Turning Refugee Crises Into Country Music

A programmer distills four decades of migration into a three-minute song.

A Syrian refugee (Ali Hashisho / Reuters)

Brian Foo had a problem. He’d gotten ahold of four decades’ worth of UN data on the movements of refugees around the world. But he wasn’t sure how to express it—how he could possibly convey the forced dislocation of millions of individuals across a vast expanse of time and space.

The New York-based programmer and visual artist thought back to a Radiolab episode he’d heard on the popularity of American country music in countries ranging from Australia to Thailand to Zimbabwe. On the show, the anthropologist Aaron Fox had suggested that the genre’s surprising cross-border appeal was related to its universal themes of migration, regret, and longing for home.

“The steel guitar is the signature sound of country because it’s recognized as iconic of a crying human voice,” Fox said.

Foo had his cue. He downloaded samples of several instruments used in country music, including the pedal steel guitar and bass guitar, and created an algorithm to map them to the data—to essentially create country music out of refugee flows.

In the three-minute video below, each year between 1975 and 2012 corresponds to a four-second segment of the resulting song. As global levels of refugees rise, so does the number of instruments playing simultaneously. The instruments play longer and lower-pitched notes when the average distance that refugees traveled between their countries of origin and destination in a given year increases. The variety of instruments grows along with the number of countries in a given year that absorbed 1,000 or more refugees.

The ebbs and flows of migration over 37 years, and a hint of the nostalgia and human pain behind them, are thus captured in the following visualization:

“The big turn in the song is when the movements go from local to global,” Foo told me. “For the first decade or so, most of the movement is from one country to the country right next to it. Around 1988, ’89”—roughly the time that the Soviet Union collapsed—“you’ll start to see much longer lines, which correlate to … much lower-tone, longer notes that start almost the second phase of the song, which is much more rich and a lot of layers of sound because there’s both low and high notes.”

To me, the song sounds less like country music than like the world’s most melodious car alarm. But I think the track’s artistic value is less important than the experimentation that went into making it—Foo’s efforts to extract what he called the “human factor in these datasets” and curate a visceral “experience around data” at a time when that data shows that the number of refugees and internally displaced people in the world is at its highest level since World War II.

“One of my hopes is that the music can stand on its own even without the data,” Foo said. “So if I can make a song that gets stuck in somebody’s head ... hopefully if [people] can hear that throughout the day, they’ll also think about the data that it represents or the issue that it represents.”

He’s right. The experience of the data was different, but no less poignant, when I listened to the song by itself.

Country music, it turns out, is aptly named. “No one leaves home unless home chases you,” wrote the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. “It’s not something you ever thought of doing, until the blade burnt threats into your neck. And even then you carried the anthem under your breath, only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet, sobbing as each mouthful of paper made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.”

“You have to understand,” Shire continued, “that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”