For all its box-office success and cultural significance, Black Panther has had to dodge a lot of uncomfortable issues around cultural appropriation. Now, one of the most celebrated elements of the Marvel film, its original soundtrack, is under fire for alleged creative theft.
Just days after Kendrick Lamar released the song “All The Stars,” British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor filed a lawsuit (pdf) which alleges that the rapper conducted “willful brazen, and extensive unlawful” copying of her artwork for the music video. She’s also suing others that participated in the production, such as singer SZA (real name Solana Imani Rowe), the music video’s director Dave Meyers, and Top Dawg Entertainment.
In a response filed on May 18, Lamar and his fellow defendants argue that “alleged use of the artwork did not proximately cause any of Plaintiff’s alleged damages,” or any profits for Top Dawg entertainment. They added that any of the “alleged infringements were innocent,” and constituted as “fair use.” Both have asked the New York district court for a trial by jury.
The case doesn’t just bring up questions over what constitutes creative theft—it highlights the skewed relationship between African-American artists and their African counterparts, even when they’re working toward the same vision.
To create the ideal of Wakanda, the film’s director and designers referenced contemporary Africa, but sowed together a patchwork of pan-African elements, which were taken from various communities with no real reference to their origins. Viktor’s claim is that she can clearly recognize her own designs among this cultural mish-mash, at least in the music video.
In a side-by-side comparison submitted to the court, Viktor claimed the “infringing video” copied her “stylized motifs of mythical animals, gilded geometric forms on a black background, and distinctively textured areas and patterns, arrayed in a grid-like arrangement of forms.”
To support her claim that the defendants were acutely aware of her art, she says she was twice approached by representatives of Marvel for use of her work, but declined after they couldn’t reach an amicable agreement around payment and use. Represented by the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle, Viktor’s distinctive works of gold-leaf on black and blue and backgrounds have been exhibited in New York, London, Atlanta, and Johannesburg.
“The infringing video and the movie promotes (and profits from) themes of black and female empowerment and the end of racist and gender exploitation, themes particularly topical in the current environment,” Viktor’s suit reads. “Yet, in a bitter irony, the defendants have ignored the wishes of the Artist, herself a Black African woman, whose life’s work is founded on an examination of the political and historical preconceptions of ‘blackness,’ liberation and womanhood.”
Viktor is particularly incensed and disappointed by the dissonance between Lamar’s lyrics and the theft she says he is the face of. She goes as far as quoting his lyrics from the song in her legal submission, “I hate people that feel entitled” to illustrate the contrast.
Lamar’s lawyers have denied every paragraph of Viktor’s claim and plan to fight it in court. Yet, if Viktor’s claims are at all true, they would also be a deeply disappointing episode in the decades of cultural exchanges and collaborations between Africans and Africa-American. Lamar is the Pulitzer-winning voice of a generation, whose albums evolved from a sonic documentary of black vulnerability to meditations on the innerlives of black and brown people, and not just in the US.
Lamar has spoken about the deep sense of connection he felt to Africa, particularly after a trip to South Africa. The video itself has been hailed for its afrofuturist take on the continent. It’s a departure from post-2000s hip-hop’s usual visual interaction with Africa, which is usually a rapper surrounded by smiling, impoverished African children or rapping on safari.
Like the film, the rest of the “All The Stars” video is peppered with African symbolism and references. Lamar encounters a group of children wearing red caps worn by Igbos, later the dancers around Lamar are wearing the traditional cone-shaped Basotho hats and doing pantsula moves, a dance that originated in South Africa’s townships. At one point, SZA lies in a kaleidoscope that borrows its color scheme from Kente cloth.
The difference between Viktor’s claim and these references is their specificity and ownership. No other groups have demanded compensation for the use of their cultural artifacts—if anything it’s seen as a point of pride. This kind of borrowing is something African-Americans know well, from jazz to language. And Africans have borrowed heavily from these very American pop culture references. In negotiating this new relationship though, both sides have to avoid the appropriation and cultural theft they’ve been subjected to by others.