August 30, 2023 Musicology No Comments

A headline came across my desk this morning about the Steely & Clevie case, and the role that racism might play in how we view it. A Jamaican musicologist and attorney named Ewan Simpson reminds us that musicologists and forensic musicologists are like rectangles and squares; all forensic musicologists are musicologists, but not all musicologists are forensic musicologists. Simpson’s more general field of musicology can be described as the study of music apart from composing or performing, whereas forensic musicology applies music expertise rather specifically to matters of civil law. By far, most musicologists are the more general type, studying music with respect to culture and sociology. So it’s absolutely in their wheelhouse to identify corrupting influences like racism and its role in music evolution.

Ewan Simpson’s take on the Steely & Clevie copyright infringement case is so different from mine that I have to fend off a kneejerk dismissive reaction, which I will. According to DanceHallMag, Simpson looks at this huge reggaeton case, he sees racism in the coverage he’s seen of the case, and who am I to say he’s mistaken? Steely & Clevie’s case is silly, as I’ve explained. But there can also be racism all around it. Both can be true. And if they are, both can be put in the proper perspective.

About racial bias, Simpson reportedly says:

“There is that element of it because it is difficult for them to fathom that two little black boys from a little dot in the Caribbean could have created something that is a multi-billion dollar form. But then they must think about it, there must be a reason that in even the name of the form, it references reggae,” Simpson argued.

DanceHallMag Article

I won’t paraphrase the article; you can read it yourself. Instead I’ll advocate for keeping the lines straight — Reggaeton has obviously taken over the world, it has flourished in part because of the different influential styles it encompasses, and if Jamaica is getting short shrift in that history, especially if racism is at all the reason, all the credit in the world to a musicologist who sees and calls it out.

This isn’t even the first time. An article in The Guardian back in March, described reggaeton expert Katelina Eccleston as seeing that Jamaican genres such as dancehall and reggae “lack economic parity with (Latin America) reggaeton,” and that this parallels the darker complexion of most Jamaicans as compared to lighter skinned Latin Americans. I won’t reduce the importance of the topic to rely upon my paraphrasing. I’d encourage reading the article itself.

On the other hand, when these cases get tossed, as I expect they will, don’t imagine that’s racist. The problem with too many cases that survive summary judgment is that they do it because they rely on a question that itself doesn’t lead directly to truth. And to illustrate, here’s just one of Simpson’s tangential concerns:

“They are not saying that Fish Market influenced reggaeton, they are saying it was built on it, which means that there was some amount of sampling and some amount of copying musical elements, not just the riddim, but some other aural element. It is a useful conversation for the industry to have. ” Simpson said.

But no, it probably isn’t. It’s more of an obfuscating conversation that gives oxygen to a ridiculous idea that will waste everyone’s time. Fish Market probably did influence reggaeton, but there’s no meaningful distinction in that it may have been “built on it,” and no, that doesn’t mean there was some amount of sampling nor copying because it’s a mere rhythm, and a really simple and short one at that. Nothing against rhythm. Rhythm is essential! But it’s not composition generally. And moreover, pretending that some other “aural element” will move the needle is similarly a waste of time and energy. There’s no element across the many defendant works that is going to matter. And these are the sorts of things that deserve less patience. No musical element, timbale or whatever, is going to move the needle. The musicology associated with likening some timbale part on some particular song to one found on Steely & Clevie’s Fish Market, is a canard. It doesn’t matter if you find it, show it, prove it; it’s irrelevant.

If racism affects the coverage of this silly lawsuit, by all means bring that to light, but don’t imagine it gives any credibility to the musicological arguments about substantial similarity. Not

Written by Brian McBrearty