In “Asesina,” Darell opens the track shouting “Everybody go to the discotek,” a call for listeners to respond to the catchy beat and come dance. In this series on rap in Spanish and Sound Studies, we’re calling you out to the dance floor…and we have plenty to say about it. Your playlist will not sound the same after we’re through.
Throughout January, we will explore what Spanish rap has to say on the dance floor, in our cars, and through our headsets. We’ll read about Latinx beats in Australian clubs, and about femme sexuality in Cardi B’s music. And because no forum on Spanish rap is complete without a mixtape, we’ll close out our forum with a free playlist for our readers. Today we start No Pare, Sigue Sigue: Spanish Rap & sound Studies with Michael Levine’s essay on Trap cubano and el paquete semanal.
-Liana M. Silva, forum editor
Trap Latino has grown popular in Cuba over the past few years. Listen to the speakers blaring from a young passerby’s cellphone on Calle G, or scan through the latest digital edition of el paquete semanal (the weekly package), and you are bound to hear the genre’s trademark 808 bass boom in full effect. The style however, is almost entirely absent from state radio, television, and concert venues. To the Cuban state (and many Cubans), the supposed musical and lyrical values expressed in the music are unacceptable for public consumption. Like reggaetón a decade before, the reputation of Trap Latino (and especially the homegrown version, Trap Cubano) intersects with contemporary debates regarding the future of Cuba’s national project. For many of its fans however, the style’s ability to challenge the narratives of the Cuban state is precisely what makes Trap Latino so appealing.
In an article published last year by Granma (Cuba’s official, state-run media source), Havana-based journalist Guillermo Carmona positions Trap Latino artists like Bad Bunny and Bryant Myers as a negative influence on Cuba’s youth, claiming the music sneaks its way into the ears of unsuspecting Cuban youth via the illicit channels of Cuba’s underground internet. With lyrics that celebrate the drug trade and treat women as “slot machines,” coupled with a preponderance of sound effects instead of “music notes,” Carmona considers Trap Latino aggressive, dangerous, and perhaps most perniciously of all, irredeemably foreign.
Towards the end of the article, Carmona focuses on his biggest concern: the performance of Trap Latino in public spaces. Carmona writes of those who play Trap from sound systems that “…they use portable speakers and walk through the streets (dangerously), like a baby driving a car. The combat between the bands that narrate some of these songs gestures towards another battlefield: the public sound space.” For Carmona, this public battlefield is sonically marked by Trap Latino’s encroachment on Cuba’s hallowed musical turf. His complaints highlight the fact that this Afro-Latinx style largely exists in Cuba on one side of what Jennifer Lynn Stoever refers to as the sonic color line, an “interpretive and socially constructed practice conditioned by historically contingent and culturally specific value systems riven with power relations” (14).
In Cuba, historically constructed power relations are responsible for much of the public reception of Afro-Cuban popular music, including rumba, timba, and reggaetón. But Trap Latino’s growing presence on the digital devices of Cuban youth is reshaping the boundaries of Cuba’s sonic color line. While these traperos are generally unable to perform in public (due to strict laws governing uses of Cuba’s public spaces) their music is nonetheless found across Havana’s urban soundscape, thanks to the illicit, but widespread, distribution of the “Cuban Internet.”Historically marginalized Afro-Cuban artists, like Alex Duvall, are today using creative digital strategies to make their music heard in ways that were impossible just a decade ago.
The Cuban Internet
To get around the lack of an internet infrastructure either too costly, or too difficult to access, Cubans have developed a network for trading digital media referred to as “el paquete semanal,” contained on terabyte-sized USB memory sticks sold weekly to Cuban residents. These memory sticks contain plenty of content: movies, music, software applications, a “Craiglist”-styled bulletin board of local products for sale, and even an offline social network, among others. The device is traded surreptitiously, presumably without the knowledge of the state.
(There is some question surrounding the degree at which the state is unaware of the paquete trade. Robin Moore, in Music and Revolution, refers to the Cuban government’s propensity to selectively enforce certain illegalities as “lowered frequency”. Ex-president Raul Castro has publicly referred to the device as a ‘necessary evil,” suggesting knowledge, and tacit acceptance, of the device’s circulation.)
By providing a means for artists to circulate products outside of state-sanctioned channels of distribution, el paquete semanal greatly broadens the range of content available to the Cuban public. The importance of the paquete to Cuba’s youth cannot be overstated. According to Havana-based journalist José Raúl Concepción, over 40% of Cuban households consume the paquete on a weekly basis, and over 80% of citizens under the age of 21 consume the paquete daily. A high percentage of the music contained on these devices is not played on the radio or seen in live concerts. For many Cubans, it is only found in the folders contained on these devices. The paquete trade therefore, serves as an invaluable barometer of music trends, especially those of younger people who represent the largest number of consumers of the device.
