The ethical preservation of Black music is an attempt at remembering our varied musical histories and treating such histories with respect. By sampling indigenous music and celebrating the impact of Black legacy acts, many artists are currently demonstrating the importance of preserving, understanding or displaying an interest in the musical contexts which inform their work.
Music, like other art forms, is created to be shared, and for centuries, indigenous forms of music and culture have been carried across the Atlantic and back, creating a cyclical exchange between the African continent and its diaspora. However, the rise in music streaming platforms, as well as the uptake of music plugins on social media, means that African music is now disseminated on a scale previously difficult to imagine. When Wizkid triumphantly declared ‘My music travel no visa,’ on his 2011 song, ‘No Lele,’ even he could scarcely have imagined just how big Afrobeats (and by extension himself) would become globally within the next decade.
Although the migration of Black music continues to shape and inform the continuous engagement between varied Black cultures across the world, it equally raises concerns regarding the ‘ethical preservation’ of Black music and whether or not this is even possible. In other words, is it too much to ask that Black music is shared, disseminated and explored ethically across the world? Or is ethical preservation an abstract, pipe dream which is divorced from our current reality?
SAMPLING AS A BRIDGE BETWEEN THE PAST AND PRESENT
The ethical preservation of Black music requires that our history is reflected and built upon by the musical practices of younger artists. This is particularly evident through the ways that young Nigerian artists sample older records, as seen through Ayra Starr’s sample of the 1970s afrobeat and funk song, ‘Orere Elejibo’ by the Lijadu Sisters on her Don Jazzy produced song ‘Sare,’ Santi and Poco Lee’s interpolation of ‘Oti e le,’ derived from Rebel MC’s ‘Lori Le,’ which is heard on their song titled ‘Show me the way,’ and Odunsi’s sample of ‘Wetin Dey,’ by the Nigerian rap group Ruff Rugged and Raw. Last but not least, Lady Donli’s 2019 Enjoy Your Life album is filled with nostalgic Nigerian music references and samples. For instance, on the chorus of ‘Answers,’ Lady Donli adopts P-Square’s cadence on their hit song, ‘Busy body,’ to create a continuous loop of nostalgia which transports the listener to the early 2000s and on ‘Suffer Suffer,’ she adopts the composition on ‘National Moi Moi,’ a song performed by the Nollywood actress, Patience Ozokwo, otherwise known as Mama G. These examples are significant because they help bridge the gap between the past and present. Through sampling, listeners are exposed to new genres of music and gain a deeper appreciation of an artist’s musical influences.
Sampling is also a tool for education. As the Afrobeats’ subgenre is currently male dominated, the impact and contribution of women artists are often undermined. By sampling the Lijadu Sisters, who played an instrumental role in shaping the genre, Ayra Starr is not only paying homage to women artists before her time but also exposing her audience to a much-needed reference point, when considering legendary women in Nigerian music. Similarly, Rebel MC and Ruff Rugged Raw were often viewed as outcasts in the late 1990s to the mid-2000s due to the ways they branded themselves and the type of music they created, which was a heavy mix of hip-hop and indigenous Nigerian sounds like Afrobeats and Juju music. As recognized by Megan Iacobini de Fazio, writer and contributor to the online record store, Bandcamp, the Mama G sample on ‘Suffer Suffer,’ is ‘an ode to the theatrics of Nollywood’ as the ‘Suffer Suffer’ music video takes direct inspiration from Nollywood film adverts and Nigerian music videos, which were popular in the late 1990s to early 2000s. Sampling reminds us that current musical genres and sub-genres do not exist in a vacuum – it informs us of critical musical histories and references, which laid the foundation for the music we currently listen to.
SAMPLING AS A VEHICLE OF CROSS-POLLINATION ACROSS VARIED BLACK MUSICAL GENRES
If it is true that music is a reflection of culture, then sampling also connects different facets of Black culture, genres and artists. African American artists are constantly sampling indigenous African music on pop music, rap and R&B. A popular example of this can be found on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ which includes an interpolation from ‘Soul Makossa’ by the Cameroonian artist Manu Dibango. A more recent example can be found on the 2019 song, ‘Plenty,’ which is performed by Ambré and produced by Sons of Sonix. The producers sample Ebo Taylor’s highlife classic, ‘Love and Death,’ to create a genre-bending song which reflects elements of R&B and highlife – two genres that have deeply entrenched roots in Black culture. Highlife originated from Ghana and grew to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, whereas the origins of R&B are traced to blues music created in the 1860s by African-American artists in the deep south of North America.
Similarly, on ‘90s Proof’ performed by Smino featuring J. Cole (Luv 4 Rent, 2022), the producers – Groove and Monte Booker – sample ‘E Ma S’eka,’ by the Nigerian highlife, afrobeat and funk artist, Bola Johnson. The continuous loop of Bola Johnson’s vocals throughout ‘90s Proof,’ not only enhances the production by creating cohesion within the song, but also reflects hip-hop’s commitment to merging modernity with tradition.
