How Spotify Helped Nearly 300 Afghan Music Students and Teachers Reach Portugal

On Dec. 1, Elizabeth Nieto‘s boss at Spotify — chief human resources officer Katarina Berg — learned that nearly 300 Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) students and teachers and their families were in limbo in Doha, Qatar. Promised asylum in Lisbon, Portugal, they were attempting to charter a plane to the European city and needed money. “See what we can do,” Berg told Nieto, the streaming giant’s global head of equity and impact.

Nieto had to wrangle with Spotify’s in-house lawyers to cut a sizable check for the plane by Dec. 6; on Monday (Dec. 13), the SAS flight carrying 273 Afghans landed in Lisbon, where the musicians and faculty members will be able to recreate their school. “The renaissance of Afghanistan music will start in Lisbon,” Nieto says. “We have an opportunity to ensure that music and voices are heard.”

In August, the U.S. pulled troops out of Afghanistan after 20 years of war, leading to an immediate takeover of the country by the Taliban. One of the government’s first acts was to drag folk musician Fawad Andarabi out of his home north of Kabul and murder him, according to reports — an act that terrified regional musicians and prompted them to flee their home country.

Many musicians went into hiding, including the ANIM’s community of hundreds of local musicians, faculty and students. “They’re worried about the future of music and the future of their life,” Ahmad Sarmast, the institute’s founder, said in September.

Zohra Women's Orchestra
Sarmast with Shagufa Safi and Marzia Anwari, two conductors of The Zohra Women’s Orchestra. Jessica Lustig

Over five airlifts in October and November, and after numerous delays, ANIM’s community escaped from Kabul to Doha, where they awaited news of the Portugal charter. Qatar provided planes and diplomatic assistance for the first flights; Spotify, philanthropist Victoria Robey, the Afghan Rescue Project and others funded the flight from Doha to Lisbon.

Spotify’s involvement came about because Berg had a connection with Sarmast, who was interviewed on Spotify’s HR podcast, Spot On!, in January. “People dropped everything they were doing to ensure this would happen,” Nieto says. “My son is a teenager who loves music. I cannot imagine these kids who love music as much as he does not being able to perform.”

Sarmast founded the ANIM in 2010 to teach music to children, particularly girls and women, in the process making a public statement against regional oppression. Although Sarmast said in September that Taliban officials assured him they had not damaged the institute’s hundreds of instruments, Spotify officials intend to help the relocated students and faculty recover and replace them. “A lot of instruments were lost,” Nieto says. “The first thing was to ensure the plane will come to Lisbon. In 2022, we’re going to do something about the instruments.”

The Taliban banned music when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, and several Afghan musicians have told Billboard they’ve been in hiding since mid-August. Some, such as Metal Sam, who plays guitar for metal band Rig Veca, were able to flee — also to Qatar, in his case. Others, including those who play in wedding bands, remain in hiding.

The ANIM’s Sarmast wasn’t available for an interview after the Lisbon flight, but when the students made it to Qatar last month, he told The New York Times: “It’s such a huge relief. They can dream again. They can hope.” Adds Nieto: “They’re going to rebuild the school. They’re going to be setting up dorms. We want the safety of the students, the families and the faculty to have a place where they can restart their lives.”

Start typing and press Enter to search