Listen to me, there is an echo which travels along faultlines; it comes from their music. The strange music of the people.Marcia Douglas, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim
“If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like?” With this question, Ancestry.com, the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world, announced its new partnership with music streaming platform Spotify. This service, a website explains, will provide a soundtrack based on your own family tree. These playlists promise an experience of roots, as though musical appreciation were genetically encoded. This offer — to effectively objectify a customer’s heritage for consumption — projects the predictive, user-friendly texture of online consumership both into the body and back in time.
This may look like one custom service among many available online. But its particular proposal — to listen to DNA — is built on an unruly stack of assumptions. At the most fundamental level, there is the question of what kind of information DNA actually contains — as though one could be 39% English, 21% Native American, 9% Russian, and these separate percentiles of ethnic belonging would make up a full human being. While Ancestry.com has clarified that all information about one’s ancestry must be manually entered into Spotify, and that none of a user’s DNA data is shared across platforms, everything in their marketing is intended to suggest a direct link between genetic code and canny algorithm.
What gives music special purchase on the genetic imagination? There may be no human behavior as general as the appreciation, and creation, of music. This practice, of the organization and sharing of sound, is intrinsically social, fusing cultural groups and groups within groups, in virtually every society on earth. While not every culture marks something called “music” apart from daily life as a separate sphere of activity, let alone as a discrete commodity, it appears to be something that “we” as people do.
This generality is less comforting against the backdrop of big data, and the fabric of monopolistic services that we use online everyday. In this landscape, all expressive activity is mined for private gain — or more nefarious purposes. It turns out that Ancestry.com’s pairing with Spotify is the less alarming of their partnerships announced this summer. In July 2018, Vice reported that the information gathered by the website was being used by the Canadian Border Services Agency to facilitate deportations. Spotify, too, collects immense amounts of demographic data from its 15 million subscribers, and the pairing of these data-extractive behemoths suggests a dystopic near-future of integrated consumer surveillance.
The Spotify and Ancestry partnership proposes to entertain users based on the narrowest possible conception of who they are. But the music we listen to and the art we consume already say much more about our cultural bearings than a genetic profile. This suggests corporate attempts at the inverse — to assign us places in the world based on our seemingly subjective choices and preferences. Of course, this process is already underway. But even a gimmicky partnership such as this shows how far this kind of program could extend. It’s surprising that this service is described as “DNA curation,” as though genetic code itself were responsible for the output. Big data, which construes people as only so many clusters of information, finds a natural basis in the ideology of genetic predetermination.
Between 1990 and 2003, the Human Genome Project was regarded as a technological summit for genetic determinists, promising a master key for all manner of human behavior. In their book Genes, Cells, and Brains, Hilary Rose and Steven Rose offer a social history of the creation of this institution, at an unprecedented moment in the history of globalization. At the outset of this project, geneticist Walter Gilbert pulled the sort of cheap publicity stunt to which an Information Age audience is well accustomed — before a captive audience, he produced a single naked compact disc, announcing: “soon I will be able to say ‘here is a human being; it’s me.’ ”
This gimmick became commonplace as biologists canvassed auditoriums around the world for popular and monetary support. The CD was at this point a token of consumer utopia, and the implicit promise of this symbol was inescapably shaped by its friendliest guise, as a medium of entertainment. I still recall the spindles of copied CDs that I collected during the early days of music downloading, a relatively unregulated prelude to today’s streaming services, and the cultural promise of each separate disc. These were receptacles of sentiment. Gilbert wasn’t yet promising his financiers a customizable soundtrack, but something apparently related: a completed account of the listener themselves.
Rose and Rose, however, have serious doubts about the technologically impressive claims of contemporary biotechnology. “Genetics,” they write, “with benign intent if not benign consequences, has sought to re-racialise human difference.” To this end, they describe how the life sciences have been transformed into vast, integrated monopolies over information, “blurring the boundaries between science and technology, universities, entrepreneurial biotech companies and the major pharmaceutical companies.” In this description, the dream of a massively centralized genetic databank was eugenicist from the start: early proponents described the elimination of hereditary diseases, and with them a significant cost to society. These enthusiasts did not seem to consider the bearers of those risks as members of society themselves.
While Rose and Rose hold out for more nuanced attempts to chart geographical ancestry, these goals remain largely unfulfilled by private services such as Ancestry.com. Genealogy services advertise the ability to discover your essence across time, anachronistically assigning national coordinates to considerably more distant and disinterested information. Enzymes have no country, and they certainly do not have national customs. Whatever it might mean to test 17% Norwegian, for example, would depend entirely on a social and historical narrative imposed on the information after the fact; such a test result would not ensure a fondness for either old Norse sagas or second wave black metal.