A listing of folders on el paquete semanal from October 30, 2018.
There is a random-access, mix-tape quality to the paquete that encourages consumers to discover music by loading songs onto their cellphones, shuffling the contents, and pressing play (a practice as common in Cuba as it is in the US). This mode of consumption encourages listeners to discover music to which they otherwise would not be exposed. Reggaetón/Trap Latino artist Alex Duvall takes advantage of this organizing structure to promote his work in a unique manner: Duvall packages his reggaetón music separately from his Trap Latino releases. As a solo act, his reggaetón albums position catchy dembow rhythms alongside lyrics and videos that celebrate love of nation, Cuban women, and Havana’s historic landmarks. As a Trap Latino artist in the band “Trece,” his brand is positioned quite differently. Music videos like Trece’s “Mi Estilo de Vida” for instance, contain many of the markers that journalist Guillermo Carmona criticized in the aforementioned article: a range of women wear the band’s name on bandanas covering their faces, otherwise leaving the rest of their bodies exposed. US currency floats in mid-air, and lyrics address the pleasures of material comforts amid legally questionable ways of “making it.”
Especially as it becomes more and more common for Latinx artists to mix genres freely together in their music (as the catch-all genre format referred to as música urbana shows), it is significant that Alex Duvall prefers to keep these styles separate in his own work. The strategy reveals a musical divide between foreign and domestic elements. Duvall’s reggaetón releases emphasize percussive effects, and the Caribbean-based “dembow riddim” that many Cubans would quickly recognize. The synthesized elements in his Trap Latino work however, belong to an aesthetic foreign to historic representations of Cuban music, representing broader circulations of sound that now extend up to the US. Textures and rhythms originating from Atlanta (along with their attendant political and historical baggage) now share space in the sonic palette of a popular Cuban artist.
Going to the Rumba
These cultural circulations complicate narratives coming from the Cuban state that tend to minimize the cultural impact of music originating from the yankui neighbor to the north. These narratives exert powerful political pressure. Because of this, artists are careful when describing their involvement with Trap music. Duvall’s digital strategy allows for a degree of freedom in traveling back and forth across the sonic color line, but permits only so much mobility.
In an interview conducted by MiHabanaTV, Duvall distances himself from Trap Latino’s reputation, defending his project by appealing to the genre’s international popularity, and the need to bring it home to Cuba. But the 2017 song “Hasta La Mañana” documents one of his most concise explanations for his involvement in Trece, in the following lyrics:
|“El tiempo va atando billetes a cien
Pero todos va para la rumba
Entonces yo quiero sumarme tambien.”
|Time is tying hundred dollar bills together
Everyone is going to the rumba
And I also want to join.
He uses “rumba” here as shorthand to refer to the subversive actions that people take in order to succeed in difficult situations. Duvall needs to make money. If everyone else gets rich by going to “the rumba,” why can’t he? The reference is revealing. Rumba marks another Afro-Cuban tradition with a history of marginalized figures engaged in debates over appropriate aural uses of public space. Today, cellphone speakers and boom boxes sound Havana’s parks and streets. Historically, Afro-Cuban rumberos made these spaces audible through live performance, but similar issues of race animate both of these moments.
In the essay “Walking,” sociologist Lisa Maya Knauer explains that it was not uncommon for police to break up a rumba being performed in the streets or someone’s home throughout the twentieth century “on the grounds that it was too disruptive.” (153) Knauer states that rumba music is historically associated with “rowdiness, civil disorder, and unbridled sexuality, while simultaneously celebrated as an icon of national identity”. (131) The quote also reveals a contrast between the public receptions of rumba and Trap Latino. Duvall’s work, and Trap Latino more generally, is similarly fixed amid a complex web of racialized associations. But unlike rumba, refuses to appeal to state-sanctioned ideals of national identity.
Afro-Cuban musicians are often pressured to adopt nationally sanctioned modes of participation in order to acquire official recognition and state funding. The acceptable display of blackness in Cuba’s public spaces, especially while performing for the country’s growing number of tourists, is a process that anthropologist Marc D. Perry calls the “buenavistization” of Cuba in his work Negro Soy Yo. This phrase refers to the success of popular Son heritage group Buena Vista Social Club, and the revival of Afro-Cuban heritage musical styles that this group and its associated film popularized. Unlike Rumba and Son however, Trap Latino is considered irredeemably foreign (given its roots in both the US city of Atlanta and later, Puerto Rico), therefore presenting difficulties in assimilating the genre to dominant models of Cuban national identity. This tension, I believe, is also responsible for it’s success among Cuba’s youth.
