all of my inhibitions would disappear. I found this to be especially true as I sang on the countertops of my parents fast-food restaurant to every soft-rock song that rotated on the radio. I spent every day after school at Olympic Burgers while my mother and father prepared food with the help of family and friends. My brother and sister worked the cash register and the drive-thru. Too young to help on the floor, I sat in a tiny back office drawing and daydreaming. Eventually, I would get bored and would start singing at the top of my lungs, which surprised everyone considering I would hide behind my parents’ legs the moment anyone dared to say hello.
My parents had no money and very little resources when they moved to the US. They started from the bottom, each working two jobs at a time to make ends meet. My mother juggled housekeeping and television repair while my father worked at fast-food chains and factories. Years of working minimum-wage jobs inspired them to open a business of their own: first a liquor store, then a grocery, a restaurant, and then a car rental. I grew up watching them pour their every being into their work, sweating above a hot grill and smelling of grease; at the cash register of a grocery store, getting robbed and held at gun-point multiple times, picking up abandoned cars in the middle of the night, exhausted and overwhelmed. But they managed to find their small corner of success, enough to make ends meet, buy a house, feed three kids, and unintentionally support the career of their youngest daughter who was bursting to become a professional musician.
It’s the year 2002. I am 11 years old. I am singing “Enjoy The Silence” by Depeche Mode into the mirror with my microphone-slash-hairbrush. I close my eyes and pretend I’m on stage and the crowd is singing along. I wish I could write my own songs someday. I open up my notebooks filled with poetry and start humming melodies. I soon realize that I need to play an instrument to accompany these melodies, and decide to have “the talk” with my parents: I wanted to learn how to play guitar.
I didn’t know any girls my age with my upbringing who played guitar when I was growing up. When I approached my parents about wanting a guitar for my birthday, they were pretty apprehensive about it. A vortex of sex, drugs and rock & roll flashed before their eyes. What if their daughter falls down that path? But even worse — what will “everyone else” think?
Public performance of music was heavily regulated in Afghanistan well before the Taliban regime took over. Regardless of cultural norms, music was kept alive behind closed doors, but women and girls were usually not allowed to be included in those festivities. However, my parents often told stories of seeing famous Afghan musicians such as Ahmad Zahir and Mahwash perform at underground nightclubs in Afghanistan, where both men and women would intermingle in one room and there was often alcohol passed around, even though consumption of alcohol in Afghanistan had been illegal for a long time. Though studying and making music has been both difficult and dangerous for everyone in Afghanistan, women face greater scrutiny, since they are forced to confront the cultural and religious pressures to conform to Afghanistan’s patriarchal society.
When I approached my parents about learning to play guitar, their newly-found Bay Area lifestyle collided with the cultural norms they grew up with in Afghanistan, and they were unsure how to respond. After speaking to a few of their relatives with kids who had started playing music (all of them male), they opened up to the idea of me learning to play guitar. On my 12th birthday, I received a red Squier Stratocaster electric guitar that came with a Fender amp and a copy of Alfred’s Guitar Method. That evening, my cousin Wali taught me how to play my first song on my new guitar: “Brain Stew” by Green Day. I played it until my fingers went numb.
I always felt torn between the beautiful Afghan culture my family raised me with and the early 2000s California lifestyle I was growing up with in parallel. Ripped black jeans, studded belts, worn out Converse, and band t-shirts was not the uniform of the other young Afghan girls I had grown up around. Many of them expressed how lucky I was that my parents didn’t yell at me for dressing like that (even though they did). I stuck out like a sore thumb at family gatherings, the other Afghan kids at school thought I was weird, and their parents would whisper to each other when I’d pass by. My cousins called me “goth” when really I was more of a punk. I had a core group of friends at school who were my absolute heroes and made my teenage years manageable, but outside of them, kids were pretty ruthless. Even though I dressed like a white kid in the suburbs, kids either assumed my family was from India, or called me a terrorist. No matter where I went, I didn’t belong — not Afghan enough for my family, not Western enough for my peers. I didn’t know any women or girls like me, and slowly learned I had to be the first.
