How A NASA Record Is Exploiting Indigenous Performers

By Anthony Michael Morena

Last month, a new Kickstarter campaign was launched by Ozma Records to fund the first-ever release of a vinyl version of the Voyager Golden Record: the collection of sounds, music, images, and greetings that were launched into space on the twin Voyager space probes in 1977. If any extraterrestrial intelligence discovers either Voyager in space, the records are there to help the aliens learn something about the Earth; our bodies and our cultures and our art. The box set’s release will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Voyager’s launch, late next summer. In just under a month, over a million dollars have been donated to fund the project, far exceeding the Kickstarter’s original $198,000 goal.

There are reasons for the project to be a huge success. Most of these songs have been unavailable commercially in any format for more than 25 years. Though available on YouTube videos and torrent sites, the prospect of playing the music that was sent with Voyager on vinyl appeals to hi-fi purists and nostalgia buffs alike. Plus, as a design object, the box set looks gorgeous.

Ozma Records, the company responsible for the Kickstarter, has some impressive names behind it, including Boing Boing editor David Pescovitz, Amoeba Records manager Timothy Daly, and designer Louis Azerrad. Even original Voyager record producer Tim Ferris is onboard as a consultant. But exciting as it is to have these people producing a vinyl version of the Golden Record, there are some serious questions about the fair treatment of the performers who contributed to the record, specifically those representing indigenous cultures from around the world.

Unless something changes, this Kickstarter campaign to commercially release a vinyl version of the Voyager Golden Record will exploit the people from indigenous cultures who performed on it.

The Golden Record contains 27 musical tracks that were curated by a team under the direction of Carl Sagan, the famous science ambassador of the late 20th century. With the help of folk musicologist Alan Lomax, the songs ultimately selected for the record included many little-known performances from indigenous cultures and folk traditions all around the world. The final record still skews Eurocentric — six tracks alone come from German-speaking Europe, with three compositions by Bach, two by Beethoven, and one by Mozart — but Lomax’s suggestions diversify this sonic representation of human musical creation.

Though the inclusion of Lomax’s suggestions made the Golden Record a global message, for some reason, in nearly every track by an indigenous group, only the anthropologist or musicologist who recorded the song is given credit in the record contents — not the performers. To make matters worse, some of those songs were also mis-titled or attributed to incorrect culture groups.

The oversight could have been due to the tight deadline given to Sagan and his team by NASA. They only had six weeks to find, clear the copyright, and get NASA approval for all of the material they wanted to include on the record. In that time, it would have been all but impossible to track down the missing information on the tracks they wanted to include.

Additionally, since the Golden Record wasn’t commercially released at that time, there wasn’t any pressing financial reason to identify all of the contributors for compensation. But that all changed in 1992. Unlike what many of the articles about the Kickstarter campaign have reported, the materials on the Golden Record have been available commercially before now. The 1992 edition of Murmurs of Earth, a book about the NASA-sponsored project, came with a CD-ROM that contained all of the record contents. Sagan put a huge effort to secure all of the copyrights to publish the material. However, none of the missing indigenous artists were identified, though one track did receive a title (“Tchenhoukoumen,” but more on this later).

To this day the performers on those songs remain “unknown artists.” But these mysteries are not unsolvable. In 2013, Dr. Alice Gorman — a professor at Flinders University who specializes in the archeology of space — uncovered that the Australian Aborigine medley on the Voyager record “Morning Star and Devil Bird” does not contain any of the song “Devil Bird.” It’s actually another song called “Moikoi.” Gorman also discovered the identities of the musicians who performed the two songs: Djawa, Mudpo, and Waliparu. As of right now, only Sandra Le Brun Holmes, the anthropologist who recorded the tracks, is credited in Murmurs of Earth and the Kickstarter campaign.

I have also been trying to track down as much information about the uncredited performances on the Voyager record as possible. Not only have I been able to name multiple performers and song titles, but I found out that some of their identities have been known in public for years. There are also severe attribution errors in the credits. One track that had been labeled as “Senegalese percussion” actually came from the Mahi people who live in Benin, a country more than a thousand miles away from Senegal. (The title “Tchenhoukoumen,” however, is correct, so perhaps Sagan was aware of the error in 1992 but chose not to address it.)

It’s not a coincidence that most of the missing names and misidentifications came from indigenous cultures. In these cases, the white anthropologists become the creators, and the performers passive phenomena. The people involved in creating those songs are not seen as people or individuals, but as forces of nature, subjects of study whose behavior is credited only to the scientific investigator. That situation is racist. This othering continues on another level as well; as this Kickstarter seeks to release the Voyager record commercially, these performers have been systematically denied any share in the profits. It’s not that Ozma Records has signaled out this group for exclusion, but they were excluded automatically.

Ozma Records now not only has an opportunity, but a responsibility, to take reparative action by recognizing the contributions of all the cultures on the record. Ignoring their performers means deeming their artistry less worthy of recognition. That is not the message that humans should present to space, and that is not the message that humans should present here on Earth. Otherwise, this Golden Record box set is perpetuating the worst traditions that this planet has ever practiced: colonialism, racism, and white supremacy.

Ozma Records is working with the Rights Workshop to produce a commercial version of the Golden Record legally, but that doesn’t mean they are producing a commercial version of the record ethically. I brought this up with Ozma Records, but they never addressed my concerns. They did, however, react to some other questions people had about the copyright of the tracks. In the comments section on the Kickstarter page, they said: “Working with the respected Rights Workshop, we have already cleared the copyright and licensed all the music that is possible to clear.”

I’m interested by what Ozma Records means when they say they have “licensed all the music that is possible to clear.” The phrasing suggests that they weren’t able to get permission to use all of the titles, but they are going to press them anyway. That is an understandable situation, and maybe it is legal, but there needs to be more transparency on this issue. If there are artists who are losing out on their share in this project, it should be stated on the Kickstarter page who those people are.

Ozma Records has also updated the Kickstarter to state that 20% of all of the project’s profits will be donated to the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University. That sounds good, but there is no reason why a portion of the profits shouldn’t go to performers whose cultural expression makes the Golden Record what it is — especially since they have never received any compensation for their work.

It may be hard to track down the performers themselves, but it isn’t hard to find alternative ways to recognize those people. One idea is to donate a share of the profits to the performers’ living relatives. The original communities where the recordings were made could also benefit from the release. In cases such as the Mbuti and the Mahi, entire communities took part in creating the tracks that appear on the Voyager record. Even a promise from Ozma Records to find the contributors who may still be alive and to reach out to them would be a start and would not affect their production schedule. At the very least, these performers need to be credited by name.

Whether or not this issue is addressed by Ozma Records, people are going to want the Voyager box set. If there’s one thing that nerds love to do, it’s fetishize design objects. A lot of the backers were pumped when an update to the campaign announced that each copy of the box set would include an enamel pin of the Voyager record cover.

But wouldn’t it be better if the money that went into producing those pins actually went to the people who helped create the record? Shouldn’t elegant design be able to accommodate adding a few more names to the record contents and liner notes? This 40th anniversary Voyager Record Kickstarter can be an opportunity to be restorative and to set things right about the Voyager message. Or it can just be a way to perpetuate the same mistakes and to profit from them in the meantime.


Lead image: NASA