Immigration Songs: How Music Crosses American Borders

by Rob Mitchum

This is part of our Clarify Data Stories series. Check out the big issues, minus the noise at www.spotify.com/clarify to watch artists take on the issues that matter to them, like La Santa Cecilia below.

Immigration has been one of the main battlegrounds this election cycle, with talk of amnesty, deportation, vetting, and “big, beautiful” walls dominating primary and general election debate. In response to calls for closed borders, many people have rebutted that the US is a nation of immigrants, from the first waves of European explorers and pilgrims through more recent influxes from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The diversity of today’s country, in both its people and its culture isn’t hard to observe — just turn on the radio.

Look at the pop charts at any given moment, and you’ll clearly detect global influences. 2016 biggest hits have integrated dancehall (Rihanna’s “Work,” Drake’s “One Dance”), tropical house (Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill in Ibiza” remix), and representatives from a blooming Swedish electronic scene (Galantis’ “No Money,” Zara Larsson’s “Lush Life”). Where we used to talk about “invasions” from Britain or Latin America, the music Americans listen to today is a constantly-evolving fusion of international culture.

Songs Immigrate.

Building on this observation, we looked at how songs “immigrate” to the United States, focusing on hits from this summer that were made by foreign artists. Our list included songs from all over the map: Latin America (Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela), Europe (France, Spain, England, Sweden, and Denmark), Africa (Morocco, South Africa, Nigeria), and Asia (Japan, Pakistan, India). Some of these, such as “Lush Life” or Enrique Iglesias’ “Duele El Corazon,” were massive hits across the United States. Others were more regionally popular, or spent many weeks on Billboard’s Latin or World charts. You can listen to these songs in the playlist below.

We gathered Spotify listening data on these songs for May through September, broken down by the number of streams from each U.S. city for each track. After controlling for the size of the city, we could look at the cities where each song was most popular — where foreign songs have laid down the deepest roots, and potentially also the place where the songs first arrived. The resulting map shows the “flight paths” of songs from countries around the world as they journeyed to the United States.

Interactive! Maps! Data! Get it here.

The paths international songs take from their country of origin to cities in the United States. Data: Spotify. Graphic: Diego Garcia-Olano.

Florida. The third epicenter of migrating music.

As you might expect many songs enter through the coasts, given the concentrated entertainment industry and extremely diverse populations of California and New York City. Even after correcting for city size, NYC is a top 5 destination for more than half of our 32 songs, with no obvious geographic bias: European, African, Asian, Australian, they all come in the musical Ellis Island.

Boston and Washington DC are also big East Coast entrypoints, appearing in 12 and 11 top fives respectively. On the West Coast, it’s slightly surprising that San Francisco is better represented than Los Angeles, by a top 5 tally of 10 to 1, though some analyses have found that SF is a more ethno-racially diverse city than its southern rival.

But these well-known tastemaking regions are joined by a perhaps-surprising third epicenter of song immigration: the Sunshine State of Florida. Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Miami, Orlando, Pompano Beach, and Tampa all appear as a top 5 entrypoint for at least one song, and for Chino & Nacho’s Andas En Mi Cabeza from Venezeula, it’s a clean sweep for Florida cities.

As you might expect from its demographics, Florida is a major port of call for Latino music, with songs from Colombia (J Balvin’s “Bobo” and Maluma’s “El Perdedor”) and Spain (“Duele El Corazon”) hitting it bigger there than in the rest of the country. Conversely, songs from Mexico are less likely to come in through Florida than through Texas — both Juan Gabriel’s “Querida” and Mario Bautista’s “Ven a Bailar” received the most play from the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area.

More interactive maps. Click here!

The top five cities for each international song, based on streams from May through September 2016 (normalized by total streams per city). Data: Spotify. Graphic: Diego Garcia-Olano.

I’m big in Saint Paul.

Some of the patterns reflect lesser-known characteristics of immigration to the US. Most songs don’t show neat geographic clusters, so why are Nigerian Yemi Alade, South African group Locnville, and Morocco’s Saad Lamjarred most popular in the Northeastern quarter of the country? Turns out Nigeria is the largest source of African immigration to the US, and are most likely to settle in the South and Northeast. The Indian and Pakistani songs chosen for our analysis registered high listens in Silicon Valley, where San Francisco and San Jose are the #3 and #4 cities for Indian immigration.

Other songs show much less predictable immigration patterns, and raise more questions than answers. One could understand the bizarre pop-metal hybrid of Babymetal’s “Karate” playing big in Las Vegas, but Indianapolis and Pittsburgh? Does Calum Scott know he’s popular in “flyover country,” with Saint Paul, Omaha, and Salt Lake City all showing up in the top 5 for “Dancing On My Own?”

On top of some general trends — Latin music entering from the South, European music via the coasts, African music clustering in the Northeast — foreign music can turn up virtually anywhere in the United States. In one sense, that’s a reflection of subtle pop music globalization, as many Americans might not even be aware that Lukas Graham is not a bro from LA, but a band from Denmark, or that Swedish pop producers have quietly dominated US charts for the last few years. Digital access to music produced around the world has also made songs spread faster and farther — no more waiting for expensive imports to hit the record store when you can stream many international releases as soon as they’re out.

In parallel, the data reveals that the spread of foreign music into and around the United States is just as thorough and complex as immigration and settlement of people from all over the globe. The changing demographics of the country are reflected in the pockets where music from other countries take hold — and it’s no coincidence that some of those same states are key battlegrounds this election season. Whether following the path of people or entering the country through the increasingly porous borders of global pop, to detect the new ingredients introduced into America’s multicultural stew, all you have to do is listen.

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The Clarify data team is Manish Nag, Ian Anderson, and Nathan Stein.