Trap Cubano’s growing appeal stems instead from artists’ adoption of a radically counter-cultural positionality often avoided in popular contemporary styles like reggaetón. While it would be unfair to accuse reggaetón as being entirely co-opted (a point musicologist Geoff Baker makes convincingly in “Cuba Rebelión: Underground Music in Havana”), it is certainly true that as reggaetóneros achieve greater success in ever widening circles of international popularity, the amount of scandalized lyrics, eroticized imagery, and the sound of the original dembow riddim itself (with its well documented roots in homophobia and virulent masculinity) has diminished considerably. Trap Latino’s sonic subversions fill this gap. While the genre similarly praises the fulfillment of male, material fantasies, it troubles the narrative that increased access to money solves social, racial, and gender imbalances, while sonically acknowledging the role that the US shares in shaping it’s musical terrain.
This centering of materialism amid representations of marginalized Afro-Cuban artists is foreign to both historic and touristic representations of Cuba, but relevant to a younger generation increasingly confronted with the pressures of encroaching capitalism. Trap Cubano renders visible (and audible) an emerging culture managing life on the less privileged side of the sonic color line. From the speakers blaring from a young passerby’s cellphone on Calle G, to the USB stick plugged in to a blaring sound system, to the rumba where Alex Duvall is headed, Trap Latino broadcasts the concerns of a younger generation challenging what it means to be Cuban in the 21st century, and what that future sounds like.
Involving himself in the music scenes of Brooklyn, N.Y. over the past decade and currently attending The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s musicology program, Mike Levine utilizes a dual background in academic research and web-based application technologies to support sustainable local music scenes. His research now takes him to Cuba, where he studies the artists and fans circulating music in this vibrant and fast-changing space via Havana’s USB-based, ‘people-powered’ internet (el paquete semanal) amidst challenging political and economic circumstances.
Featured image: “Hotel Cohiba – Havana, Cuba” by Flickr user Chris Goldberg, CC BY-NC 2.0
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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic– Imani Kai Johnson
This beat ‘bout to get murdered
Thought this was Future when I heard it
Desiigner sounds kinda like Future. Probably you’ve noticed? Everyone else has. While some reactions are a register of genuine surprise that “Panda” isn’t a Future song (cf Uncle Murda epigraph), many are a combination of reflexive skepticism about Desiigner’s authenticity (He’s never even been to Atlanta!!)–or even the authenticity of New York as a hip hop city–alongside a sort of schadenfreude over his ability to notch a higher rated song than Future has ever managed (“Panda” hit #1 for two weeks in May 2016). This latter observation is certainly true: Southern trap god Future has cracked the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 just once, as a featured artist on Lil Wayne’s “Love Me,” and his other appearances in the top 30 are similarly collaboration. (My discussion of trap focuses here on the hip hop wing of trap. The related but not identical EDM genre also called “trap” lies outside the scope of this particular analysis.) But pointing to the chart “failure” of Future’s singles is also entirely disingenuous, as all four of his official album releases have landed in the Billboard 200 top 10, including a #1 for 2015’s DS2 and 2016’s EVOL. In other words, Future isn’t exactly struggling to be relevant, which is why the nearly reflexive journalistic pairing of “Desiigner sounds like Future” and “Desiigner’s song is more successful than any Future song” gets my critical side-eye popping. The reception of Desiigner as a fake-but-more-successful Future strikes me as a dig at trap music as an easily replicable and therefore unserious genre. Here, I’m listening closely to the ways Desiigner’s vocals sound like Future as an entry point to trap’s political work: a sonic aesthetics of dis-organized polity, of sonic blackness in a post-racial society that I call trap irony.
Sounds Like Future
Though I’ve found several instances of writers comparing Desiigner to Future, that comparison usually includes little detailed support about the Future-istic elements of Desiigner’s sound. There are a number of sonic cues in “Panda” that could lead listeners to mistake the singer for Future, but I’m going to focus on the most obvious similarity: Desiigner’s recorded vocals share timbral and affective similarities to some of Future’s recorded vocals. When critics say Desiigner sounds like Future, the vocals are likely their main point of reference, so I’ve identified five points of sonic similarity between Desiigner and Future.
- Desiigner’s voice on “Panda” is detuned, resonating slightly off pitch with the instrumental, a technique so common in Future songs that I could link to any number of examples. Here are four, all released in the last two years, as a representative sample: “Stick Talk,” “Where Ya At (feat. Drake),” “March Madness,” and “Codeine Crazy.”
