Earlier this week Beyoncé announced that she has pulled the sample of Kelis’ legendary anthem “Milkshake” from the end of her “Energy” track off her most recent studio album RENAISSANCE. According to Rolling Stone, Tidal and Apple have appeared to have “removed an interpolation of “Milkshake” that appeared at the tail end of “Energy.” This is a good thing, because as Stephanie wrote last week, Kelis is totally entitled to her feelings about the song, and the lack of information she was given about the sample being used.
But The Breakfast Club didn’t waste any time last week choosing not to support Kelis, with both Charlamagne and DJ Envy taking a business approach to the situation, arguing that if she doesn’t own her records she doesn’t have a right to know or decide how it will be used. Charlamagne even doubled down and said that Kelis seemed like she wanted to get something off her chest, the most obvious dog whistle to the angry Black woman stereotype, and a form of invalidation. All this during a segment where the wrong songs were being reported. Yesterday, they correctly reported Beyoncé taking the “Milkshake” interpolation off “Energy”, yet both Envy and Charlamagne repeated they don’t hear the similarity, with Charlamagne claiming to not understand the issue, because he thought it was about Kelis not being credited, saying she was credited.
Angela Yee had to remind both of them the difference between a straight sample and an interpolation, and the issue is about the compensation, and quoted Kelis’ words about the rights to her music not being her own. This kind of gaslighting and glossing over issues is not new when it comes to Black women, and is definitely not new when it comes to DJ Envy and Charlamagne. As I’ve written before, Charlamagne, through The Breakfast Club (or on his own platforms), often engages in careless or harmful rhetoric toward Black women, even sometimes toward a Black woman sitting in the room being interviewed by them. I feel like they both understand what the issue is, and just don’t care. The business of music is one both of them profit off of, and they own many of their own rights (and when not, clearly signed some great contracts) yet they clearly are unable to understand the simplicity of artistry and intellectual property when it’s not about themselves. Which is a shame.
But what about everybody else? There is clearly some kind of disconnect because people are out here justifying reducing Kelis signing a bad contract at 17 or 18, and likely rallying against student loans and being activists in the next breath. It’s not even just a Beyhive thing (although they can be very ridiculous). Regular, thinking people are saying that they “respect Kelis as an artist” but “people sign bad deals all the time”, “that is the business.” Is this not the same capitalism we are trying to interrogate or is all that wiped away because it’s Beyoncé? How is Kelis’ “anger misdirected” when she also clearly directed it to Pharrell and Chad Hugo?
Kelis said she knows what she owns and what she doesn’t, but have we forgotten what we own when we are having these discussions? As Black people, do we understand the irreparable damage ownership (of the person) has caused us historically? And how systems like capitalism have largely left us out of property ownership to this day? And what “business” is Kelis supposed to get over? There is not one aspect of business that isn't poisoned by anti-Blackness, designed to lock us out/choose a select few. And thanks to the documenting (but not eradication) of Black pain, we see it in housing discrimination, work discrimination, medical racism, even children trying to enjoy an amusement park. Is the music business, one that is notoriously cruel to women especially, immune to what it is owed Kelis? Pharrell certainly isn’t and to pretend that her frustration isn’t valid and actionable is gaslighting. The business of hip-hop capitalism is not immune to critique. When it comes to women, it’s can sometimes be worse than other forms of business!
We have to see the music industry as not separate, but an integral part of the toxic capitalist machine, even if we enjoy the music. Music is art, and even if people don’t understand the difficulties artists of all kinds face when it comes to making a living off of their creativity, surely they can understand the danger in signing a bad contract at 17 or 18, like Kelis did. The larger context of Kelis’ very simple point is so clear. Even Beyoncé took herself out of it. And she’s a capitalist.
Kelis touched on an important point when she was speaking, about both Beyoncé and Pharrell, two people who use empowerment as such strong parts of their brand. When Beyoncé had an opportunity to “walk the walk” of female empowerment she espouses, she removed Kelis’ sample. On the other hand, Pharrell has done nothing to correct or repair the bad record deal Kelis has been outspoken about. In fact, he’s ignored it. Kelis was right to point out the hypocrisy of Pharrell speaking out about artists’ rights and music ownership when he has left the Kelis situation unresolved. “No one should own your creations…” Pharrell tells Steve Stout during a sit down for United Masters SelectCon last April. This is how he begins a diatribe about being owned, creativity and, ironically, what to look out for. In 2020, he also did a Variety interview to promote Black Ambition, his non-profit, and elaborate on equity gaps in the music industry and the fact that “we don’t have enough ownership.” On his motivation to launch Black Ambition, he said this:
“We are underrepresented in our nation and the world, and that’s because we don’t have enough ownership. If we have more African American and people-of-color ownership, then we have more of a voice when it comes to disproportionate access to education, disproportionate access to health care and disproportionate access to representation in legislation. Those three pillars, those boxes get checked, when we have more ownership by people of color.”
We see it all the time, so-called leaders being hypocritical behind closed doors. While Pharrell tries to hide behind his soft persona and politic of “Blackness,” we know by now how easy it is for Black men to weaponize patriarchy to directly harm Black women. And we see that all the time in the hip-hop industry. So again, why should Pharrell be immune from being held responsible for something he is still doing in real time? Kelis did work she was not paid for–what is not clicking?
But this isn’t the first time we have seen predatory music moguls look out for themselves at the expense of the artist’s earnings. Diddy is notorious for this, yet continues to occupy a space of leadership and “empowerment” in countless pockets of the community, from business to music to even self-help. But there is not a shortage of stories about people who still feel he owes them money for their work.
Pharrell’s image is much cleaner than Diddy’s though, and seeing him advise artists against doing something he continues to directly profit off of is pretty sinister. Kelis touched on this when she joked about his song “Happy” and how he should be as he’s stealing all kinds of publishing and rights to songs. I feel like we have to listen to Kelis when she’s saying that she had the same manager Pharrell had, he ends up with writing credits, amassed so much wealth and subsequent success, and according to her has never written a song in his life. I thought that would get more attention, but things move so fast in the entertainment world, we also have seem to have forgotten Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s enormous legal loss to Marvin Gaye’s estate for stealing, or what he calls “reverse engineering” “Got to Give it Up” to make (r*pe anthem, but let's not even start with that) “Blurred Lines”. There is a historical context to his thievery, making Kelis even more believable, not less.
In a 2020 sit down with The Guardian, one of Kelis’ most wide ranging interviews, she goes into detail about the record deal and breakdown of her business relationship between her and the Neptunes, but what also stood out to me were her words about her ex-husband, Nas. This interview took place after she did a 2018 sit down with Hollywood Unlocked’s Jason Lee, the first time she outlined the physical and emotional abuse she suffered in her marriage to Nas (he has denied the allegations and attempted to DARVO her). That is another great interview worth watching in its entirety. Not only is she her usual bold and honest self in it, she’s credible and her story makes sense.
“Well, I’m a very private person, and whether it’s the stuff with the Neptunes and being assaulted from a business perspective, to then being assaulted in the home, I fought so hard to have my own voice, even with the umbrella of these men looming over what I was trying to do. I’m not broken. But I don’t feel like protecting the sanctity of the Black man anymore.”
This calling out seems like a continuation of this important journey. Clearly, this is about Kelis but it’s also about wider pervasive issues in the music industry, and by speaking out, Kelis is making it more difficult for men to take advantage and abuse women in the industry under the cover of “the culture.” Whether she’s doing it on purpose or not, she’s setting an example, being brave and helping to create a better future for Black women. Not Black men, not women, not record executives, not “business people”, but simply Black women.