Damian Marley & Nas
When discussing contemporary rap, the old adage of ‘what’s new is old, and what’s old is new’ often applies. In a genre of music that has the maestros cleverly repurposing old music to create new sounds, many young people aren’t aware that the songs their parents and grandparents listened to is the foundation for a lot of what they are currently listening to today.
Rap samples old jazz, funk, soul, and R&B songs. This is widely known. What isn’t widely known is that there’s quite a lot of rap that samples old African music as well. The track record isn’t as extensive as the treasure chests of samples from jazz, funk and soul records, but you can expect a lot more of this as technology and globalization help to make the world smaller and facilitate more frequent cultural exchanges. Part of that exchange is access to great music that people outside of Africa have never heard, or know little about.
Legitimate, legal sampling of African music that fully credits and compensates the original musician should be the standard across the board, but history tells a different tale. Start digging and you find cases of appropriating and outright stealing of material from African musicians, many of whom are/were unaware of it, and/or don’t have the resources or clout to take legal action. Many people know about Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa being plagiarized by a few American musicians, most notably by Michael Jackson, but there are many more cases.
One example of theft not widely known was from “The Godfather of Soul” himself, James Brown. While on tour in Cameroon in the 1975, Brown met Andre Marie Tala, a local up and coming blind musician. Brown was so impressed by Tala, he asked him for some of his music so he could get a vibe of the music scene in Cameroon. Tala obliged, and what he handed over included the song Hot Koki. Two years later James Brown released the song, Hustle!!! Dead on It. But there was a problem. Brown’s song was the exact same song as Hot Koki, but in English. It had the same melody, beat and arrangements. Brown had full credit rights as the composer. Tala later sued Brown, and after a long drawn out process in court, he won his case against Brown. Ironically, James was to become one of the most sampled artists around once digital sampling really took off in the 1980s).
For a more recent example, there is the case of Jean-Marie Tiam and Maurice Foty, who were known as J.M. Tim and Foty, a duo from Cameroon. In 1977, they released a song called Douala by Night. J.M. Tim and Foty disbanded in the early 80s, but Tiam carried on as a solo musician. While working on a solo album some 25 years later, Tiam was planning to record an updated version of Douala by Night, when he was told by other musicians that the song was not his to record, and that it was a song by Missy Elliot. Outraged, he investigated the matter and found out that Missy Elliot released a song in 2002 titled Dog in Heat and featuring Method Man and Redman. The song was produced by Timbaland, who stole the beat from Doula by Night. Tiam sued Timbaland, and they settled out of court.
These are just a few examples. In my recent article about The Lijadu Sisters, I discussed how they had their material stolen by the rapper Nas. I think it’s important to highlight these examples of intellectual property theft, and not only because it happens far too often. On the one hand, "good enough to steal" can serve to alert people to the value of music (and artists) they may have taken for granted. You'd rather it didn't take intellectual theft for people to appreciate something, but sometimes we're just deaf or blind. On the other, many people (including fellow Africans) are not aware of the long history of intellectual kleptomania inflicted on African artists, so the contributions of Africa to global culture are diminished, albeit slightly, with each case that goes unnoticed. Thus it is critical that we keep this in the consciousness of younger Africans, lest we all forget. It's not ancient history, and we’re no longer in the early days of hip-hop when everyone thought everything was up for grabs. Perhaps artists just think Africa is so far away that no one will know.
Nonetheless, there are many legal samples of African music by western musicians. The boom in interest in African music in the last decade has created a mini industry of sampling. Compared to the old standbys of funk, soul, jazz and R&B, all of this is fresh. There are tons of examples of African songs that have been sampled, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll narrow it down to five notable examples. This just scratches the surface.
1. Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism Is the Boss by Fela Kuti was sampled by The Roots on I Will Not Apologize
2. Fear Not for Man by Fela Kuti was sampled by Mos Def on Fear Not of Man
3. Kyenkyen Bi Adi M'awu by Alhaji K. Frimpong was sampled by Gnarls Barkley on Storm Coming
4. Yegelle Tezeta by Mulatu Astatke was sampled by Nas and Damian Marley on As We Enter
5. Quit it by Miriam Makeba was sampled by Devin the Dude on Doobie Ashtray
Play fair, credit and compensate the source artists, and it’s all good.