- Second, Desiigner delivers his vocals with a flat affect, conveying little emotion through inflection. Listen to the sections in the video above where he repeats the word “panda” [0:33-39, 1:38-46, 2:44-52, 3:51-58]. These repetitions precede each verse and then punctuate the end of the song. Rhythmically they signal what should be a turn-up— a run of at least a measure’s worth of eighth notes just before the full beat drops. But Desiigner’s recitation is emotionless, each instance of the word sounding just like the last. Throughout the rest of the song, if a listener didn’t understand the words, it would be hard to guess what Desiigner is rapping about based on any emotive signals. Love? Aggression? Loss? The vocal performance is reportorial, dispassionate. Future adopts a similar technique in up-tempo songs. His repetition of the words “jumpman” (1:08-10) and “noble” (1:28-30) in “Jumpman” and the word “wicked” (0:13-24) in “Wicked” provide parallels to Desiigner’s recitation of “panda.” And in “Ain’t No Time,” Future delivers lines about his clothes and money as casually as he predicts his enemies ending up outlined in chalk (0:13-26); just as in “Panda,” a listener who didn’t catch the lyrics to “Ain’t No Time” wouldn’t be able to attach any particular emotional content to the song.
- Speaking of not catching lyrics, Desiigner and Future are both notoriously mushmouths: enunciation is optional. A number of online videos and fluff posts revolve around the fact that it’s hard to make out what Desiigner or Future is saying.
- Both Desiigner’s and Future’s performed voices seem to sit low in their registers, produced by opening the backs of their throats and elongating their vocal chords. For context, both artists seem to speak in the same register their recorded vocals fall in, and each is also likely to perform their vocals a little higher in a live setting.
- The bulk of “Panda”’s verses are in “Migos flow.” Named for the ATL trap trio who popularized it in their song, “Versace,” Migos flow is a triplet figure that rises from low to high, 3-1-2 (where 1 is the downbeat). The first twenty seconds of the “Versace” link above is a constant string of Migos flow. It’s pervasive throughout “Panda,” but 0:49-52 stacks two Migos flow lines back-to-back. Future’s verse on Drake’s “Digital Dash” (0:18-2:00) is a good example of an extended Migos flow.
In other words, Desiigner does sound like Future in some significant ways. But that’s not all he sounds like. Detuned vocals isn’t just a Future thing. Adam Krims theorizes this as part of the “hip hop sublime,” and it’s especially common among Southern rappers (for example, Young Jeezy sounded like Future before Future even did) (73-74). Many trap artists rap in a way that confounds efforts to understand what they’re saying; Young Thug, for instance, employs a vocal style distinct from Future and Desiigner but is equally difficult to understand. And the Migos flow, as partially demonstrated in this video, is not Future’s (or Migos’s) proprietary style. It’s been adopted by several (especially Southern) rappers, most recently in conjunction with trap. The elements I describe in the previous paragraph point to some specific ways Desiigner sounds like Future, which in turn points to ways that Desiigner sounds, more broadly, like trap.
The “Panda” beat, which comes from UK producer Menace, bears this out. Southern trap, as can be heard by surveying the songs linked above, features instrumentals with deep, tuned kick drums, usually dry 808 snares, high and bright synth lines, and punctuation from low brass and strings (0:40-1:33 in “Panda,” for the latter). This low/high frequency spread, with the mid-range mostly open, characterizes a good deal of trap music; the freed mid-range leaves more room for the bass to be amplified to soul-rattling levels without crowding out the rest of the instrumental. Also, one of the most iconic sonic elements of trap is the rattling hihat, cruising through subdivisions of the beat at inhuman rates (for instance, Metro Boomin’s hats at 0:16 in the aforementioned “Digital Dash” rattle but good when the full beat drops). Here’s the thing about “Panda,” though: those hats don’t rattle. Instead, they enter oh-so-quietly at 1:06 and bang out a steady eighth note pattern punctuated with a crash cymbal on every fourth beat until the end of the verse.
Sounds Like Trap
The missing hihats are an important piece of “Panda”’s sonic puzzle, and point to some broader observations about trap aesthetics as politics, what I’m calling trap irony. Trap music moves through society in ways it shouldn’t. The image of the trap is a house with only one way in and out, yet trap aesthetics produce a music that seems to constantly find a secret exit, a path not offered, a way around established norms. Materially, the bulk of trap music circulates through and out of Atlanta on mixtapes, beyond the purview of major record labels and, in part because it isn’t controlled by labels, at an astonishing rate—for instance, from January 2015-February 2016, Future released four mixtapes and two official albums. Moreover, trap reverberates as sonic blackness in a society whose mainstream has been explicitly peddling a post-racial ideology for nearly a decade. Trap aesthetics become trap politics.
