Public Enemy's Former Lawyer Talks Cultural Appropriation and Copyrights in Hip-Hop

"Genres of music cannot be owned, so there is no legal mechanism to protect rap artists from cultural appropriation. The best 'protection' is to have a diversity of critical voices opining on the artistic merit of the music."

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Sep 15 2014, 11:00am

Photos by Lexi Tannenholtz

It’s easy to forget that before Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj, before Missy Elliott and Eve and Gangsta Boo, even before Lil Kim defined a certain type of American icon, there were pioneer female MCs who fought to make hip-hop a safe space for women to express themselves through rhyme. 

This past August, those founding females of hip-hop and some of the most important women in the rap-music biz descended upon Martha’s Vineyard for the second annual Summer Madness Music Festival & Conference. With a guest list that included everyone from Monie Love to MC Lyte, it made perfect sense that this year's festival bore a "Ladies First" theme. According to Sean Porter, one of the event’s co-founders, the event was a "celebration of all genres of black music" intended to "counterbalance all of that negative imagery surrounding African American women."

The time felt right. There's a lot to celebrate and discuss when talking about women, race, and hip-hop these days. In 2013, no black artists topped the Billboard 100 charts, while a white artist like Macklemore nabbed the Grammy for Best Rap Album. This year, magazines claimed that Aussie newbie Iggy Azalea and her interpretation of a Southern black drawl "run hip-hop."  Not to mention, we've seen plenty of white asses in Sports Illustrated get celebrated, while an album cover featuring a single bulbous black ass wearing a pink thong caused controversy and uproar across the web.

So instead of high-fiving everyone at the conference over how awesome hip-hop is, I took the time to ask a bunch of rap's female OGs about gender in hip-hop and the impact of the so-called "white-washing" of the culture. This week we have my very practical conversation with one of the most accomplished entertainment lawyers in the game, Lisa Davis.

During the panel discussion you said that you were “like a civil rights lawyer for black people with money.” What do you mean by that?
Lisa Davis:
What I mean is that one of the only ways in which African Americans have been able to create wealth in this country is through the creation of intellectual property—music, writing, artwork, things of that nature. Historically, particularly in the entertainment industry, there’s been a practice of people not understanding the business side and therefore not maximizing their wealth. Whether it’s Jimi Hendrix and the way a manager who snatched all kinds of rights from him or jazz musicians who didn’t control their copyright. My feeling was, this is an area where black people create wealth. If they are advised and protected, maybe they can keep it.

How does cultural appropriation play into that?
Oh, well, [laughs] that’s a huge topic right now. That’s something that as a lawyer, unfortunately, I can’t protect—that’s a cultural dynamic that has to do with a larger dynamic in our society. So how does it play into it? I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you are an African American songwriter and you’ve written an early rock song. If you don’t control the publishing, then when Pat Boone does his cover or Elvis does his cover, you don’t get any money for that. However, if you retain your copyright even though you can be angry about the cultural appropriation, at least you’re profiting from that. The reality is that Elvis’s version of something is going to sell more. Like with “Hound Dog,” [Big Mama Thornton] sang it first. If she wrote that and retained the publishing, at least she could have continued to profit from it.

Now, like with rock and the blues before, a lot of white artists are making hip-hop—
Iggy Azalea.

Exactly. How do you account for the lost monetary potential of young Black artists if others seem to have so much more commercial appeal?
I don’t know how you account for it. First of all, with hip-hop, the biggest consumers are suburban kids who are not African American. So if there’s a woman artist who's not African American, they’re not going to say, "Well, this isn’t our thing." They’re going to say, "Well, this is fun or interesting too." I think it’s just about protecting folks. It’s a very challenging time for anybody to be in the music business, as you’ve heard. But protecting people along with progress so that whatever money they are making they’re able to keep.

How can you protect hip-hop artists?
Genres of music cannot be owned, unlike individual compositions, so there is no legal mechanism to protect rap artists from cultural appropriation. The best “protection” is to have a diversity of critical voices opining on the artistic merit of the music and also making sure that those who are given a platform are knowledgeable about the history of the genre they are critiquing. In terms of hip-hop artists’ ability to protect their assets, that comes down to having the right team of lawyers, managers, and business managers who will take affirmative steps to safeguard their assets and maximize their earning potential. No one is immune from market forces, so there is no way to “guarantee” a certain amount of income. But creative managers can look for ways to expand their commercial opportunities, and savvy lawyers and business managers will endeavor to help artists keep their money. An example, not from hip-hop, though, is the venture capital fund set up by Carmelo Anthony to invest in tech start-ups. 

As an entertainment lawyer, have you noticed a lack of opportunities for African American artists?
I think that that’s always a problem. I work in film and television and theater, and I think there’s always less opportunity for people of color than there has been for white artists. That has startlingly been the case. In some ways, because the demographics of the country are changing, that may change in a different, but better, direction.

How so?
I think there’s a little buying power of blacks and Latinos, particularly because, if you combine blacks, Latinos, and Asians, it’s about 35 to 37 percent of the population. When we talk about people under 18, it’s a majority minority. So what appeals to that group can potentially sell, like, double platinum.

You’ve worked with artists like Public Enemy and Redman. Have they ever spoken to you about this?
Oh my goodness, yes. But a long time ago, so I don’t want to put anything out there. I think it’s more what you say, not exactly a particular artist, but when you look at Black Twitter you see how we feel about cultural appropriation. People put it right out there.

Follow Lauren on Twitter.

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