OPINION: Kelis’ comments left me with questions about the ways artists relate to each other and the ways they get screwed over.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance has flowed into my life like a ray of sonic sunshine. It’s so fun, so house, so club and so dance, and there are so many moments of total ear candy—the pre-chorus on “Move”: “Me and my girlfriends came out to play! Fireworks and champagne/Chantilly lace…” or the soulful beat on “Break My Soul.” The song “Energy” is yet another heat rock on an album full of them, but that one led to some controversy that’s opened up Pandora’s box for me as someone who’s been watching the music industry for decades. I don’t look at this as gossip. I see it as a window into the world of recording artists and the people who determine who gets paid for their music.
The original version of “Energy” interpolated Kelis’ iconic song “Milkshake,” which led to an angry reaction by Kelis on Instagram. Beyoncé removed the interpolation from the song, but Kelis’ comments still left me with questions about the ways artists relate to each other and the ways they get screwed over.
One of Kelis’ central complaints is that Beyoncé did not call her to tell her she had sampled her. She’s not talking about officially clearing the song—that would go through lawyers and execs before it landed on Kelis’ desk (if she owned some of the publishing for the song). She’s talking about what she called “common decency,” one artist giving another a heads up that they used their thing. A nod of respect.
I was not aware that it was customary in the music business for one star to call another and say, “Hey, I used your song to make a new one.” Is that the way it is in the club of major recording artists? Kelis asserts that it is—she names a singer who called her after using her music—but I had never heard of this custom before. I called a few friends, longtime music business execs and artists, to get some understanding. These folks spoke on background because they’re not directly involved in either side of the “Energy” situation. (I also called Pharrell’s people who declined to comment.) My friends—people who have helped me understand the intricacies of the music business in the past—all said that if two artists have any sort of relationship or friendship then yes, it’s normal to make a call like that. But if you two are not friends then there’s no obligation or expectation of such a call. That call is not about money. It’s about showing respect.
If Kelis did not know about the song until it was released that means Beyoncé and her team did not have to clear it with Kelis, which means she’s got no writing credits—anyone who’s credited as a writer on a song has to sign off for the new song to be cleared. Kelis, on Instagram, said Pharrell “swindled” her out of her publishing rights. Kelis does not have a writing credit on “Milkshake.” The writers on that song are credited as Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—the Neptunes. We will probably never know whether Pharrell and Chad are the only true writers of “Milkshake.” We’ll probably never know how much or how little Kelis contributed to that record, but she has been talking about losing her publishing to Pharrell for years. In 2020 she told the Guardian she made nothing from the sales of her first two albums, which were wholly produced by the Neptunes because she was “blatantly lied to and tricked.” She told the Guardian that she was promised a three-way split but the contracts were written differently. She said, “Their argument is: ‘Well, you signed it.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to double-check it.’”
It’s not uncommon for singers to help write a song for their own album and then see their songwriting credit erased. There’s a long, sad history of younger artists signing away their publishing or having more experienced people elbow them off of credits. One example: Prince’s longtime bassist Brown Mark said in his recent autobiography today!
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