I present exhibit A: Hey Mama, a song by French DJ David Guetta with Nicki Minaj, music producer Afrojack, and singer Bebe Rexha. 2015.
I present exhibit B: Rosie, C.B. Cook & Axe Gang, recorded by Alax Lomax. 1947.
“C.B. Cook & Axe Gang” is a group of prison laborers. Lomax traveled to Parchman Farm several times to capture their work songs, coaxing more palatable versions out of the men through multiple recordings (the various takes are available here). The prisoners were not compensated for their singing. Hell, they were not even credited by name, except C.B. Cook, and it is not clear who he is (I assume the lead singer, but… who is he?!). In an irrefutably uncomfortable move, Alan and his father are even credited as the songwriters of Rosie. (See below for publishing/songwriting credits.)
Alan Lomax’s archive of music is overseen by the Association for Cultural Equity. As far as I can figure, this charitable organization has to approve a sample, as does the publisher, Ludlow Music Inc., which is now part of TRO, one of the world’s largest publishing organizations. According to their website, the ACE works to “preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.” They do this through “preservation, publication, and repatriation of our materials,” making many recordings available for free online, spearheading repatriation projects, and facilitating licensing agreements that benefit royalty recipients.
Does having the voices of prisoners in Hey Mama preserve any tradition? Eh. Is this repatriation? Well, no, Minaj and Guetta have no ascertainable connection to Parchman farm. Who benefits from this? The heirs of the prisoners? No, the Lomaxes are the songwriters, so they (the ACE) and Ludlow Music, Inc. get the checks. Why would the ACE approve the sample? Oh, I know! To spark meaningful conversations about how African American males still have higher incarceration rates, right?! As a springboard for civil rights discussions that are totally necessary right now?! Oh, wait, no, the song is about doin’ it.
Though I love the Lomax recording of Rosie, and I’m a casual fan of Minaj, this pop music sample of a breathtaking prison field recording makes me squeamish. There is a way to sample music like this; music that encapsulates ethical and social issues, music that was obtained questionably, music that exists outside the framework of radio hits and copyright laws. Simply sticking the first few bars of Rosie into the intro and post chorus of Hey Mama, a song that acknowledges none of these topics, cheapens the music and trivializes the experience of the prisoners.
What really gets me, though, is that the most powerful part of Lomax’s recording is 1:53-2:02 and 2:32-2:46, when C.B., whoever he is, growls “ahh Rosie!”
That’s the good shit. Sample THAT.
Additional Information for: ROSIE
Writer(s): JOHN A LOMAX SR, ALAN LOMAX
HFA Song Code: R2371N
Publisher Represented By HFA
LUDLOW MUSIC INC Y
ALAN LOMAX THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN
ALAN LOMAX, PRISONERS AT THE PRISON BLUES
LOUISIANA STATE PENITENTIARIES PRISON BLUES
MISSISSIPPI & LOUISIANA STATE PRISON BLUES
ODETTA LIVIN’ WITH THE BLUES
PENITENTIARIES PRISON BLUES
PRISONERS AT THE MISSISSIPPI & PRISON BLUES
RECORDED LIVE BY ALAN LOMAX NEGRO PRISON BLUES AND SONGS
THE ALAN LOMAX COLLECTION FROM PARCHMAN FARM 1947-48)
ROSIE (Legal Title)
BMI Work #1271070
Songwriter/Composer Current Affiliation CAE/IPI #
LOMAX ALAN BMI 18374288
LOMAX JOHN A SR BMI 12010568
LUDLOW MUSIC INC BMI 18683174