The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just the one of them – had Azeem Ward.
If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his senior flute recital, the University of California student was inundated with 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England to play Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.
“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”
Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”
Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”
Four months after his famed flute recital, Azeem did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, although he admits he “could have been smarter about tax laws”, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money.”
Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business whilst in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”
So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?
“I’d say don’t lose sight of what you’ve already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I’d say that sometimes in your head you’re like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you’ve just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”
Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that time impacted him greatly. He reveals this in subtle ways, like mentioning that “256 people” clicked attending in four hours, and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he betrays little emotion, acknowledging it was “out of control” and “really crazy” but seeming very sincere and grounded now.
Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses “fan art” that was drawn of him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”
Nothing in the last 100 years has brought people together more than Azeem’s Senior Flute Recital
— ed (@edcoy96) May 15, 2015
Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to Brexit. Ward is debating whether to do his doctorate in New York, Los Angeles, or London, and he seems concerned about the UK economy and how it might affect the music industry. “Eventually I do want to go back,” he says, “I’ll do some more research on it.”
Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So you want to famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be respected and appreciated.”
To listen to Azeem’s music