Sonic blackness, as Nina Sun Eidsheim defines it and as Regina Bradley has expanded it, is the interplay of vocal timbre and current norms about what constitutes blackness; it’s a moving target that nonetheless shapes and is shaped by a society’s notions of race and racialization (Eidsheim, 663-64). In the case of trap, I argue that its sonic blackness is apparent in the context of post-racial ideology. Post-race politics depends on the notion that racism has ended and that race doesn’t matter anymore. In this framework, as Jared Sexton argues in Amalgamation Schemes, multiracialism, the blending of many races together until distinct racial backgrounds are purportedly indecipherable, becomes the ideal. The problem Sexton finds with multiracialism as a discourse is that it doesn’t account for the historical racial hierarchies that institutionalize whiteness as ideal; rather, multiracialism “is a tendency to neutralize the political antagonism set loose by the critical affirmation of blackness” (65).
Trap irony describes the way trap picks up recognizable markers of hip hop blackness (urban spaces, violence, drugs, sexual voracity, conspicuous consumption) so that its existence becomes an affirmation of blackness in a post-racial milieu. In fact, ironies abound in trap. Kemi Adeyemi has written about the use of lean, the codeine-based concoction of choice for many Dirty Southern rappers, as “generat[ing] productively intoxicated states that counter the violent realities of a particularly black everyday life” (first emphasis mine). LH Stallings has argued for the hip hop strip club — trap’s home away from home — to be understood as an always already queer space despite its surface heteronormativity. I’ve elsewhere used Stallings’s “black ratchet imagination” to think about party politics in the south, the way a group like Rae Sremmurd use party music as a refusal to produce and re-produce for the benefit of whiteness. The flat affect of rappers like Desiigner and Future is a similar shirking of emotional labor; where an artist like Kendrick Lamar brings fire and brimstone, Future shows up with dispassionate Autotune warble. Intoxicated but productive, heteronormative but queer, partying but political, affected but flat: in each case, we can hear trap irony navigating the complex assemblages of blackness in a purportedly post-racial society.
The last piece of the “Panda” puzzle is another trap irony, the sonification of a dis-organized polity, a bloc that doesn’t voice its interests as one. Listening to “Panda,” it’s hard to notice that the rattling hihat, integral to so much ATL trap, is missing. That’s because Desiigner vocalizes it himself. Throughout the track, he adds a handful of background vocals that trigger at seemingly random points. Unlike the flat affect of his flow, Desiigner’s vocal ad-libs are full of energy, as if he’s egging himself on. One of these vocals is “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrah,” a tongue roll of varying lengths that replaces the missing hihat rattle. Listen back to the other trap songs I’ve linked in this essay, or check out nearly any track from trap artists like Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, or Kevin Gates, and you’ll hear the pervasiveness of the hyped trap background vocals.
Trap background vocals, like the aesthetics, politics, and economy of trap itself, is a messy business. Desiigner’s background vocals on “Panda” move in meter and sometimes lock into a sequence, but he triggers enough different ones at unexpected moments that a listener can’t know exactly what sound to expect next nor when it will occur. Desiigner sounds like Future, which is to say he sounds like trap, which is to say he sounds like blackness, and his background vocals, which he turns up loud, are emblematic of the aesthetics and politics of trap. Trap irony means that a genre that renders blackness audible in 2016 does so not through a multiracial neutralization of the critical affirmation of blackness, but by setting loose a disparate set of recognizably black voices sounding from all directions, rattling across the soundscape, routing themselves through any path that doesn’t lead to the designated entry/exit point of the trap.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
“The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley
“Tomahawk Chopped and Screwed: The Indeterminacy of Listening“–Justin Burton
Listen to yourself!: Spotify, Ancestry DNA, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century
If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like? A few answers, at random: In 1986, the biologist and amateur musician Susumo Ohno assigned pitches to the nucleotides that make up the DNA sequence of the protein immunoglobulin, and played them in order. The gene, to his surprise, sounded like Chopin.
With the advent of personalized DNA sequencing, a British composition studio will do one better, offering a bespoke three-minute suite based on your DNA’s unique signature, recorded by professional soloists—for a 300GBP basic package; or 399GBP for a full orchestral arrangement.