Alongside the Human Genome Project began the similarly named Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), with the stated goal of understanding evolution and migration. Proposed by geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, the HGDP rejected the language of race in favor of an analysis of “population,” giving resources like Ancestry.com a more humanistic language and mandate. The HGDP, however, would soon encounter serious methodological controversies. While recording the genetic profiles of Indigenous populations, its researchers repeatedly failed to obtain consent, innovating new methods of colonial plunder.
Kimberly TallBear’s 2013 book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, considers “the implications for tribes of mapping of the human genome.” Skeptical of any approach that draws emphasis away from lived relationships, TallBear surveys the controversies that arise from the intrusion of genetic science into tribal enrollment. In North America, this appears as a neocolonial vogue for sourcing “Native American DNA” in order to establish descendancy and title. Often, TallBear finds, genetic criteria would prohibit Indigenous nations from determining their own membership and governance, substituting an external scientific standard for cultural participation. As in many other cases where a genetic record takes precedence over the practice of a community, it credits a fantasy of authenticity with some material basis. How many settlers have claimed that they have “native blood,” a morbid substitute for full-bodied social being?
This is one of the fantasies that sites like Ancestry.com exploit. It can satisfy the desperation of an individual to be redefined as already including the otherness that their identity omits. One might say that shallow roots spread widely, grasping at the softest expanse of available ground. This is not to deny the interest or utility of parsing one’s family tree, nor the value of any historical sense it provides. But these databases enable a kind of genetic tourism, with sordid implications. To a great extent, race remains the fantasy object of pop genealogy. However suspicious, race is the concept that is popularly thought to account for variability and identity, character and culture. Race is retained within the ideology of genetics as the persistent obstacle it seeks, and fails, to overcome.
This contradiction describes liberal inclusiveness, preserving the categories of identity it would deny by advocating for their inevitable “mixing.” The idea is incoherent, as TallBear notes, given that “mixing is predicated on the notion of purity.” Karen and Barbara Fields, in their book Racecraft, describe this particular fallacy as “the move, by definition, from the concept ‘mixture’ to the false inference that unmixed components exist, which cannot be disproved by observation and experience because it does not arise from them.” This fallacy is vividly illustrated in the pie charts offered by Ancestry.com and their competitors, which break a test subject’s identity down into contrasting quotients of ethnic belonging. As Fields and Fields describe, race is retained in today’s biology after the fashion of the HGDP’s Cavalli-Sforza, as a “statistically defined population.” The determinations of these populations are not visible, but that hasn’t stopped countless researchers from superimposing racist premises on “post-racial” information sets.
Many proponents of human population genetics reject any accusation of racism, explaining that the scientific methodology offers a convincing argument for anti-racism by simply demonstrating that all humans are of common ancestry. TallBear quotes geneticist and entrepreneur Spencer Wells, whose belief is that racism will eventually abate because it is scientifically insupportable. After all, Wells rhapsodizes, “we are all descendants of people who lived in Africa recently. We are all Africans under the skin.” This sentiment relies upon the history of anti-black racism for its rhetorical impact. An African essence is located “under the skin,” prior to the social process that Frantz Fanon called the “epidermalization of inferiority.”
For TallBear, this humanist commonplace is on one hand nonsensical, “given that ‘Africa’ did not exist two hundred thousand years ago.” On the other hand, she continues, following the work of philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe, this anachronistic language speaks of a deep-rooted colonial narrative where “Africa” denotes fantasies of both “difference and primordialism.” In this regard, the statement that “we are all Africans” can serve an infantilizing narrative of both human enlightenment and evolution at once.
In some respects it is unsurprising that a genealogy tracker should team up with a music service, because the ideology of genetics is in many ways a displacement, or indefinite backdating, of culture. The piecemeal essentialism of this creative partnership raises a question: To whom does a music belong, and what kind of belonging does it enact? The universal power of music, its commonality across communities, does not ensure global reception, which is secured unevenly at market.
In the so-called West, it’s possible to state a preference for the redundant catchall of “world music,” an umbrella term used to market the traditional sounds of a geopolitical periphery. This classification originates sometime in the 1980s, a critical decade for the consolidation and expansion of vast interstate systems of political and economic dependency. “World music,” then, encapsulates as many musics as enter into the mediation of the market. It is less a genre than a condition of consumption, and music ceases to belong to the world in general when effectively incorporated into the mass culture of an affluent core. In a circular pattern of influence, musical fusion often projects new versions of the “unmixed elements” it would combine in the first place. For this reason alone it is enormously difficult, and perhaps inadvisable, to talk about the traditional music of any people out of context.
