Beyonce might not run the world, as her latest song declares, but she certainly stunned it with her latest live performance at the Billboard Music Awards. But less than 24 hours later and many detractors are calling her a thief.
The accusation isn’t new. It has attended almost every one of Beyonce’s ground-breaking performances. When she came out with the song ‘Baby Boy’, a duet with Sean-Paul, many reggae fans immediately recognized Ini Kamoze’s song riffed at the end – ‘I’m stepping it hotter this year, so don’t you fight it.’ Allegedly (I haven’t checked whether this is true or not) she never cleared the rights to use it, and had to pay Kamoze one bag o’ money in royalties.
But was it stealing? Art is as much about reinvention as it is about invention; it is about returning disused things to relevance. The good artist is always plugged into a history, and ends up re-presenting and referencing that history. It is a strange and self-righteous dunceness that keeps on shouting – ‘Oh! Oh! I know where you got that from!’ as if that invalidates the project.
When the Queen Bey came out with her ‘Single Ladies’ video it wasn’t long before they were at it again. ‘Aha!’ They shouted triumphantly. ‘This isn’t yours! It’s Bob Fossi’s choreography. Look at the similarities. It’s uncanny!’ Suddenly everyone was an expert on Bob Fossi’s work, because Beyonce had returned him to the popular. The Queen Bey, I imagine, replied incredulously, ‘Uhm…that’s kind of the point! Of course the similarities are uncanny. It’s a homage to him.’
Now, once again, after her graphically stunning performance, people are claiming – oh but this was done before. I saw it on youtube. They say it as if Beyonce were making a claim to be a computer programmer or a visual effects designer. The most recent of these accustations say that Beyonce stole it from an Italian pop-singer, Lorella Cuccarini, who did something similar last year. What is ignored is that both Beyonce and Cuccarini used the same graphic company – Tribeinc, so if any plaguerism happened, they stole from themselves.
Interestingly, about the dance moves, Beyonce and her team seem very happy to acknowledge how influence works. One of the choreographer says candidly, “We prepared a lot for it. We had seen something on YouTube; we had seen these three guys from Africa, this Mozambique African dance troupe […] we were like, ‘Wow, this is an amazing movement.’ And that movement has always been in the back of our head for the last year. From there, we talked about a lot of concepts.”
This is what art does. It borrows.
Once I had sat in a workshop with the nobel laureate Derek Walcott, and he said to me, ‘Kei, only mediocre artists try to be original. Great artists cannot be bothered with that.’ And it’s true. Great artists take what is out there, and try to do it better. Which is exactly what Beyonce did – because the youtube videos out there that show other people using the same genre of graphics seem so much less grander, so much less awe-inspiring than what she did. They are supposed to prove her theft, but they seem to prove her greatness. For isn’t the true testament of any artistry, the savviness in taking what is out there, and showing us how amazing we can make it.
(Incidentally, controversial Jamaican artist, Vybz Kartel, is listed as one of the writers of Beyonce’s new song! How amazing is that?)