Copying, Lifting, and Cultural Appropriation

March 19, 2015

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke at the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards, Beverly Hills, CA, January 25, 2014. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images, via Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws, via Getty Images agreement with CC-SA-3.0.

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke at the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards, Beverly Hills, CA, January 25, 2014.
(Larry Busacca/Getty Images, via Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws, via Getty Images agreement with CC-SA-3.0.

I’m sure all of you have heard about the recent court decision that gave Marvin Gaye’s estate a $7.3 million award, finding that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke committed copyright infringement stemming from their 2012 hit single “Blurred Lines.” They lifted the melody and rhythm for their song from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single “Got To Give It Up.” The two songs do sound similar enough, and interviews with Williams do show that he was heavily influenced by Gaye’s work. I find myself agreeing with the jury on this because of Williams’ Whiteness rhetoric about being the “new Black” last year, as well as Thicke’s constant cultural appropriation in his videos and music.

The decision, though, made me think about how much copying has gone on in music over the years. It made me think about the first time I heard Madonna, off her first self-titled album, on the airwaves in the fall of ’83. It was her first Billboard Top 40 single “Holiday.” Except that the first dozen or so times I heard it, I thought at first it was “And The Beat Goes On,” a late ’79/early ’80 disco hit from the group The Whispers.

It was the first time I realized that music artists could copy each other, or at least, have similar sounds, rhythms, tones and other musical arrangements in their songs. The lyrics were obviously different, but both “And The Beat Goes On” and “Holiday” were “forget-the-cares-of-this-world” dance-pop songs with heavy R&B influences.

I’d wondered for years whether Madonna ever gave The Whispers any formal credit for sampling their music for one of her very first tracks. I did find an answer in the Madonna (1983) album’s liner notes. Nope, not a single mention, not a word of acknowledgement. But John “Jellybean” Benitez was mentioned as producer. There’s no way in this world that he and the other folks who worked on “Holiday” didn’t know who The Whispers were or hadn’t heard their song “And The Beat Goes On.” It’s possible that Madonna herself didn’t know, but given her constant credits to the disco era, I seriously doubt that, too. Take a gander below, folks, and tell me how similar the two songs were/are:

Keep in mind, though, this was before Madonna had become “Like A Virgin” Madonna, “Material Girl” Madonna, and “Vogue” Madonna. And copying, sampling, and lifting was more acceptable in the early 1980s than it is today. Especially since at the time, neither The Whispers nor Madonna were music icons. Of course, lifting from relatively obscure Black artists to mainstream a song or music genre is nothing new. Just ask Al Jolson and Elvis Presley!

Thirteen years later, The Fugees released their big hit, “Ready Or Not” (1996). As soon as I heard it, I knew they had sampled Enya’s “Boadicea” (1987), because I’m that kind of eclectic music enthusiast. They didn’t give Enya credit in their initial liner notes, either, and hadn’t obtained permission to use her music in their song. Enya threatened to sue over this rather obvious copyright infringement, and The Fugees and Enya settled the issue out of court.

By ’96, the rules for sampling other music artists’ work had become tightened, and Enya herself was a well-known, if not iconic, new age music artist. The up-and-coming Fugees picked the wrong Irish singer to copy without permission or acknowledgement.

What does all of this mean? For starters, you should never plagiarise someone whose work is well-known. Vanilla Ice, meet Queen and David Bowie. The Verve and “Bittersweet Symphony” from ’97? Let me introduce you to The Rolling Stones!

But the “Blurred Lines” decision means much more than the message that one should steal from an unknown without a major music contract instead of stealing from Marvin Gaye. The legal decision blurs the distinction between illegal sampling and inappropriate cultural appropriation. Really, Madonna’s use of The Whisper’s “And The Beat Goes On” is just as blatant, and so was her appropriation of disco, R&B and other Black and Latino dance rhythms between ’82 and ’93. Unlike Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, though, Madonna’s appropriation wasn’t seen as such, at least during her first years of fame. Heck, I knew more than a few Black folk who though Madonna was either Black or biracial prior to the Like A Virgin (1984) album, likely because like me, they didn’t have cable to watch MTV ad nauseam.

