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Rude Citizenship: Jamaican Musical Challenges to Copyright(ed) Culture
The Quietus , October 17th, 2018 09:15

Ahead of a major festival devoted to issues around copyright, Larisa Mann explores the relationship that Jamaican soundsystem culture has to the concept of musical ownership. Photo of Sister Nancy by Campagnie Valentin

In our 'everything is on the internet and everything is free' modern culture, debates over copyright are raging like they've never raged before. This will be addressed at the 100 Years of Copyright festival, taking place at the HKW in Berlin. 100 Years of Copyright aims to "highlight the strengths and weaknesses of these legal concepts, their interactions with cultural norms and musical practices: what should, what can copyright protect? What is an original? Who owns the rights and who earns money with them? And how has creative circumvention and disregard of copyright promoted musical innovation?" Performances and talks over the weekend feature the likes of Sister Nancy (pictured), People Like Us, Dennis Alcapone, Mad Professor, Mark Ernestus & Tikiman and DJ Ripley. You can find out more about the full programme here. To whet your appetite, and for those who can't make it to Berlin, we hear from Larisa Mann, an expert in legal issues around copyright who has a long-standing interest in the cultural capital of marginalised communities. The interview was conducted by Jan Kedves

Your research focuses on the ways historically marginalised communities in Jamaica have created autonomous cultural expressions and how copyright does not serve these communities particularly well. In what way does copyright contradict Jamaican musical practice?

Larisa Kingston Mann: Copyright laws focus on works in fixed form. They are a set of rules that say: This is what you can or cannot do with recordings or compositions. Different cultures might fit better or worse within those rules, because they think or act differently around their cultural production. What ownership means varies in different places. If you are part of a colonised culture and your colonisers are trying to erase it, your feelings about cultural ownership may differ from those of the colonisers. In Jamaica, you get a situation where you have people – mostly the descendants of enslaved Africans – who were torn away from their culture and had it forcibly erased. They had to make their culture out of what they remembered, out of what they carried with them in their bodies and in their minds and what was around them, which included other cultural works. Oral tradition is a useful survival skill when being denied access to material ways of controlling your own culture. You repeat things orally because you can't write them down, so you have to remember them. And you want to create shared knowledge in your community, because that's what keeps your community together.

Prior to the introduction of copyright law, much of the European musical tradition was also created from shared knowledge. The German "Volkslied" was not a fixed work. It didn't have one single author, but was passed on orally, altered, and interpreted – it was "remixed" if you will.

LKM: What's interesting about Jamaican popular music is that audio recordings are part of the oral tradition in the sense that recordings, even though they seem like a fixed work, are actually treated as an element of vocabulary that you can use to create more works. When people record music in Jamaica they will often press the instrumental of a song on one side and the full song on the other side. When that record goes out into the world, there is the expectation that the instrumental is something that other people are going to use. Therefore, built into this material aspect of the music is the understanding that a work is not fixed and that people will interact with it.

It's a similar situation with so-called dubplates – when producers press new riddims on one-off acetate discs, which are not intended for resale but for testing out in front of live audiences, right?

LKM: Exactly. The process involves getting feedback from a community, because in the historical tradition of Jamaican music you don't cut a dubplate as a music producer just to play it to other producers. You cut it to play it in a sound clash or at a street party. You play the dubplate for the community, and they will give you feedback, that's all part of the creative process. All of these traditions also serve to keep authority within the community of people who surround the music scene. Yet, this is something that copyright law is not related to. It doesn't help facilitate that sort of location of authority. It's not designed to recognise shared collective authorship.

Would you say the Jamaican dub tradition probably also challenges the Western notion of composition, in the sense that it is as much about taking elements of music out of the mix rather than putting them in?

LKM: That is a great example of looking at music as a work in progress intrinsically. In dub, nothing is finished. Much of what you do as a producer is play with concepts of time and control of sound. In many creative traditions, these experiences–adding an echo or a reverb–aren't recognised as part of authorship. Copyright doesn't traditionally encompass what the person on the mixing board did. So dub breaks apart our idea of what an author is; or what a work is; or even what originality is. Because again, in dub, originality does not necessarily reside in a completely original bassline.

You mentioned colonialism: Isn't it somewhat ironic that the record label which was arguably the most important in first exposing the world to Jamaican musical culture – Island Records – was founded by a white British guy, who came from a super-rich family, which had acquired its wealth by the historical exploitation of slave labour on sugar plantations in Jamaica?