Despite their hesitancy, my parents supported my musical endeavors throughout my teenage years. They helped me pay for my first guitar, piano, and voice lessons, and bought me a cassette recorder from the grocery store that I used to record very distorted songs and covers. I used my birthday as an opportunity to collect new instruments and guitar pedals. They did the best they could to support me on their working-class income, and I helped fill in the gaps with after-school jobs.
One thing they made very clear early on was that pursuing a career in music was not an option. My siblings followed traditional career paths my parents had set forth for us: My sister became a pharmacist and my brother got his MBA at USC. Though this was a huge accomplishment for my family, I felt even greater pressure to follow their footsteps. Lost and out of options, I enrolled in pre-med classes at community college. However, within 15 minutes of one class, I found my eyes glazing over and I knew there was no way I could do it. I could not spend my life pretending to be someone else. I knew that music was the only path for me and I had no choice but to follow it.
I was ready for my parents to disown me when I broke the news, but they were mostly filled with fear. “How will you pay for school? How will you make money?” Which felt ironic, considering they came to the US with little to no resources and did pretty well. I answered “I don’t know” to every question they asked, but I assured them that I would figure it out.
Despite our differences about my music career, my dad would always tell me, “you can do anything you want to do, you just have to believe in yourself.” And though it was cliche, this meant a lot coming from him, and I believed him, because he and my mother did the impossible: fled Afghanistan during a war with a child in their arms, left their families and their lives behind, moved to America and worked their way up with very little help and built a life here. It reminded me that similarly, in a world where the margins of a successful music career become thinner and thinner, that if they could do that, I could certainly find my place in music if I put every ounce of myself into it.
Through my 20s, I got into music school, dropped out of music school, started a solo project, made a record, went on tour, started teaching music lessons, and found a career as a freelance record producer and engineer. By the age of 25, I was supporting myself working in music full-time. My experiments in the studio led to my solo project Spacemoth, and after releasing a few songs I signed a record deal with a very supportive indie label — a lifelong goal of mine. I am often on the edge financially; I will probably never own a house, I can’t go on lavish vacations, and am unsure if I can even afford to have children. But I am thankful for what I’ve been able to accomplish, and consider my career in music a “success,” especially in indie rock terms.
Though I am (mostly) at peace with all of this, metrics for success in music are very difficult to express with parents who are not connected to my world whatsoever. They don’t know what Stereogum or Brooklyn Vegan is, or what it means to a new artist when a well-known publication covers your music. Showing them my interview in Tape Op — a highly respected and long-running magazine about audio engineering — left them unimpressed. I tried explaining it to them as the Rolling Stone of audio magazines to convey the significance, but they asked me, “What’s Rolling Stone?” Upon telling them that I played my first show in LA and San Francisco to a sold-out crowd supporting Los Bitchos, they responded with “That’s great; how many thousand people were there?” While I haven’t reached Beach House-level success yet, my parents always show up sitting front and center at my shows, cheering me on. I know they are proud of what I’ve accomplished, and they are starting to recognize “success” on a more modest scale than Renaissance, or even Teen Dream.
I think about where I am now in my life and am often astounded by how I got here. One generation ago, my parents were fleeing Afghanistan and now I am here in Oakland, California in a chilly, dimly lit recording studio illuminated by VU meters, routing a Neve console in a maze of patch cables and running a tape machine while recording a rock band, or on stage at a Spacemoth show playing a blaring guitar solo in a crowded venue with psychedelic projections warping behind me — just how I had dreamt when I was a kid. Instead of sweating over a hot grill or picking up an abandoned car in the middle of the night, I am behind a guitar amp, replacing a blown fuse and lugging it into my car at 2 am after the show. For this, all I can do is feel gratitude for my parents and for everything they sacrificed. Though this was not the path they had imagined for me, they inspired me to strive for the impossible and I could not have done it without the raw, fearless determination they instilled in me at a young age.