A History of Africa’s Stolen Pop Music

January 13, 2024
10 mins read

By Dibussi Tande
Tuesday, May 25, 2010.
During a tour of Cameroon in 1975, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, met Tala Andre Marie, a budding Cameroonian blind singer and guitarist who had just released a funk number titled  Hot Koki. Tala gave him a copy of the record “to give him an insight into the kind of music being made in Cameroon”. According to the Boston Globe, “Two years later, Brown dropped “Hustle!!!’’ –  with the same melody, beat, and arrangements, only with English lyrics.”
Tala and his music label, Fiesta Records, gathered a team of lawyers who filed a law suit in the United States. After a drawn out battle that lasted four years, an American court concluded that James Brown had indeed used Tala’s song without authorization. Tala says there was very little financial fallout from the case, with the bulk of the money going to the lawyers. Tala nonetheless contends that it was a huge moral victory and good PR.
Manu and the King of PopIn 1982, it was turn of Manu Dibango, the King of Soul Makossa, to deal with plagiarism. 10 years earlier, Manu had recorded a hit song called “Soul Makossa” which was nominated for the Grammy awards.  According to The New Yorker, Soul Makossa, which was the B side of Mouvement Ewondo, a single composed for the 1972 African Nations Cup in Cameroon, was 
“a honking, galloping funk track—that was the real hit, in Africa, in Europe, and in America, where it came to be seen as one of the first disco records… A generation of disk jockeys learned to wield the power of the song’s famous introduction: a hard beat, a single guitar chord, and Dibango’s low growl. He named his song after the makossa, a Cameroonian dance, but he stretched the word out, played with it: “Ma-mako, ma-ma-ssa, mako-makossa.”
What happened a decade later to Soul Makossa’s famous refrain is the stuff that legends are made of. Let’s leave it up to The New Yorker to tell the story:
Dibango was in Paris, listening to the radio at his apartment, when he heard something familiar:  those same syllables, more or less, in a very different context. The D.J. was playing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the unconventional first song from “Thriller.” It is more than six minutes long, and although the music is exuberant throughout, the lyrics aren’t as silly as they first sound: paranoia (“Still they hate you, you’re a vegetable/You’re just a buffet, you’re a vegetable”) gives way to exhortation (“If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby”) and, eventually, inspiration (“I believe in me/So you believe in you”).
The galloping rhythm sounds a bit like “Soul Makossa,” and near the end Jackson acknowledges the debt by singing words that many listeners mistook for nonsense: “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” Soon, Dibango’s phone started ringing. Friends and relatives were calling to offer their congratulations: Michael Jackson was singing his song! But Dibango’s pride turned to puzzlement when he bought the album, only to find that the song was credited to Michael Jackson and no one else.
Just like James Brown before him, Jackson first argued that the refrain consisted of a string of meaningless words spouted in the heat of the moment. Then later, he insisted that they were words in Swahili. Eventually he conceded that he had indeed borrowed the lines from Manu’s Soul Makossa and reached an out of court settlement.
[In a postscript to this story, Manu again sued Jackson in 2007 after the pop star gave permission to Rihanna to use the famous chorus as a hook for her song Don’t stop the music without contacting Manu.] 
Tim & Forty and Missy Eliot/Timberland
In 1978, a new duo called Tim & Foty appeared on the Cameroonian music scene with a new genre of Makossa spiced with a liberal dose of “Afro Funk / Afro Beat / Afro Jazz Fusion”. The duo’s debut album Eda included a song titled “Douala by Night” described as a “disco beat and funky guitar riff number”. Douala by Night, which is available on iTunes on the Tim & Foty Greatest Hits Album, was an instant hit 
Some 25 years later, Jean Marie Tiam, aka Tim, was in the studio in Paris working on a solo album (The duo had disbanded in 1982 but Tim had continued on a solo career) on which he planned to include a remake of “Douala by Night”. Tim was shocked when the studio musicians informed him that the song was not his and that it belonged to American Hip Hop artist Missy Elliot who had released the song under the title “Dog on Heat” (featuring Method Man et Red Man) in her Timberland-produced 2002 album, “So Addictive”.  Tim took his complaint to the Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique (SACEM) “the French professional association collecting payments of artists’ rights and distributing the rights to the original authors, composers and publishers”.
