Where is the line drawn between inspiration, referencing and copying?
July 27, 2019 6:00 AM   Subscribe

On Petite Noir, Beyoncé and What Artists Owe Each Other — an in-depth essay by Malaika Eyoh on the accusations that Beyoncé’s music video for "Spirit" is more than slightly inspired by "La Maison Noir", a 2018 video by South African artist Petite Noir.

Background/in the news:
- People say Beyoncé's 'Lion King' videos look similar to South African music video from 2018 (Yahoo Entertainment)
- Beyoncé is facing accusations of ‘stealing’ visuals for her Lion King music videos – as a fan, I’m taking them seriously (The Independent - UK)
Some of the highlights from the essay:
The similarities between the videos make an interesting space for a discussion around originality and ownership of ideas in an era where almost everything has already been done by someone else. Where is the line drawn between inspiration, referencing and copying?

... The cloth and desert aesthetic used in both “Spirit” and “La Maison Noir” are reminiscent of archival photography of the Tuareg peoples of the Sahara. The techniques of dance and group formation she makes use of both in ‘Lemonade’ and “Spirit” feel deeply reminiscent of the work of someone like Alvin Ailey. Those same elements have been frequently utilized by Solange Knowles, someone who Noir has worked with in the past. Beyoncé’s interpretations of African culture and spirituality in both videos are reminiscent of films like Daughters of the Dust, and reference African historical archives and folklore. Much of Petite’s work draws from those same historical, cultural and spiritual references.

“Spirit” is built upon “La Maison Noir” in many ways that are undeniable. However, Petite Noir’s “La Maison Noir”, is a 17-minute-long, 4-part video that is built out of the cloth of a precedent set by ‘Lemonade’ but also by a canon of work that developed before and alongside them both. A canon which they have both drawn from for their own projects but also one which now includes them, albeit on an unlevel playing field. In a space where creativity is supposed to flow, what, then, is the true benefit of claiming sole ownership of an idea or a concept or even a camera shot?

... If ‘The Gift’ was meant to be a ‘love letter to Africa’, then “La Maison Noir” is an obvious reference point: a contemporary visual that makes Africa look vibrant and healthy and gives it agency. If Beyoncé, the privileged creator in this encounter, was dead set on spotlighting African voices, then yes: maybe Petite Noir should have been called. But do we all call everyone on our mood boards? Should we?
posted by bitteschoen (4 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The core question of what can be a reference, influence, inspiration, a common theme, stylistic genre, a rip-off, or appropriation is complicated and one I wouldn't try to answer as it requires input from those effected and deeper knowledge of the world that the art comes from and its shared heritage and expectation. It doesn't work the same way every time and it requires some clear idea of how the works are seen or heard in the proper context to have an idea if a likeness crosses a line as well as knowing what the artist seemingly being "borrowed" from thinks of it all.

It does bother me though that a similar issue came up with Kendrick Lamar and SZA's music video for The Black Panther, All the Stars, had the same complaint with Marvel allegedly asking Lina Iris Viktor for use of her designs and were turned down only to have them used in the video anyway.

When the Appropriator Is Your Own: On Kendrick Lamar and Why Lina Iris Viktor’s Constellations Does Not Belong in ‘All the Stars’

That Disney/Marvel is a main beneficiary of these "borrowings" is troubling as it adds the secondary concern of turning the art into advertising those borrowed from didn't agree to and which goes to one of the most powerful culture corporations in the world. There is perhaps solid reason why Beyonce or Lamar might want to reference other artists on their own to celebrate a sense of shared heritage, but when done in the service of advertising a Disney movie that borrowing is then lent to a company that has no such connection, other than the attempt to dominate and control any and all possible cultural heritage for their own profit.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:51 AM on July 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

Oh, and that Petite Noir video is really great. I'm glad the post brought it to my attention.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:56 AM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's not Beyoncé's first brush with plagiarism accusations. That video is from 2011, and shows similarities to work by a Belgian choreographer.
posted by amk at 10:31 AM on July 27, 2019

Since The Lion King itself has been accused over the years of inspiration, referencing, and copying, here's Kyle Kalgren discussing its connection to a well known Shakespeare play (not the one you're thinking of).
posted by dannyboybell at 4:23 AM on July 28, 2019

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