I guess that Pharrell’s and Robin Thicke’s act has worn thin with the fickle public. This may well point to the larger fact that mainstream popular music and the artists that are creating today’s music are about as creatively collaborative and eclectic as a dunker in basketball with no jumpshot and no defensive skills. This isn’t your father’s White Soul, aka, Michael McDonald, Darryl Hall & John Oates, or even Kenny Loggins, working with Earth, Wind & Fire or Kool & The Gang. Today’s music artists can only do their music one way, and need “inspiration” to “create” a “new sound.” One that is too often lifted from the past, yet never placed in context, and sampled with and without permission.

Grading and the 21st Century Professor

September 3, 2012

Between a rock and a hard place, The Simpsons (movie), September 2, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws –  low resolution.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and other prominent periodicals have been talking about the precarious rise of grade inflation for more than two decades now. Article after article and story after story has shown professors at elite and public institutions lowering their standards and bending into advanced yoga positions to give students higher grades than they’ve earned. All to ensure a minimum of contention over grades and maximum scores in student evaluations of their courses.

But what of the many professors who don’t want to lower their standards but so far, who can’t ignore a student’s lack of attendance or participation, their late assignments or attempts at plagiarism? For those college instructors, they can expect more grief and stupid ass excuses from students, not to mention lower evaluation scores.

Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand by David Cerney (1997), Prague, September 2, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use – pic has low resolution.

For tenured professors, particularly those at research universities, this doesn’t matter at all. For some tenure-track professors, instructors at teaching-focused liberal arts colleges, and the army of adjuncts that are the majority of instructors at the college level, this could mean the difference between steady employment and homelessness. It’s a sad situation when folks aren’t secure enough in their jobs to actually do the most difficult parts of their jobs, to evaluate a student’s performance accurately and to confront students whenever they violate an academic code of conduct.

It was part of the deal that I made with myself when I began teaching my own sections and then course as a graduate student twenty years ago at the University of Pittsburgh. To be fair and flexible, to be tough when necessary, but to be compassionate when the circumstances called for it. For the vast majority of the 2,000 or so high school, undergraduate and graduate students I’ve taught since ’92, that has been a workable philosophy. It’s even gotten me the occasional praise and recognition for being a very good professor.

Of course, I faced the occasional student who complained to me about their grade. Most of those students were C students looking for a C+ or a B, or a B+/A- student hoping for an A. Really, prior to my current faculty position, I had only had three complaints of any major consequence. One was from a student who managed to never show up for my US History to 1877 sections the spring semester of ’93, who failed the final exam so badly that I let him get away with his attempts at cheating — his cheat notes were that bad!

The other two came from two students in my History of American Education graduate course in the summer of ’98 at Duquesne University. One thought that someone as young (and as Black) as me could give her a grade lower than an A, while another harassed me with emails for a month because her A- in my course ruined her 4.0 average. Though an adjunct, I stood my ground, knowing that I had the support of my department chair.

Since starting my current teaching position in January ’08, I’ve faced a couple of dozen situations in which students have complained about their grades. I think I’ve only taught three courses out of about twenty in the past four years in which I haven’t fielded any complaints from students about their grades.

Most of these complaints have been really ones about me not accepting every cockamamie excuse for a late assignment or plagiarism. Excuses like their Internet or their access to the university’s online classroom platform being down. Or not knowing that cutting and pasting ten pages’ worth of other people’s words for a ten-page history research paper was in fact blatant plagiarism. Or that their jobs, last-minute deployments (which were hardly last-minute), children (who in many cases were teenagers), three car accidents in two weeks or other life challenges managed to get in the way of them submitting multiple assignments on time, even with extensions. But somehow, when I’ve held these students accountable and assigned an appropriate grade, I’m the bad guy.

