So I did a thing tonight as part of this thing. And though I know no one came to see me, when the real stars of the show were Shelby J and Dr. Fink, several people said kind words to me after about my talk. So I figured I’d share it here, with a few helpful links dropped in — especially since I haven’t added anything new to the blog end of this site in way too long.
Reminds Me of Somethin’: Prince and the Racial Politics of Copyright
Arun asked me to be on this panel to offer a critical media studies perspective on the music industry and copyright and racism and to explain how all those things relate to Prince. And if I were going to do all that justice, we’d need the length of time it would take for a typical Prince concert . . . and I’ve got about as much time as it takes to play two songs. Which is fitting, since there are two particular Prince song-moments that I want to use to frame my comments.
The first of these comes from what turned out to be Prince’s last concert, which he opened with a version of the Staple Singers’ “When Will We Be Paid.” In the Staples’ hands, this was a straight up civil rights protest song: a demand for reparations to the black folks who built this country, from Jamestown through Jim Crow. All of that is still there in Prince’s version, but given his public feuds with record labels and streaming services, his take on the Staples’ classic can also be read as a stinging rebuke to the music industry and its historical mistreatment of black artists.
It’s a well-deserved rebuke, one very much in line with how people typically think about the relationship between musical copyright and race: i.e., to point to the many ways that a white-dominated music industry has abused, exploited, and stolen from black artists over the years. For instance, white producers and managers and deejays and archivists have formally claimed songwriting credit (and royalties) for music actually created by black artists. The industry has stiffed black artists on royalty payments far in excess of the rate that white artists have been stiffed (and given that the industry has been quite happy to shortchange white artists too, that’s no small claim). The industry has under-promoted black artists (and over-promoted their less talented white imitators) in ways that have denied black artists fame and fortune that rightly should have been theirs. And so on.
The list of injustices here is long and ugly, and Prince knew enough of that history to fight against it when he could. It’s at the core of his original dispute with Warner Brothers — the one that led him to change his name to a symbol and write SLAVE on his face. He fought long and hard to regain and retain legal and economic control over his music, knowing full well that such control had historically been denied to most black artists. In asking the musical question, “when will we be paid?” Prince was (among other things) calling out an industry that was built on the backs of black artists — from ragtime to jazz to r&b to soul to funk to hip-hop — but that also routinely and systematically neglected those artists. There’s real injustice here, and over the course of his career, Prince was one of the most outspoken and militant artists to push back against the industry on these issues.
At the same time, however, I think that Prince fought the wrong battle here. Not, mind you, because his cause wasn’t righteous — it was — but because he fought the industry largely on its terms (i.e., who should get paid for this music?), when the real problem runs much deeper than that. The problem here is not that copyright is a noble legal and economic tool that’s been abused by a racist industry. The industry is racist. But the deeper problem is that, at its very core, copyright is built on fundamentally Eurocentric notions of property and authorship and creativity. This is true for any form of copyright, but it’s especially obvious when it comes to music, where the aesthetic qualities that are well protected by the law are precisely those that lie at the center of European musical traditions (melody, harmony, and lyrics) — while rhythm, meter, and timbre (i.e., the aesthetic qualities at the core of African and African-American musical traditions) aren’t protected by the law very well at all. Beyond that, copyright rests on the ultimately untenable fiction that “real” creativity involves nothing like influence, homage, reinterpretation, or remix: that people somehow make new art without ever drawing on (or engaging with, or reworking) other people’s art. And here’s where I want to turn to my second musical example.
There’s a moment, about two and a half minutes into “Gett Off,” when Prince growls, “Reminds me of somethin’ James usedta say.” We hear an old-school crackle of a well-worn vinyl record, then the main horn riff from JB’s “Mother Popcorn,” while Prince utters (and misquotes!) lines from the original song, “I like ‘em fat [James evidently liked ‘em tall], I like ‘em proud, you gotta have a mother for me . . .” It’s not clear if the horn riff is a digital sample, or a feed from a turntable, or a convincing re-creation of the original sound by new musicians — and since this is Prince we’re talking about, I’m not willing to rule out the latter — but the homage to the Godfather of Soul here is even more obvious than when Prince “borrowed” the main guitar hook from “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” to use as the main guitar hook for “Kiss.” Part of why it’s unclear whether “Gett Off” contains a sample or a scratch or a re-creation is because there’s no formal credit given to Brown in the album’s liner notes, which claim that all the music and lyrics, including “Gett Off,” were composed by Prince and the New Power Generation. And the JB quotation — regardless of its actual provenance — gives the lie to that claim.
To be as clear as possible, I am not pointing to this moment in “Gett Off” as an example of musical “theft” on Prince’s part. Quite the contrary. It would be very hard for most people to confuse “Gett Off” with “Mother Popcorn,” the sample in question represents a very small piece of both songs, and Prince is explicitly paying tribute to one of his major musical heroes. At a cultural level, the line between legitimate influence (borrowing) and illegitimate influence (stealing) is a very fuzzy, very slippery one, but I’m comfortable with placing this particular example squarely on the good side of that line. Nonetheless, at a legal and economic level, those nuances don’t matter very much. Had James Brown (or, more likely, Polydor Records) decided to take exception to what Prince did here, neither the industry nor the courts would necessarily have seen “Gett Off” as an acceptable form of musical tribute, since there is no provision in either the copyright code or existing case law where “I was trying to pay homage to a respected elder” works as a legitimate defense against charges of copyright infringement.
Put all these things together and copyright has been especially cruel to black music. It has no way to deal appropriately with the blues. Or jazz. Or soul. Or hip-hop. All of which depend (albeit in radically different ways) on the novel recombination of communal musical tropes, on collective improvisation (rather than formal written scores), and on the use of direct quotations as a way of acknowledging and honoring important musical forebears. These are all culturally important, aesthetically innovative musical practices, but copyright is fundamentally incapable of understanding or respecting or protecting the aesthetic values and cultural traditions at stake in these practices.
Prince was a unique talent, but he didn’t spring up out of nowhere. His creativity depended in many ways on his ability to recombine things he learned from a vast host of other artists who had come before him. When he died, I did what a lot of people did. I turned to the music. His music most of all, of course, but also the music made by people who influenced him. Part of how I handled the shock of his passing was to make mix CDs. And part of what came out of that process was a two-disc set that I called The Village. 43 songs from artists who, in an ideal world, should have been part of any Prince tribute concert, but who had passed on before him. JB and the Staples and Jimi and Nina and Barry and Dinah and Marvin and Rosetta and Sam and Etta and Curtis and dozens more. It took a village — a soulful, bluesy, funky, rocking, gospel-tinged village — to raise Prince. Those mixes were a way for me to reflect on the musical traditions that he drew on — and that he then extended.
They also point to the ways that music has been made for centuries. Long before there was such a thing as sound recording, much less a recording industry. Long before music was turned into a form of property, a generator of profit, or a commodity. People make music. Other people hear that music and are inspired enough by it to make music of their own. This is how culture simultaneously holds on to a thread of history and tradition, while also managing to make itself anew, over and over again. These are the practices that have tied multiple strands of black music together — and given it much of its power — for more than a century. But neither the industry nor the law are able to deal with that very well.