But the most recent answer to this question comes from the genealogy website Ancestry.com, which in Fall 2018 partnered with Spotify to offer personalized playlists built from your DNA’s regional makeup. For a comparatively meager $99 (and a small bottle’s worth of saliva) you can now not only know your heritage, but, in the words of Ancestry executive Vineet Mehra, “experience” it. Music becomes you, and through music, you can become yourself.
As someone who researches for a living the history of connections between music and genetics I am perhaps not the target audience for this collaboration. My instinct is to look past the ways it might seem innocuous, or even comical—especially when cast against the troubling history of the use of music in the rhetoric of American eugenics, and the darker ways that the specter of debunked race science has recently returned to influence our contemporary politics.
During the launch window of the Spotify collaboration, the purchase of a DNA kit was not required, so in the spirit of due diligence I handed over to Spotify what I know of my background: English, Scottish, a little Swedish, a color chart of whites of various shade. (This trial period has since ended, so I have not been able to replicate these results—however, some sample “regional” playlists can be found on the collaboration homepage).
While I mentally prepared myself to experience the sounds of my own extreme whiteness, Ancestry and Spotify avoid the trap of overtly racialized categories. In my playlist, Grime artist Wiley is accorded the same Englishness as the Cure. And ‘Scottish-Irish’, still often a lazy shorthand for ‘White’, boasted more artists of color than any other category. Following how the genetic tests themselves work, geography, rather than ethnicity, guides the algorithm’s hand.
As might be expected, the playlists lean toward Spotify’s most popular sounds: “song machine” pop, and hip-hop. But in smaller regions with less music in Spotify’s catalog, the results were more eclectic—one of the few entries of Swedish music in my playlist was an album of Duke Ellington covers from a Stockholm-based big band, hardly a Swedish “national sound.” Instead, the music’s national identity is located outside of the sounding object, in the information surrounding it, namely the location tag associated with the recording. In other words: this is a nationalism of metadata.
One of the common responses to the Ancestry-Spotify partnership was, as, succinctly expressed by Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic: ‘Your DNA is not your culture’. But because of the muting of musical sound in favor of metadata, we might go further: in Spotify’s catalog, your culture is not even your culture. The collaboration works because of two abstractions—the first, from DNA, to a statistical expression of probable geographic origin; and second from musical sound and style characteristics, to metadata tags for a particular artist’s location. In both of these moves, traditional sites of social meaning—sounding music, and regional or familial cultural practice—are vacated.
There is a way in which this model could come across as subversive (which has not gone unnoticed by Ancestry’s advertising team). Hijacking the presumed whiteness of a Scotland or a Sweden to introduce new music by communities previously barred from the possibility of ‘Scotishness’ or ‘Swedishness’ could be a tremendously powerful way of building empathy. It could rebut the very possibility of an ethno-state. But the history of music and genetics suggests we might have less cause for optimism.
In the 1860s, Francis Galton, coiner of the word ‘eugenics’, turned to music to back up his nascent theory of ‘hereditary genius’—that artistic talent, alongside intelligence, madness, and other qualities were inherited, not acquired. In Galton’s view, musical ability was the surest proof that talents were inherited, not learned, for how else could child prodigies stir the soul in ways that seem beyond their years? The fact of music’s irreducibility, its romantic quality of transcendence, was for Galton what made it the surest form of scientific proof.
Galton’s ideas flourished in America in the first decades of the twentieth century. And while American eugenics is rightly remembered for its violence—from a sequence of forced sterilization laws beginning with Indiana in 1907, to ever-tightening restrictions on immigration, and scientific propaganda against “miscegenation” under Jim Crow—its impact was felt in every area of life, including music. The Eugenics Record Office, the country’s leading eugenic research institution, mounted multiple studies on the inheritance of musical talent, following Galton’s idea that musical ability offered an especially persuasive test-case for the broader theory of heritability. For 10 years the Eastman School of Music experimented on its newly admitted students using a newly-developed kind of “musical IQ test”, psychologist Carl Seashore’s “Measures of Musical Talent”, and Seashore himself presented results from his tests at the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York in 1923, the largest gathering of the global eugenics movement ever to take place. His conclusion: that musical ability was innate and inherited—and if this was true for music, why not for criminality, or degeneracy, or any other social ill?
Next to the tragedy of the early twentieth century, Spotify and Ancestry teaming up seems more like a farce. But scientific racism is making a comeback. Bell Curve author Charles Murray’s career is enjoying a second wind. Border patrol agents hunt “fraudulent families” based on DNA swabs, and the FBI searches consumer DNA databases without customer’s knowledge. ‘Unite the Right’ rally organizer Jason Kessler ranked races by IQ, live on NPR.. And, while Ancestry sells itself on liberal values, many white supremacists have gone after ‘scientific’ confirmation for their sense of superiority, and consumer DNA testing has given them the answers they sought (though, often, not the answers they wanted.)
