I hate to beat an old comedy trope to death, but in this case, I couldn’t muster any other appropriate response. I just saw the story by Robert Patrick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Flame, Lecrae and Da TRUTH have filed suit against Katy Perry and Capitol Records for copyright infringement. In a stunning reversal of musical tradition, these Christian emcees are claiming that someone else took their style — specifically alleging that Perry’s 2013 single “Dark Horse” bears a more-than-coincidental resemblance to their 2008 hit “Joyful Noise.”
This lawsuit is a ridiculous embarrassment, not only for these emcees specifically, but for all of Christian hip-hop.
See, even though CHH has been around for a long time (at least three decades), its popularity as a genre subculture is still dwarfed by the global footprint that hip-hop has left in the general market. Thus, when news about any Christian hip-hop artist makes the rounds in the blogosphere, it impacts the public’s perception of Christian hip-hop music overall.
Now, let me be clear — I’m not saying this lawsuit is entirely without merit. On the contrary, fans of Flame and Lecrae had been making the comparison for months before this suit, which is how the Katy Perry single was brought to the artists’ attention in the first place. So obviously, there is some sort of similarity. Judge for yourself by listening to a Soundcloud mix of both songs for comparison purposes, compiled by Flame’s DJ, Cho’zyn Boy. (I tried to embed, but my WordPress theme won’t allow it.)
Go listen and come back. (I’ll wait.) After you listen, it’s clear that an argument can be made, from a purely intellectual property standpoint, that the suit has merit. There is definitely a resemblance between the two songs.
But to me, that’s all it is — a resemblance. In the same way that the overall concepts and storylines of the Ubisoft video game WATCH_DOGS and the CBS procedural Person of Interest resemble each other, because they both deal extensively with electronic surveillance and vigilante justice. Both “Joyful Noise” and “Dark Horse,” at least in their beginning sections, have a similar basic drum pattern and a similar synth lead line. But the latter never sampled the former. And in neither case is that beginning section the entire basis, creatively or aurally, of the overall song recording. The songs have different layers of instrumentation with different chord structures, different melodies, at different tempos, and in different keys. If I were the judge, I’d throw it out.
But for a moment, let’s just set that aside. Let’s assume that from a legal, intellectual property perspective, this lawsuit is airtight, and no judge would ever dare rule in favor of the defendants. There are still four huge reasons why this lawsuit was a bad idea.
1. It’s embarrassing because it doesn’t make sense.
According to the Post-Dispatch article, the suit includes the following complaint: “Joyful Noise” has been “irreparably tarnished by its association with the witchcraft, paganism, black magic, and Illuminati imagery evoked by the same music in ‘Dark Horse.’”
Seriously? That’s laughable.
First of all, many of Flame and Lecrae’s fans are children in conservative Christian households who aren’t allowed to listen to secular radio or watch MTV, VH1, or even YouTube without adult supervision. They probably have no idea that Katy Perry song exists. And secondly, if they do manage to hear it in their friend’s mom’s minivan or at the mall or whatever, they’ll probably think that Katy Perry’s song sounds like Flame, not vice versa. It’s just human nature… people always compare later music to whatever they heard earlier. So if anything, it’s Katy Perry’s rep that would be tarnished, although even that is a stretch.
2. It’s embarrassing because it makes the plaintiffs look naive at best and hypocritical at worst.
Hip-hop blogger Sketch the Journalist, in a brief reflection piece at The Houston Chronicle’s “Jesus Musik” blog, said that Flame himself released a single that bore an uncanny resemblance to another collaboration between Bruno Mars and Eminem. The implication is, y’know, glass houses and all that. (Here’s a link if you don’t know the cliché.)
Frankly, even if you don’t think it’s hypocritical to accuse someone else of doing something that you appear to have done, it’s still a naive way to examine the realities of music production in general, especially in hip-hop. We’re not talking about some ornate, neo-baroque melody here. We’re talking about a simple beat with an 808-style clap on beat three, with a synth line that travels across monotonous 8th notes, that gradually shift pitch down.