LKM: Well, it's a similar dynamic of, like, I'm a white American professor and a lot of my career is made studying the music that is made by poor black people, and I have been making my name and gaining respect and getting to travel internationally from that. I try to turn the resources around where I can, but we are still in a system that is white supremacist. Whatever we do, we are in it, and it's going to shape what we have access to. Similarly for Chris Blackwell. I'm sure he genuinely loved the music. I'm sure it's also true that his label, Island Records, did do good things for people in Jamaica, but always much less than it should have, for sure. So the question, for me at least, isn't really one of purity – like, can this be done purely and perfectly – but more: What are the moments at which these projects can be made better? And what are the best tools for making sure that oppressed people move more towards autonomy and liberation? How could power be distributed more equally?

When Jamaica joined the World Trade Organisation in 1995, it also had to join the World Intellectual Property Organisation [WIPO], which aims to harmonise copyright laws internationally. Technically, this means that music producers in Jamaica could now start trying to charge for use and borrowing from their music outside Jamaica, too. Have you come across recent high-profile copyright cases in Jamaica?

LKM: I don't have a specific case. When I was doing research in Jamaica I looked at the legal records, but most of these things never go to court, because courts are not places to which most people involved in the music scene would ever resort. In Jamaica, the legal system still looks colonial– the judges still wear the white wigs. Many people are very suspicious of that system as a whole, and for good reason. The very process of participating in that system is quite remote. Nobody would assume that a court is the place where you're going to go to achieve anything good. Therefore, there are many people feeling they've been ripped off, but that doesn't mean they see a way to turn that into a legal case. One thing that has happened recently is that there is both concern and frustration around what people are calling tropical house music–songs like Justin Bieber's 'Sorry'. Some people in Jamaica are frustrated that Jamaican rhythms and references are going big internationally, yet there isn't any money coming back to Jamaica or Jamaicans, and people don't necessarily credit Jamaica or Jamaicans. Tropical house erases the fact that a lot of that music is just light dancehall. There is concern over credits, but not just for individuals, of Jamaica itself as a place, which should attract respect. But copyright isn't currently the right tool for making sure that credits are given, because credit, legal ownership and exclusive control are linked and gravitate towards the powerful.

Three years ago, a tropical house remix, which the German producer Felix Jaehn did for the song 'Cheerleader' by Jamaican singer OMI, hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The German then-Secretary of State, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, publicly celebrated this as the "first German No. 1 in the US" for 26 years, since Milli Vanilli's 'Blame It On the Rain', even though 'Cheerleader' was produced by Sly & Robbie in Jamaica.

LKM: Of course remixing can be very creative, but I agree that claiming cultural ownership is a statement about your relationship to power. I'm very suspicious of people claiming ownership when they are already affiliated with the dominant power. In the US also, people are happy to claim ownership of culture as American culture even when the roots, references, and the sonic feel of the music come from elsewhere. What I'm interested in from a research perspective are the questions: What is the turning point at which a culture becomes acceptable, and how does that always seem to involve removing the authority and the resources from the marginalised colonised communities? And how could one do that differently? I'd be very interested to know how 'Cheerleader' made its way through GEMA [the German Copyright Administration Act]. Because GEMA is known for notoriously over-enforcing copyright in a way that many musicians hate. So is GEMA saying: This Jamaican singer needs paying for this song? I would presume that Jamaica, as part of the Berne Convention, has a treaty where GEMA is supposed to make sure the money gets to Jamaican artists. I'm assuming, but I'd be curious to know how that works. Because again, certain kinds of authorship seem to count, and other kinds seem to count less.

What do you think, in an ideal world, would be the best legislature? Could there be a copyright to encompass the contributions of audiences–even, for example, the way feedback from crowds at street dances and sound clashes influences the creative process in the studio?

LKM: That's an interesting question, but I don't know if I can answer it, because I think what is important about Jamaican music is that it responds to the situations the world is in now. The reason that street dances, dancehall traditions, and sound systems developed, the reason they matter, is because they serve first the communities kept out of other kinds of formal institutions. They allow them to create a cultural autonomy in the face of the system that doesn't allow them that much space. If we are concerned about the problems these communities face, the solutions to those are outside copyright, even outside the law in particular. The solution is, I think, reparations, redistribution of resources, and labour rights. That should happen first. I'm also concerned about not over-regulating – not trying to design a law for everything. Maybe we should just not apply the law to certain kinds of practices, spaces, or people. There still need to be places where the law does not intervene.

To find out more about 100 Years Of Copyright, please visit the festival website

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