As consumer genetics gives new life to the assumptions of an earlier era of race science, the Spotify-Ancestry collaboration is at once a silly marketing trick, and a tie, whether witting or unwitting, to centuries of hereditarian thought. It reminds us that, where musical eugenics afforded a legitimizing glow to the violence of forced sterilization, the Immigration Acts, and Jim Crow, Spotify and Ancestry can be seen as sweeteners to modern-day race science: to DNA tests at the border, to algorithmic policing, and to “race realists” in political office. That the appeal of these abstractions—from music to metadata, from culture to geography, from human beings to genetic material—is also their danger. And finally, that if we really want to hear our heritage, listening, rather than spitting in a bottle, might be the best place to start.
Featured Image: “DNA MUSIC” Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Alexander Cowan is a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. He holds an MMus from King’s College, London, and a BA in Music from the University of Oxford. His dissertation, “Unsound: A Cultural History of Music and Eugenics,” explores how ideas about music and musicality were weaponized in British and US-American eugenics movements in the first half of the twentieth century, and how ideas from this period survive in both modern music science, and the rhetoric of the contemporary far right.
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Hearing Eugenics–Vibrant Lives
Poptimism and Popular Feminism–Robin James
“Type in Sada Baby on the computer and let them hear the difference.”
Devante gives me this advice in the midst of an escalating back-and-forth among his peers about the difference between singing and rapping. Eighteen middle schoolers lounge around two picnic tables inside our local community center for this six-week summer program. We’re still in the first week, and each day they’ve name-checked Sada Baby, a charismatic rapper from the eastside of Detroit. I’m too occupied at the moment—trying to keep the conversation from spilling into an argument—to heed Devante’s advice, so he takes matters into his own voice.
“Rapping is like this,” he tells the group while starting to nod his head to an ear-magined beat. “Oh boy, I ain’t playing no games!” Devante raps the first half-bar of “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby’s 2017 track that narrates his street exploits and threatens his rivals — often with violence to the women they might or might not love. Devante not only raps this opening line but approximates the grain of Sada Baby’s voice, at least as much as he can since his adolescent tone hasn’t yet caught up to his linebacker build. My own ear—from over 20 years as hip-hop DJ, turntablist, and vinyl enthusiast—is more Sadat X than Sada Baby. But Sada’s playful allure is audible even to me, like while bending his cadence into indecipherable sounds over the track’s intro. And he covered “Return of the Mack” into a shirtless gunplay revenge track. So there’s that, too. I can understand the affective draw he has on the young people in the room. And even if couldn’t, this wouldn’t be the last I would hear of him in Yaktown Sounds that summer.
Yaktown Sounds is an emergent space of sound making I curate in and around Pontiac, Michigan. (Pon-ti-Yak = Yaktown, get it?) A postindustrial city halfway between Detroit and Flint, Pontiac is the home of jazz drummer Elvin Jones, hip-hop group Binary Star, and perhaps the most respected battle rapper on the national scene today: JC. Since 2015, I’ve organized an evolving network of artists—usually DJs and beat makers—to make space for youth and community members to play with sound. Of course, play and sound go well together. In Yaktown Sounds, sometimes it’s elementary-age youth at the public library hitting pads and twisting knobs on MIDI controllers until they like what they hear. Other times it’s daddies and daughters scratching a record under the needle to see what comes out. The summer of 2017, I lined up a different musical artist each week from Pontiac and Detroit to visit and share their skills.
My curatory approach to this space takes inspiration from Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a creative, visionary, performative Black girlhood practice. In part, SOLHOT generates from a particular stance on Black girlhood sound. In Hear Our Truths (2013), SOLHOT visionary Ruth Nicole Brown theorizes Black girlhood sound and the ways it resists and improvises around neoliberal youth programming constraints that are intended to “fix” youth. Riffing off Tricia Rose in Black Noise, Brown theorizes Black girlhood as a sound nobody can organize. It bounces off adult listenings that would compress it into binary identity positions like sass/silence or into white mainstream notions of politeness and civility. What follows from this stance are not constrained, prescribed “learning environments” for youth but open, performative, imaginative spaces not always under adults’ control. This is the type of environment I try to facilitate in Yaktown Sounds.