There are similar attributes in literally thousands of different rap songs created in the last half-decade, enough to make plausible the idea that sometimes producers can come up with similar ideas at the same time. This happens all the time in comedy — think of all the Mens Wearhouse jokes after George Zimmer was fired — so it’s plenty likely to happen in music, too. So to claim otherwise makes several veteran hip-hop artists seem like they have no idea how the sausage is made.
3. It’s embarrassing because it looks unbiblical.
Consider the fake words of Not Jesus (or if you prefer your fake quotes with real authentic butter taste, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Jesus):
“You’ve heard it said ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say, FILE SUIT against those who persecute you. Sue, and then after the inevitable news cycle churn, settle for a decent amount. But make sure those files stay sealed, or you’re gonna have a messy P.R. situation on your hands, so it’s best to just avoid the press for awhile. Stay in the dark, that’s what I always say.”
According to theology professor Jay Phelan of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Jesus said something that Christians have been trying to explain away for centuries — that we’re supposed to bless our enemies. Even assuming that Katy Perry, once a celebrated Christian who has since publicly renounced her faith, should be classified as an enemy combatant to militant emcees like Flame and Da T.R.U.T.H., they still missed a golden opportunity to do something to bless her.
I mean honestly… what’s going to capture someone’s attention more, a lawsuit because you violated their “Christian” intellectual property (I included scare quotes around “Christian” in reference to what I call The Sentient Song Fallacy) or a humblebrag tweet shouting out to Perry and a link that highlights the similarity? The latter has a chance to build a relational bridge, which, hey you never know, with God all things are possible … could maybe end up with Perry, like the prodigal, coming back to the faith. But the latter is pretty much a legal transaction and little else.
4. It’s embarrassing because it looks like like a naked money grab.
In case you think I’m being a little too pollyanna about all this, I’m a musician too. I understand the need to protect one’s intellectual property. And I certainly have no sympathy for the defendants, all of whom are, I’m sure, quite wealthy.
But this isn’t Metallica lashing out against Napster, or Prince refusing to be on Spotify. The existence of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” in no way inhibits or prevents Flame, Lecrae or Da TRUTH from making money selling “Joyful Noise.” If anything, it might even cause more sales, as fans flood message boards accusing Perry of copying the original beat. So this isn’t just a matter of independent musicians protecting their livelihood.
There was a time, not long ago, when even the idea of making a decent living as a hip-hop musician doing primarily faith-based music, was so far-fetched, it was borderline delusional. But guys like Lecrae, Andy Mineo, Trip Lee, Flame and Da T.R.U.T.H. — all current or former members of the Reach Records crew — have changed that perception. I don’t know any of them personally and have no access to their financial records, but from the outside it’s obvious that they’re all enjoying a level of exposure and sales that was virtually impossible for similarly skilled and anointed emcees to achieve in decades past.
But along with that success come the trappings of wealth. Like the parable of the rich fool, there’s always a temptation to rely on material wealth instead of God’s provision. And I’m not sure if that’s what motivated this lawsuit, but it sure doesn’t look like they’re motivated by God’s glory or what would be the most effective public witness. I’ve defended Lecrae in the past for collaborating with secular artists, but this seems pretty indefensible.
Lawsuits like this are an unfortunate reality in the music business. If anything, I’d bet this was just a case of an overzealous attorney who gave bad advice to three of his clients, all of whom happen to be Christian hip-hop artists. I’d like to think that this lawsuit is not a true indicator of their heart motivation for doing music, and that three careers that span over a decade of making authentic, Christ-focused hip-hop won’t be derailed over this. If it can happen with Kirk Franklin, it can happen here, too.
But I hope this can be settled quickly and quietly.
So get it done, fellas! And don’t make me upgrade my “Really?!?” to a “SERIOUSLY, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!”
Lecrae has since commented on the lawsuit, indicating that it was more Flame’s than his idea. I’m not sure if that means he has actively withdrawn his name from the suit or not. This makes sense, as artistically this kind of move seems antithetical to what Lecrae has been about more recently. It confirms my initial suspicion, that Flame has been the main one pushing the suit. Smart move on Lecrae’s part to distance himself from it, though it remains to be seen whether he’ll be a part of any settlement package.