Beyonce, ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ album and African intellectual property

Beyonce
Beyonce

In 2010, the World Cup organizing committee announced that Shakira’s Waka Waka had been selected as the official World Cup anthem.

Upon its release, Waka Waka turned out to be something that could best be described as a remix of Zaminamina, a song popularised by Cameroonian military band in the 1980’s called Zangalewa.

Waka Waka’s catchy hook and hard-hitting melodic drumbeats was exactly the same as Zaminamina. The problem, however, was that this song was credited entirely to Shakira, with no mention made of the Cameroon band.

A wave of media investigations and public outcry led Sony Music to settle with Zangalewa after a process described by one of the band members as arduous. The World Cup organising body FIFA eventually credited the chorus to the band.

This was yet another episode of how the West and American artists have treated African art—by ripping it off, gentrifying it and taking credit for it. It is what Michael Jackson did with Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” using its hooking for the lead single of the Thriller album “Got to be Starting Something”.

In his case, Michael Jackson used the hook “Mamase mamasa moma makossa” directly from Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” He initially denied copying the hooks, describing the words as random mumblings that just popped up like notifications in the heat of composition.

Then he later said they were Swahili (they are not), before acknowledging that the hook was in fact, gotten from “Soul Makossa”. A similar process ensued with Missy Elliot/Timberlake versus Cameroonian duo Tim & Foty, James Brown and Talla Andre Marie, and even with the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” used in the original Lion King in 1995 which was a Solomon Popoli Linda song “Mbube”.

For long, African music and art has had a rather daunting relation with the West. Western artists, especially those in the American music market, boasting larger audiences and a powerful, effective and global marketing machinery backed by multi-billion dollar record labels, media and copyright have used African art without giving credit to its source.

They have created interpretations of African music, cutting and pasting here and there, popularising the ‘new’ sound and passing it off as some cutting edge musical innovation, a new direction emanating from sheer genius.

It is a relationship that is reminiscent of the repeat episodes of the gentrification of African American artistic endeavours by White American artists, who copy the former’s work, make it mainstream and own it, effectively giving it a new originality, a bright new powdered face, with the media providing a soft landing to ride this new narrative.

Africa and African artists are still grappling with understanding and effectively maintaining the copyrights to their work. For a long time, their works have not been copyrighted.

Given the limits of the African market and the difficulties of globalizing their sounds without effective record labels, Western artists have exploited this condition, banking on the inadequacies surrounding copyright laws and how it skews to the favour of the West, the rich and powerful.

Once African art has been ripped off, it becomes a challenging process of demonstrating legally that there’s evidence of copyright infringement even when it is clearly so.

This is the only reason for which Michael Jackson could make the ludicrous claim that he magically stumbled on words which were from a Cameroonian language, with cultural meaning and message.

To him, it was mere babble; to Cameroonians, its meaning ran deep. It was a celebration of Makossa, a cultural product that spans decades, with profound meaning from sound to lyrics.

Upon the release of the Beyonce executive-produced The Lion King: The Gift album, Africa was in frenzy after the realisation that Beyonce did not just curate an album with her interpretations of African sounds, rather African artists were at the fore.

Featuring African artists such as Wizkid, Mr. Eazi, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage, Tekno, Shatta Wale, Busiswa, Moonchild Sanelly and Salatiel, the album has been described as a love letter to Africawith an uplifting incorporation of diverse African genres and languages.

It is true that the album has been criticised for failing to feature Kenya where the Lion King is set. However, a common misconception has always been to treat Africa as a monolith, so it is possible that Beyonce might have thought that the inclusion of some African sounds will be appealing to all of Africa.

In Cameroon, the excitement was palpable as social media was awash with posts and comments on the Salatiel assisted track Water which features Pharrell and Beyonce.

It is safe to say that Cameroon is no stranger to music which is culturally theirs and done by their artist being interpreted by Western musician, from James Brown, to Michael Jackson, to Rihanna, to Missy Elliot and Timberlake to Shakira.

Cameroon music has been used, most times verbatim without credit to the source or culture. While those songs have emerged as global hits when used by these foreign artists (mostly due to market advantage and capital), they have, however, to the Cameroonian audience, served as painful reminders that in the larger scheme of things, cultural appropriation and theft are things which Cameroonians have to deal with, with very little recourse to justice and credit.

This is why this Lion King album is different. This is why the Beyonce effort is a big deal. African artists are allowed to be authentic. African sounds, themes, language; its sonic nuances are allowed to shine through their raw, unfettered voices and composition.

And so you see Wizkid going toe-to-toe with Beyonce, serving the world an anthem in “Brown Skin Girl” which has quickly become a celebration of melanin, of the beauty and complexity in colour but also signals to the truth that colourism is a thing, one in which the black and brown skins have been defined over the years to mean ‘less than’ in varied ways.

In 2011, when Beyonce was about shooting the video for her heavily choreographed “Run the World” hit, she reached the conclusion that to give the choreography the soul she was looking for, it was not enough to just do a version, a reinterpretation of the Tofu Tofu dance (from Mozambique) which she had come across on YouTube.

It was important to get the dancers and to learn from them, feature them in the video and give them credit. This is the type of relationship that indicates a healthy respect for other cultures and artistic work. But there is more.

In collaborating with African artists in this way, Beyonce is placing a bet, that African music can be enjoyed by the American audience, a market which has proven very difficult for African artists to break into.

It comes from a feeling that American audiences don’t understand African music and so they can’t connect with the music unless it is gentrified, mixed and remixed by American artists in a way that can be received and mainstreamed to meet audience preferences.

Beyonce is placing a bet; she is bucking the crowd and who else to do this than the world’s biggest pop star?

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