SACEM confirmed that Missy Elliot had plagiarized Douala by Night’s guitar riff by night by at least 70%. Tim filed a lawsuit against Moses Timberland in 2007 and on January 15, 2010, an out of court settlement was reached between the two, with Tim entitled to royalties beginning from 2009, along with a small monetary compensation. Tim says he was not really interested in the money and simply wanted to “restore the historical truth [and]  let intellectual honesty and intellectual property triumph.”
South Africa 2010: Enter the DivaRecently again, in the run up to the eagerly anticipated 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, another Cameroonian song has been in the news, the subject of another plagiarism charge. In 1985 the Golden Sounds, a group composed primarily of members from Cameroon’s Presidential Guards released an album whose title track Zangalewa was based on a parade song which was popular with the rank and file of the Cameroonian army and whose origins could be traced back Cameroonian riflemen who took part in the Second World War.Zangalewa became an international hit which transformed Emile Kojidie, Victor Dooh Belley and group leader Ze Bella into celebrities (to the dismay of the army brass who subsequently created the conditions that led to the disbanding of the group a few years later – but that is another story). The group also included a few members who were not in the military such as Annie Anzouer who with Ze Bella performed some of the group’s most popular tunes such as Maladie difficile à soigner and the Un bébé, and who later went on to have the most successful solo career among all Golden Sounds members.
Fast forward to 2010. Ze Bella who had retired from the Presidential Guards in 2002 was enjoying a quiet retirement in his village when he got a call from an acquaintance in France informing him that Shakira had just released a version of Zangalewa. This information was soon confirmed by Emile Kojidy another Golden Sounds alum now living in the United States.  They were both right.
A few days earlier, the Internet had been inundated with buzz about the new song by Columbian pop star Shakira titled “Zaminamina” which was rumoured to be the official anthem for the FIFA 2010 World Cup. To many listeners, the song was eerily familiar and many bloggers and journalist sought to find out the origins of the song [See the blog of WFMU Radio for one of the most exhaustive efforts to track down the origins of the song.]
To Cameroonians and many African, the origins of the song was no mystery as they instantly recognized it as a remix of “Zangalewa”. Thus began a frenzied online campaign to alert the world that this was not a Shakira original but a remix. The task was made all the more easier thanks to videos of the Golden Sounds performing Zangalewa that were available on the web. The campaign picked up steam as the international media began taking an interest in the story. [See for example, this report on the French cable news channel France24 titled “Shakira Used Cameroonian pop song for World Cup anthem… without asking”.
In an interview with Cameroon Tribune, which ran a special report on the controversy,  Ze Bella, the leader of the defunct group declared that while they were proud that a “world music icon” had remixed their song as the World Cup anthem, they nonetheless expected to be properly credited and adequately compensated. He however lamented that there was little they could do if Shakira or Sony refused to pay up:
Nous sommes vraiment impuissants pour aller aujourd’hui aux Etats-Unis revendiquer nos droits. Il y a au moins une trentaine de groupes de par le monde qui ont repris les Zangalewa. / We are really powerless to travel to the United States to assert our rights. There are at least 30 groups that have remade Zangalewa…
Zangalewa Update
Faced with the barrage of worldwide negative publicity Sony and Shakira (probably with the prodding of FIFA which did not want anything that could mar the World Cup) quickly settled. They agreed to credit Zangalewa and began working out details for a financial compensation. Thus, when on May 5, Fifa officially confirmed that Zaminamina, which was now called “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)”, was indeed the anthem of the 2010 World cup, it also stressed that  “The song was written by Shakira, the world-famous singer from Latin America…The chorus is similar to that of a popular Cameroon song made famous by Golden Voices in particular”.  [Click here to watch Waka Waka]
On May 11, some members of Zangalewa held a press conference in Douala, Cameroon, to inform the media that negotiations werewell  underway with Sony and Shakira who had agreed to an out of court settlement and were mauling over the possibility of including the single on Shakira’s next album scheduled to be released at the end of the year. Didier Edo, the group’s manager conceded that it had not been easy to negotiate with Shakira’s manager, Sony Music, and all other interested parties.