This stance toward space and environment means vulnerability to reverberations and their affects. Reverberation, of course, is a phenomenon and technique that plays a prominent role in Black diasporic sonic expression. As Michael E. Veal writes, its affect/effect is most pronounced through Jamaican dub music: the collisions among sounds through echo, delay, and reverb. Veal’s engagement with dub and reverberation is also conceptual. In Dub (2013), he considers its echoes and ruptures “a sonic metaphor for the condition of diaspora” (197). In Sound Curriculum (2018), Walter Gershon thinks with sound to make a similar argument for reverberation and other physical, metaphysical, and aural phenomena: “Because sounds are already in motion, they are always reverberating, bouncing off of objects from sinus cavities to walls to coral to brush to air to water to stone” (56). In these instances, Veal and Gershon take up reverberation in both aural and environmental settings. Yet these ideas also apply to the spaces where youth and adults co-create together. What collides, bounces, and stays in motion? What counts as a reverberation?
In that summer of Yaktown Sounds, I understand Sada Baby’s aural presence as a kind of reverberation. He stayed in motion, colliding with youth judgments about what counted as rap, how a rapper’s voice should sound, and even my own aspirations for the space. These collisions were most apparent while preparing each week for our visiting artist.
Before a visit from Mahogany Jones, we watched the video for her song “Blue Collar Logic.” Landon was the first to respond while leaning back against the table, feet kicked out in front of him, and retwisting his short bronze locks:
“Can we see another one? That one wasn’t good. I didn’t think it was good. Not as good as I thought it would be. It was too much of that, uh, old time. I just think she didn’t rap enough.”
For Landon, the standard for rapping enough and not sounding “old time” was—you guessed it—Sada Baby. “He actually raps,” Landon noted while explaining. If we consider music and song not only as art but as different organizations of sound (another point from Gershon), Landon has a point. To get specific, some of Sada Baby’s songs are continuous bars of rapping — no hooks, no chorus, no rest. In “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby raps for two minutes and 20 seconds of the song, and guest artist FMB DZ raps a 40 second verse. Straight bars over a trap beat. By comparison, “Blue Collar Logic” is also roughly 3-minutes long but has a fuller song structure. Mahogany Jones raps for 1 minute and 20 seconds across two verses. In the golden era template of DJ Premier, cuts from DJ Los make up the 30-second intro, the two choruses, and the instrumental outro that lasts approximately one minute. If we do the math, Sada Baby’s track has more than double the rapping compared to Mahogany’s.
My point here isn’t to judge which organization of sound is better; there is no wrong way to organize sound. Rather, these details illustrate two very different organizations and how Sada Baby’s made up the basis for Landon’s judgment.
If Landon’s directness that “she didn’t rap enough” rings a bit harsh to our polite adult listenings, then hear Kareem slice through the group conversation after listening to hometown artist Kodac aka M80, who had just returned from a European tour:
“He don’t know how to rap.”
Kareem’s judgment was based upon what he heard as singing and rapping happening in the same song, an organization of sound he classified as “old.” When I asked Kareem what Kodac needed to do to be a better rapper — “in your opinion,” the recommendation was equally direct: “Be more like Sada Baby.”
These responses from Landon and Kareem show us something else about the movement of reverberations through this space. Sada Baby’s aural presence not only collided with youth preferences and claims about rap. As a reverberation, he was used to berate other artists whose sounds and configurations of sound were heard as “old” through youths’ generationally tuned ears.
Despite the youth-centric stance I take on spaces like Yaktown Sounds, I’m not gonna lie: the strikes and blows of these reverberations hit me too because of the relational ties I hold with these artists. They are part of my own creative community. I’ve DJed on stage for Kodac. I go to all of Mahogany’s shows. As a result, I remain vulnerable to the force of these reverberations. Owning up to that point, I am reminded of what Shakira Holt teaches us about adults and how we listen, particularly in education settings: sometimes we are not as open-eared to youth as we imagine ourselves to be — especially given the ways we have been socialized to censor and silence Black youth, even ones who live through our own cities, schools, and community centers. Though I’m two years removed from this particular iteration of Yaktown Sounds, Sada Baby continues to reverberate with/against me. He stays in motion even now, echoing through my writing as I toggle over to his Soundcloud page, press play on his songs, and wonder if I will hear something that makes me tune in differently to the young people around me.
Featured image: Screenshot from “Sada Baby–On Gang”
Emery Marc Petchauer makes beats and DJs with kids in and around Pontiac, MI. A former high school English teacher, he works as an associate professor of English and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His scholarship has addressed the aesthetic practices of hip-hop culture and their connections to teaching, learning, and living. He also studies the high stakes test educators must pass to become certified teachers. He is online at empetch.com and on Twitter at @emerypetchauer.
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