BY GRAY KOTZE

The financial exploitation of Africa and its people is nothing new. It is an intrinsically morphed aspect of Africa’s pre, and post, colonial history. From the exploitative labour of slavery in the Atlantic slave trade, and the colonial mineral-profiteering of Africa’s resources, to the abusive migrant labour system during apartheid, Africa’s monetary malfeasance by big-business capitalists has been well documented. However, there is an aspect of Africa’s exploitation that has been largely ignored by the pages of the past: musical exploitation. Case in point: Solomon Linda – the author of one of the most artistically and financially rich tunes that the world has ever known.

Rian Malan’s exposé of Linda’s financial mistreatment in his article, ‘In the Jungle’, estimates Linda’s lost royalties for his song, ‘Mbube’, otherwise known as ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, as being in the region of at least $15 million. And what was Linda paid in 1939 when he first composed this song; a track that would go on to be covered by hundreds of artists, from R.E.M to The Weavers, and used in films such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and – of course – The Lion King. A laughable 10 Shillings. After Malan’s piece was published in Rolling Stone, and Linda’s financial injustice at the hands of the record company Goliath’s was brought to light, Linda’s penurious family began to receive some slender monetary reward – albeit only a glimpse of the millions in royalties which the song rightfully earned. A consolation prize for Linda, as he died without the money to afford a gravestone, but proved a welcome reward for Linda’s three remaining daughters.

Although this case did come to a modestly happy end, the question of why it took almost 70 years for justice (or rather an inkling of justice) to prevail remains. Perhaps the most important issue that Linda’s case arises however is that African musicians, and indeed musicians on a global scale, have been, and continue to be, exploited by the corporate controllers of the record landscape even today. Although many assume that recorded artists of now, and yesteryear, are amongst the richest in the world, this is not the case. The plight of musicians, and their exploitation, is still a genuine concern. Hopefully Linda’s case helps to drag the public’s awareness of this issue in to the light.

Although financial mistreatment by conglomerate record labels is still a concern today, the issue has certainly improved over time, and is a far cry from the commercial mistreatment that artists such as Linda had to endure. Joe Mogotsi of Manhattan Brothers – an Afro-jazzy, 1940s vocal group – and a contemporary of Linda described how unfairly black South Africans were treated in pecuniary matters by the record label kings, Gallo, during the formative stage of recording contracts. “When we asked at Gallo, we were told that black people are not allowed to have royalties.”

In order to produce a recording in the early 1940s, black South Africans had to sign their financial lives away. Mogotsi told of the implications of the record deals, where by signing a contract “you said take me to the gallows, and hang me.” It was in this environment that Linda sold his royalties-soul, which ensured that his millions were to find a home at the looming, American record kingdoms. “It’s not a question of it being illegal”, says Malan – who brought the story into the public eye – “it’s just unfair.”

Many other musicians, not only African, have also been manipulated unfairly like this by music moguls. After Jimi Hendrix’s death, his heirs were left to work lowly jobs while his discography generated millions of dollars a year for corporate-fireball Universal Music Group (UMG). Florence Ballard, a member of The Supremes, died an early death, supported only by welfare money, after UMG halted possible solo career earnings by banning her from publically mentioning her involvement with The Supremes, or her recordings for Motown. UMG still legally own her catalogue to this day.

Many other examples exist of artists who were financially steamrolled by powerful record labels, such as Collective Soul’s song ‘Shine’ – the number one Album Rock Song of 1994 on the Billboard charts – for which they earned almost nothing. Or TLC, the best-selling female group of all time, who declared bankruptcy after their minimal income failed to match their bills. Or even Willie Dixon, who Led Zeppelin lyrically stole from for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ – which remains one of the most popular rock songs of all time. The list continues.

So then; what will bring about a fairer treatment of musicians? Courtney Love, who wrote a ‘Letter to Recording Artists’ in the early 2000s, felt that a call for a union for label musicians was necessary. This letter highlighted the nominal percentage of earnings that musicians received from ‘the big 5’ record companies, and cited a need for a singular union which would battle for performer’s benefits. This notion of an all encompassing trade union which represents the rights of its affiliated artists is worth some thought. Although South Africa does have a musical union in the form of the Association of Independent Record Companies (AIRCO), it certainly does not include all recorded local musicians; which is something which should be addressed.

Although much has changed in the industry since the recording of ‘Mbube’, the underlying theme of musicians’ financial exploitation has remained the same. Today the biggest ‘exploiter’ in the music industry is however not the record companies – although they too play a role – but the internet, and musical piracy. This online foe currently represents a new exploitative figure to African, and world, musicians alike. However, it also represents opportunity; opportunities for local artists to break free of the big business boys, cut out the middle-man, and make music’s money independently. In this 2.0-world of business, new distribution methods have been made possible. Hopefully, due to these new possibilities, financial success for local musical talents will increase, and minimise the exploitation of future Solomon Linda’s.

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