That the students I teach these days are technically adult learners (I say “technically” because they don’t act like adults when they complain about their grading) actually makes this matter worse. Whether in the military, married with children, or working a full-time job, these students in their twenties, thirties and older tend to complain, beg, threaten me and then beg again. It’s exhausting to constantly have to persuade students to read my syllabus in order to make them understand that the rules and rubrics I’ve laid out are the reasons for their F, D, C or B.

But no matter the vitriol I provoke from assigning a grade, I also have to be careful in my language, emotions and tone. That is the reality that is teaching in many higher education institutions today. It is unfortunate, for there are many students who don’t understand that being a student requires being a responsible and ethical adult. Whether seventeen or seventy, whining, complaining and threatening your professor for a higher grade is completely unacceptable, and deserves at least a little sarcasm in response.

And Now, A Plagiarism Moment

September 13, 2010

Professor Emeritus Daniel P. Resnick. Source:

I was sitting in the office of the only professor in Carnegie Mellon’s History Department with expertise in the area of history of education one mid-September day in ’93. It was my first semester in the doctoral program there, after transferring from Pitt to finish my PhD. I had already begun to question my decision to do my remaining studies there. My advisor Joe Trotter was “upset” that I’d taken and passed my doctoral written exams the spring before, when I was still technically a Pitt grad student, and had “run interference” to forbid me from publishing any new articles during the ’93-’94 school years. That was after my piece with my friend Marc had come out in Black Issues in Higher Education.

Steve Schlossman, the chair of the history department, was also upset, because I had decided not to take the American history proseminar, a course for first semester grad students. Apparently, even though I had taken the same course at Pitt two years before — and Carnegie Mellon had accepted all of my credits from my master’s program and first year as a doctoral student at Pitt — I had to take this course. I was read the riot act and told that I needed Carnegie Mellon’s “stamp of approval” before becoming a doctoral candidate. I was incensed, because this wasn’t what I’d been promised by my esteemed advisor and the graduate advisor, John Modell.

All this happened before I met Daniel P. Resnick in his office on Tuesday on a cool, but not too cool, and sunny late-summer day. His office was neat, relatively speaking, but spare and spartan in some ways, with books stacked in orderly fashion, and papers in numerous labeled folders. What I noticed the most was the smell, an old person’s not-fully-washed smell, of bagels and lox with some onion cream cheese.

Professor Resnick had gone to the restroom and left the door open for me to sit at a table next to his desk. He had already laid out my writing samples, the ones I’d put in his mailbox the week before. They included the Black Issues in Higher Education piece. After our exchange of greetings, Resnick sat down and said, “Considering your background, your writing is remarkable!” in a way that showed real surprise.

Before I could respond with a defense or process the obvious bigotry in that statement, Resnick then said, “There’s no way you could’ve written all this.” I responded, “Well, I did, and have the grades and degrees to prove it,” preferring not to accuse the only professor in the department with a specialty in the history of education of racism. “What-what I meant was, your papers are well-written…compared to most young scholars,” Resnick stammered. I accepted that response at face value, but kept what he had said before it in mind as I worked with him over the next three years.

Resnick, as it turned out, had lived for a year with his wife, the great Lauren Resnick, on the Mount Vernon-Bronxville border in 1960-61 (one of them was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, I think), so after finding out where I grew up, he had put two and two together and come up with sixteen. I found him patronizing, and about as knowledgeable in the recent developments of educational history as I would be of underground house music in Chelsea right now. Resnick himself had plagiarized, not in terms of his own work, but from the race relations rule book. He had plagiarized in stereotypes, far worse than anything of which he’d accused me.

Was it worth having this man on my dissertation committee? Yes, because I graduated. But, in the final analysis, it would’ve made more sense to transfer to NYU or Stanford School of Education than to spend three minutes, much less three years, working with a man whose belief in my work was minimal at best.


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