Sampling also demonstrates the cyclical relationship between the diaspora and African continent, as African artists equally sample Black diasporic music, to create afro-fusion. This is evident through ‘Last Last,’ by Burna Boy which samples Toni Braxton’s 2000 R&B song, ‘He wasn’t man enough,’ and ‘No Doubt,’ by WANI and Odunsi, which samples another early 2000s R&B song, titled ‘Fill me in’ by Craig David. Both examples demonstrate the adaptability of Black music and highlight how cross-pollination brings a refreshing sound and perspective to contemporary music.
THE ETHICAL PRESERVATION OF BLACK MUSIC THROUGH SAMPLING
In music, just like in other expressions of art, the question of how and when fellow creators should adapt an artist’s work is one of great ethical concern. Is it enough that a sample is a great sonic contribution to an existing catalogue, or should the artist and producers that sample the record have a keen interest in the work they are sampling? Is sampling no longer ethically preserved when carried out in an abstract and unintentional way? It makes for a much more authentic and appealing story if an artist only samples music to which they are deeply and meaningfully connected. However, the reality is that a deep affinity between an artist and the music being sampled is not a prerequisite for sampling music in an ethical way. From an objective standpoint, if adequate consent or approvals are obtained for the sample, there should be no additional burden for an artist to prove a deep connection or understanding of the music being sampled.
Nevertheless, this view becomes a bit more contentious when we recognize that there is no universal consensus on what constitutes approval, consent or fair credit offered to a sampled artist within the music industry. Is a social media post celebrating the artist enough? Should the payment of a contractually agreed royalty sum to the artist (or their estate) be considered the only ethical way to source music? Though the latter may be considered standard industry procedure, there are numerous copyright infringement cases or fights, which show that the process is not always straightforward. Consider for instance Robin Thicke and Pharell’s five-year legal battle, where the artists had to pay $5 million to Marvin Gaye’s estate for unlawfully sampling Gaye’s 1977 song, ‘Got to Give It Up’ and the copyright infringement case between the Marvin Gaye estate and Ed Sheeran, where the musician was cleared of all allegations that his song, ‘Thinking out loud,’ infringed Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ song in May of this year. Although Ed Sheeran expressed his relief regarding the ‘not guilty’ verdict, he equally complained about the ‘significant toll’ that copyright infringement cases generally take on all the parties involved.
Closer to home, there was a copyright infringement incident between Tekno and Danfo Drivers in 2018, where the duo publicly declared that Tekno did not seek permission before sampling their late 90s song ‘Kpolongo,’ on his 2018 song with a starkly similar comparison called ‘Jogodo.’ More recently in October 2022, Asa issued a copyright infringement notice against Joeboy, because his ‘Contour’ song allegedly infringed a musical composition which Asa recorded during a studio session that the ‘Contour’ producer – Tempoe, was present for. The notice not only demanded that Joeboy’s song should be removed from all digital streaming platforms within 24 hours of receipt, but that a payment of N300 million and a formal apology should also be made to Asa. Joeboy then undermined the notice publicly through an Instagram post (which has now been deleted) and despite the serious threats from Asa’s legal representatives, Contour is still available on streaming platforms.
These instances show that sampling can get messy, uncomfortable and expensive. As a result, sampled artists may have neither the money, resources, time nor even interest in legally enforcing every copyright breach of their work. Emerging and indie artists especially are likely to be less inclined to defend their intellectual property due to fears of being black-listed or not having the financial support for legal enforcement action. Such scenarios are common and reveal an exploitative side of sampling, which sometimes defeats the purpose of preserving music in an ethical way, which ensures that sampled artists are treated and credited with respect.
Fela is the most sampled Nigerian artist but there are no formally documented lawsuits against other musicians, who unlawfully sample or copy his music. Due to the widespread impact of Fela’s music, his work has been used without formal permission. Yet, Fela’s estate appears to have taken a loose approach to enforcement of copyright action, at least in comparison to examples in the West.
There are no clear answers to combat or tackle such issues, but preserving the intellectual property of an artist can be done in different ways and through different avenues as opposed to formal legal action. On November 28 2022, Femi Kuti published a disclaimer on Twitter, which denounced the All Progress Congress Party’s (APC) use of Fela’s ‘Eko Ile,’ song in the APC social media campaign. Although Enforcement action against APC would have been a more direct means of ethically preserving Fela’s work, the social media disclaimer still got the message across that Fela would not have approved of the campaign. Most importantly, it demonstrates that ethical considerations in sampling go beyond financial compensation and crediting. The original work must also be used or adopted within an artistic and socio-political context that the sampled artist would be comfortable with.
