OPINION | Zimbabwean musicians are too lax about stealing from each other. And we, the fans, are no better

Jah Signal: His trouble with Charles Charamba shows deeper copyrights crisis

Musicians have been very fluid about taking tunes and lyrics from other musicians. And when it comes to stealing from our favourite musicians, we the fans are not any different, writes Arthur Choga.

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In the end, the copyright debate was pushed to the fore by the most unlikely of sources.

Charles and Olivia Charamba are trailblazers who helped change the course and nature of Gospel music in Zimbabwe. Now, after recent events, they have irreversibly altered the discussion and practice around copyright in Zimbabwe.

Charles Charamba has a song called “Kusaziva” in which he weaves a series of storylines around the famous Biblical verse about people perishing from a lack of knowledge. Watching the recent debate on copyright, it was clear that we all need to engage our search engines before we start typing comments.

A summary, for those who missed the drama; the Charambas raised a complaint that Zimdancehall star Jah Signal had infringed copyright in recording two songs, “Sweetie” (which borrows heavily from Charles Charamba’s “ Vanhu Vangu”) and “Tengai Mafuta” (which borrows even more heavily from Olivia Charamba’s “Tengai Mafuta”). The Fishers of Men (The Charambas band and music management vehicle) released a statement that outlined their path to this decision. A line in that statement is instructive.

Jah Signal’s team reached out to the Charambas when they recorded “Sweetie” and asked permission to use the song. The Charambas refused to let them use the melody on the grounds that the words Jah Signal was placing over the tune were “blasphemous”. It is important to note that the Charambas did not have to give a reason for saying No. Still, Jah Signal went ahead and recorded the song, produced a video for it and proceeded to release it onto multiple electronic platforms.

Interestingly, the song actually collected several awards.

Talking about a copyright revolution

Which brings me to Tracy Chapman. Let’s take a detour. A week before social media erupted with the Charamba story, Tracy Chapman was the trending topic. At the recent Grammys, Tracy Chapman performed a live version of her 1988 song “Fast Car” with country star Luke Combs. Here is what Billboard.com had to say about the relationship between Chapman and Combs.

“Combs’ version has generated at least US$500,000 in global publishing royalties, Billboard estimates, with the bulk going to Chapman who owns both the writers’ and publisher’s share of the song. Additionally, the success of Combs’ version has boosted Chapman’s original, with weekly consumption of Chapman’s version increasing 44% since Combs’ version was released, according to Luminate.”

Combs himself is on record saying his team went through all the necessary processes asked by Chapman before recording and releasing the song. Chapman is credited as the writer of the song and was even the recipient of a Country Music Award for Song of the Year in 2023 for “Fast Car”.

For the record: In most global awards ceremonies Song of the Year goes to the writer of the song and Record of the Year goes to the singer of the song.

Contrast this with another case in 2021, this time involving Chapman and the rapper Nicki Minaj.

As per the New York Times, “Chapman sued Minaj for copyright infringement in late 2018 over a song called “Sorry,” which borrowed heavily from Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You,” released in 1988. The aspect of the case that drew the attention of legal scholars and entertainment litigators was that Minaj’s song, which she recorded with the rapper Nas, was never officially released, although it had been played on the radio by Funkmaster Flex, a celebrity D.J. on the New York radio station Hot 97.

Chapman accused Minaj of using “Baby Can I Hold You” without permission, which she said Minaj had asked for but was denied. Yet Minaj argued that her creation of “Sorry,” even without a license from Chapman, was protected by the doctrine of “fair use” — an exception to copyright law that lets creators borrow copyrighted material under certain conditions.” Eventually, Minaj decided to settle and paid Chapman around USD450 000. The song was never released.

In a statement after the settlement, Chapman said she was pleased with the outcome, “which affirms that artists’ rights are protected by law and SHOULD BE RESPECTED BY OTHER ARTISTS”.

No more robbery

Now back to the Charambas.

Copyright control has been largely lax in Zimbabwe and people have been very fluid about taking drumbeats, guitar lines, melodies and even lyrics from other musicians without seeking or obtaining any kind of permission. This case could open the door for mutual respect among artistes, because industry respect is the basis of growth. Once the artistes are robbing each other, the fans follow suit.

The Zimbabwean artiste is often a figure of ridicule and the refrain “Vanhu vanoita zvemagitare marombe” (People who play music are paupers). Music is a bona fide business, and the facets of music that bring the money to the artistes are direct sales or official downloads, live tours and royalty payments which come from airplay and reuse of the music. In Zimbabwe, we have many people who share music illegally, do not attend live shows and are not willing to pay any kind of royalties for the use of artistes’ music.

The Charambas felt robbed, and they are not the only ones.

As this story concluded, Jah Signal sent an apology to the Charambas, who have always insisted they are not looking for any royalties or compensation. All they asked for was a little respect (apologies to Aretha Franklin).