Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars” video in appropriation scandal

The appropriation of visual artist Lina Iris Viktor’s work in the video to Black Panther soundtrack song ‘All The Stars’ has become an international scandal following the publication of a New York Times article in which she says she declined participation in the film project due to unfavourable financial and artistic terms.

A near-exact facsimile of Viktor’s work from her ‘Constellations’ series appears in the Kendrick Lamar and SZA collaboration, with further motifs inspired by the artist appearing in a 19-second segment of the video.

Kendrick Lamar, along with Top Dawg Entertainment label head Anthony Tiffith “produced and curated” the soundtrack after Lamar was apparently handpicked by Black Panther director Ryan Coogler.

Initial coverage of the apparent plagiarism by website OkayAfrica bore the approving tone that presupposes a prior financial and copyright agreement. However, Viktor states that when contacted for the first time in November 2016, she found the financial and artistic terms unacceptable.

Viktor’s lawyer Christopher Robinson is quoted as saying that her client was initially contacted by Jay Hart, a Marvel set decorator about featuring ‘Constellations I’ in the movie, which was then called Motherland. She declined on the basis of the terms, only to be contacted again a year later about participation in promotional campaigns for the film. Following a request that she “enter into an exclusive license for the proposed artworks, thereby foregoing all artistic control,” she again refused participation according to the New York Times article.

Viktor, who is represented by the US based Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, and whose work was exhibited at the FNB Joburg Art Fair in 2017, is gearing up for a solo exhibition at the Armory Show in March, an exhibition that will include works from ‘Constellations I’.

Of course, Viktor’s work is not the only one to get referenced in the video, directed by Dave Meyers and The Little Homies, a reference to Lamar and TDE president Dave Free. There are a plethora of references to African cultural movements, like the sapeurs of the Congo and the pantsula culture of South Africa.

In the music video, all of these references appear in a decontextualised mélange that seems to premise aesthetic over a narrative thread. In describing her work, Viktor has stated that she sought to address the disembodied feeling she endured as a result of her family’s exit from Liberia and having to subdue her sense of national identity while being immersed in American and British culture. She also mentions, in an interview with the BBC that she sought, in particular with her 2017 UK exhibition ‘Black Exodus’, to create “an immersive environment around blackness to reposition people’s positions and notions around” it.

The appropriation of Viktor’s work, given its context, is starkly ironic, especially when force fitted into a song whose meaning seems to be about personal triumph, success and the pressure that those can wreak on personal relationships and friendships.

With the Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) team not responding publicly to the claims, lyrics such as “I hate people that feel entitled/ look at me crazy ‘cause I ain’t invite you” (from ‘All The Stars’) can now, unfortunately, be seen as a riposte by The Little Homies not only to ubiquitous enemies but to Viktor herself.

Of course, in the diasporic world that the Black Panther film and soundtrack purportedly celebrate, borrowing and cross-(Atlantic) pollination is nothing abnormal, but when, to paraphrase Viktor’s lawyer, “a no ceases to be a no,” it lends an unfortunate metaphoric bent to a relationship built on shared pain.

The grossly unfair terms alluded to in Viktor’s interaction with the creative teams behind Black Panther- with the artist being expected to forgo ownership of her work – lay plain the fact that economics, in this case, seem to have trumped any semblance of respect for that history and its actual meaning. In a similar manner to how Beyoncé uses images of the American South’s black cultural life in ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Formation’ (where there’s a distance between that actual cultural experience and its representation in Beyoncé’s music), signs have, for years, been hinting at the larger diaspora and the continent of Africa as the new sites of black on black appropriation.

Remember how dancehall artist Agent Sasco was minimally credited for scene-stealing performances in ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ and ‘Yeezus’? And, not to pick on the Knowleses but the pall of Solange’s ‘Losing You’ video is but a milder, scene-setter for the The Little Homies’ faux-intergalactic ghettoscapes.

Judging by this first strike, the astral travelling here is not about inter-planetary dialogue across the black worlds. And it is not on friendly, diasporic terms. It is about capitalism, couched in whatever tropes, happening on its next feeding frenzy.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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