PRESERVING THE LEGACY OF INDIGENOUS AFRICAN ARTISTS
In addition to sampling, celebrating and taking direct inspiration from legendary artists within Black indigenous genres of music is an equally important aspect of ethical preservation. The immortalization of West African afrobeat artists, such as Fela Kuti and Tony Allen and the impact these artists currently have on the UK Jazz scene are glaring examples. The UK Jazz bands, Ezra Collective and Kokoroko often cite Fela and Tony Allen as key sources of inspiration. On the song, ‘Life Goes On,’ by Ezra Collective featuring Sampa the Great, Ezra Collective sample Fela Kuti’s ‘Shakara,’ and Kokoroko’s discography presents a collection of traditional afrobeat music to a much more contemporary audience.
On the other hand, Nigerian artists who have little to no connection with indigenous afrobeat are equally inspired by Fela. To illustrate this, Bella Shmurda refers to himself as ‘the New Born Fela’ through the introductory song on his Hypertension (2022) album. Other artists, such as Wizkid and Burna Boy have also cited Fela as a major source of inspiration and sampled his music throughout their careers. This is questionable because Fela spoke very openly and directly about socio-political issues through his music, whereas Bella Shmurda and Wizkid do not address political issues through their work. However, Burna is a more interesting case – throughout his career, Burna has made many musical and stylistic choices which emulate Fela’s work. For instance, the repetition of ‘Amen,’ which on Burna’s song ‘Ring,’ was lifted directly from ‘Coffin for head of state’ by Fela and on one of Burna’s earlier tracks, ‘Run my race,’ he relied on interpolations from Fela’s ‘Teacher don’t teach me nonsense.’ There are many more examples like this in Burna’s discography and similar to Fela he has also created politically conscious songs such as ‘Collateral Damage,’ and ’20 10 20’. However—unlike Fela—Burna has shown no tangible commitment to the political consciousness displayed through some of his music. While certain artists may embody the stylistic or sonic attributes of artists they are inspired by, they do not always emulate the politics or moral codes these artists engaged with, as the latter is much harder and far less superficial.
THE ‘NEW FELA’ COMPLEX; WHERE DO WE DRAW THE LINE?
Admittedly, it is a lot to ask of any artist to exhibit absolute synchrony between their music, personal lives and their politics. Very few artists are able to do this authentically while still creating relatable and sonically engaging music, and listeners cannot force socio-political engagement from every artist they listen to. This being said, artists are still public figures who owe their fame and fortune to dedicated fans, and they should be held accountable when there are serious contradictions between their music and how they live their lives. This is particularly relevant to an artist like Burna, who co-opts the struggles of everyday Nigerians through his music but treats Nigerians and the issues we face with careless apathy in reality. In December 2022, he hurled insults at fans attending his concert in Lagos, whom he had kept waiting for hours. Weeks later, in response to complaints about his non-engagement in one of Nigeria’s most significant elections to date, he posted dismissive messages on his Instagram account.
Artists need to understand that being the ‘Young’ or ‘New Born’ Fela, is not just something you say but something you must prove beyond the music. It requires a complete re-evaluation of your moral and political opinions because reflecting on the times and engaging directly with politics was the foundational basis of Fela’s musical philosophy. This is by no means an endorsement of Fela as a political messiah or perfect human being. Fela’s treatment of women was deeply misogynistic and raises the fair question of where we draw the line in expecting contemporary artists to embody traits of our legends.
Grappling with such questions is a key part of ethical preservation. By acknowledging the good alongside the uncomfortable aspects of not just the music, but the socio-political codes of our legendary acts, we engage with their histories in a much more transparent and holistic way.
THE ‘NEW FELA’ COMPLEX; WHERE DO WE DRAW THE LINE?
‘Black music,’ transcends its descriptions as a sub-genre that describes music created by African artists or artists of African descent. It is a feeling and spirit that is oftentimes reflected, adapted and re-invented to create new sounds and genres, which rely heavily on samples and interpolations from the past, to define and inform the future. Ethically preserving a medium as expansive and limitless as Black music comes with its challenges, but it is not impossible. It is important to celebrate our legends, preserve their legacies and pass their ideals onto the next generation, and sampling their music is an important vehicle to achieve these objectives.
However, we must also engage with these objectives ethically and conscientiously. Though music is meant to be shared, listened to, enjoyed and moral or ethical considerations do not inform how great the music sounds, music is also a tangible source of inspiration, comfort, joy and exploration of human emotions, which is worth engaging with beyond the auditory pleasure it brings. By striving to ethically preserve Black music, whether through paying adequate royalties for a sample, obtaining the right approvals to clear an interpolation or educating younger audiences about Black music history, we demonstrate that our music and artists are treasures, worth protecting and treating with care⎈
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