In a now-classic article, “Notes on World Beat,” ethnomusicologist Steven Feld observes a seemingly circular situation: “American music is Africanizing while African music is Afro-Americanizing.” Feld’s key example is Paul Simon’s Graceland, a bestselling album featuring many African musicians. However, Feld insists,
we must scrutinize the nature of Simon’s role from the point of view of the overall ownership of the product (Paul Simon-Graceland, produced by Paul Simon, all songs copyright Paul Simon) and how this ownership maintains a particular distance between his elite art status and the status of the musicians with whom he worked.
On which of Spotify’s themed playlists would a record such as this appear? As Feld points out, the appearance of a culturally omnivorous mainstream is ironic in an age of monopoly. He identifies a “riveting effect” on musical ownership, caused by “worldwide media contact, amalgamation of the music industry toward world record sales domination by three enormous companies, and extensive copyright controls by a few Western countries.”
This was true in 1988, and thirty years later, even after the supposed collapse of the recording industry, those three companies — Universal, Sony, and Warner — remain among the few financial beneficiaries of centralized music streaming, which has a notably impoverishing effect on artists of any nationality.
If the branding of world music in the 1980s had a contradictory relation to the networks of its distribution, this tension is heightened today. A global panoply of musics are appropriated to streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music, digital megastructures whose mission statements are not all that different from that of Ancestry.com: “you pay us to tell to who you already are.” In a sense, the riveting effect that Feld describes applies more to consumers than artists. “World music,” as the supposedly authentic expression of generic otherness, facilitating a pilgrimage of connoisseurship, may shed light on the peculiar desire that Spotify directs in its partnership with Ancestry.com.
In an interview, Ancestry.com vice president Vineet Mehra gives a straightforward statement of intent: “How do we help people experience their culture and not just read about it? Music seemed like an obvious way to do that.” For Mehra, culture must be administered in order to be experienced. But who is the person he’s talking about? Mehra’s ideal consumer has a culture, which they are apparently yet to experience. Spotify’s collections of music from different national territories will allow them to participate in this heritage, in the passive reception of a product. This proprietary conception of culture, as mere information, is perfectly suited to the ideology of genetics, which offers a vision of human beings as racial metadata from time immemorial.
Walter Gilbert may have tempted skeptics with the promise of a completed human on a compact disc, but fortunately no such object, or playlist for that matter, can encapsulate the complexity and variability of a person. Within its proper jurisdiction, one might say that human population genetics tells many fascinating stories. But genetic data is not itself narrative, and stories are not that kind of object. They travel through and across kinship relations, in spheres of community.
In Racecraft, Karen Fields describes an ethnographic journey undertaken with her grandmother, whose oral history unfurls a detailed litany of people and places. “Personal Genetic Histories deploy scientific techniques that purport to enable clients to ‘recover’ lost aspects of their individual ‘history,’ ” she writes. Instead, Fields suggests speaking of “what one cannot remember mistakenly,” in order to “deploy the actual memory of individuals to reconstruct a collective history.” Her collaborative genealogy, performed with a living ancestor, is empowering rather than automatizing, an intergenerational undertaking with its own personal soundtrack.
At its best, music is often accompanied by a feeling of deep physical agreement, which makes it a uniquely convincing vehicle for any story of origins. All music is the music of others. But this doesn’t mean that the arena of musical reception is anything like a straightforward utopia. Artist and writer Jace Clayton, also known as DJ /rupture, prefaces his book Uproot with a remark on the twenty-first century as a time of “great forgetting”:
As so many of our ways of communicating with each other and experiencing the world translate to the digital and dematerialize, much is lost, and many new possibilities emerge. When people look back a hundred years from now, this time will be seen as a crucial turning point, when we went from analog to digital. Much of what is special about this transition gets articulated by music, those waves of magic that happen when the human spirit joins with technology to create vibrations that enchant us regardless of language or age, afloat between novelty and tradition and always asking to be shared.
At this crucial turning point, digital monopolies consolidate their hold on the expressions of every human culture, attempting to classify them for consumption, in order to restrict rather than expand the social possibilities afforded to each listener. At this moment, and in the space between novelty and tradition, experimentation and identity that Clayton describes, it is worth fighting for technologies that don’t seek to exploit the very humanity they claim to represent. This conviction obliges us to resist new proprietary claims on our data by private corporations, and to think of better ways to archive our stories than those that genetics offers us today.