Picket and Puma
This is probably the place to mention the story of Ngando Picket the unofficial mascot of the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon whose image is currently being used as part of a major publicity campaign in Paris by Puma, the German sportwear giant which is also the official jersey provider for the lndomitable Lions. Ngando’s image graces billboards along the Paris Metro route with the tagline “How deep is your love.”
Ngando first heard about the publicity blitz from a friend who called him from Paris. Ngando has written several letters to Puma but the corporation has simply ignored him. And without the means to hire a copyright lawyer in France, Puma is getting away with this violation of “fair use” rules. According to Anjali Nayar, a Canadian journalist who recently interviewed Ngando Picket,
On one hand, the global exposure has made Ngando really happy. Him image has united Cameroonians for years and will now unite the world. But at the same time, he felt duped. “Those images belong to me,” he explains, in an almost apologetic tone. “And it should be up to me to decide whether my image can be used for a film or advertisement”… Did Puma really put Ngando’s half-naked image on posters around Paris without consent, or did Cameroon’s Ministry of Sports OK the picture as part of the sponsorship deal for the Indomitable Lions? Finally, now that the publicity is out, what can a poor man like Ngando do to stand up for his rights against the government and a multinational corporation?Ngando, who always seems to have the right attitude, doesn’t seem that fazed. With or without help – he says he’ll always be there to support the Lions. His life path is born from passion rather than greed.
But it still bothers me that everyone but he and his family seems to eat from his love for the game, including his managers, his neighbourhood, his government, and now even Puma.
Undermining African Intellectual Property
Since the Zangalewa and Ngando Picket controversies broke out, there has been a heated debate on Cameroonian and other internet fora where some have argued that Zangalewa and Ngando Picket should be happy that they are getting a level of international exposure which they would otherwise never have had. What better stage for exposure than the Paris Metro or the World Cup opening ceremony? How much money did the Zangalewa make in their entire career that they now want to feed off the Shakira, and who outside Cameroon knew about Picket before Puma turned him into an international celebrity… for free?
In my opinion, these are wrong questions. In fact, it is this kind of cavalier attitude towards intellectual property and indigenous natural resources that have resulted in African regimes auctioning off Africa’s natural resources to Western multinationals, including the ongoing massive land grants being made these days to the Chinese. As Jean Marie Tiam pointed out in the passage on Tim & Foty above, the issue here is first of all about the respect of intellectual property and the right to be acknowledged and credited for one’s work of art. And it is also about being compensated fairly for one’s labor. [As Dolly Parton unequivocally pointed out during her May 21 appearance on the Oprah Show, “Every time [Whitney Houston’s version of “I will always Love you” ]is played, I receive a check”.  That is how it should be for all artists irrespective of where they come from.
For decades, African artists have had their works plagiarized by the West with little or no compensation or acknowledgement.  The most memorable example of the theft of the intellectual rights of an African artist is that of Solomon Popoli Linda who in 1939 wrote the song “Mbube” and received 10 shillings (less than $US 2) for his efforts. The song which later became the pop hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was reinterpreted by dozens of American artists without Linda or his family receiving a dime. In fact he died penniless.  In 1995, the Lion Sleeps Tonight earned an estimated $15 million dollars just for its use in the movie Lion King – a movie which has since grossed about 800 million USD worldwide. Linda’s descendants sued Walt Disney for 1.5 million dollars with the full backing of the South African government. Disney settled for an undisclosed sum just as the trial was about to begin.
Back to those who believe that the Zangalewa should just enjoy their 15 minutes of fame and shut up, I would like to remind them that Waka Waka is not just any song; it is the official anthem of the FIFA World Cup, the  world’s most popular and lucrative sporting event. Not only do the Zangalewa deserve a check from Shakira and Sony each time the song is played, they are also entitled to royalties from all FIFA merchandise that will be tied to the song (video games, action figures, toys, ring tones, etc.). From a career perspective, this is the best time for Zangalewa to make use of the moment.
For example, having all of their albums and songs available on itunes, releasing a “Greatest Hits” album along with their old videos, and completing their official website which is “under Construction” would be a good starting point. In the meantime, artists who still believe that they can use songs by African artists without authorization or without crediting them should realize that in this age of the Internet, they will be found out and exposed sooner rather than later.
Dibussi Tande is a Cameroonian journalist and writer. He blogs at Dibussi.
Please e-mail views to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

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