In his controversial book Capitalist Nigger, Dr Chika Onyeani argues that one of the biggest problems with Africa is the fact that the continent gives the world raw materials that are taken overseas to the Northern Hemisphere, remade into something of value, and sold back to Africa at an enormous profit.
It seems though that this is not just the case with mineral resources, but also human ones – and the music industry is the perfect hotbed for it.
Starting with Shakira’s adaptation of Zangalewa into WakaWaka (as reported on in another blog), this was the case of an American-based artist, with a big label behind her (Sony), who was able to take something African and turn it into a global hit, which benefited the big label most of all. Then there is the case of Manu Dibango, also a Cameroonian artist who sued Michael Jackson twice for the plagiarised use of the hook from his song Soul Makossa (‘mama-say, mama-sa, mama-co-sa’), first for Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ from Thriller, and again for use in Rihanna’s song Don’t Stop The Music, both of which were massive hits for the artists, and both of which made the record labels a bundle of money.
But nothing could top the blatant highway robbery of Solomon Linda’s Uyimbube, which over time and through the hands of many a music thief became the smash mega-hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Thanks to the intervention of the South African Government, Solomon Linda’s family eventually got a lump sum paid out to them, but it is a fraction of the millions that the record labels made off of the musical mind of a South African Zulu farmer who became a cleaner at Gallo Records, and used his time there to record this song that changed the history of the music industry.
As with WakaWaka, maybe Solomon Linda and Manu Dibango would never have been immortalised in music if the American music machine hadn’t come in to make them bigger than they were. But again, at what price? It’s like the attempts by a Swiss hot chocolate maker to patent Rooibos tea, which grows indigenously in our beautiful land. Who would benefit more from such a scheme – the local farmers and growers, or the Swiss?
It is often said that the fall of the music industry and the ruin of the major music empires serves the record labels right, for all the underhanded thievery and crookery that they have been involved in. Maybe over time, Africa has learnt a lesson or three, and we have all emerged on the other side a little older, wiser, and more savvy…