In the heyday of rocknroll, white musicians were occasionally apprehended in the act of brazenly stealing the work of black artists. Perhaps the most notorious offenders were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who once had the effrontery to rip off Robert Johnson, of all people, and for “Love In Vain.” They were promptly slapped down by Rolling Stone, which growled that they “should know better”; subsequent pressings of Let It Bleed properly credited Johnson. The Stones had already, and more successfully, filched songwriting credit for “The Last Time” from the Blind Boys of Alabama.
To be fair, Jagger’s sticky fingers were not confined solely to picking the pockets of black artists. He also wrested credit for “Wild Horses” from country boy Gram Parsons (who conveniently died during the struggle), and later floated as his own a boatload of tunes from bandmate Mick Taylor. Perhaps his most base act of thievery came when he placed his name on inamorata Marianne Faithfull’s “Sister Morphine”; only in recent years, and at the urging of Keith Richards, has Faithfull’s song been returned to her (Faithfull also had a hand in “Wild Horses”; that credit does not appear to be forthcoming, at least not any time soon).
Now, as they enter their twilight years, the Stones find themselves querulously pursuing people they perceive to be pirating their work, as in a 2008 action against Lil Wayne, for allegedly appropriating, without permission, pieces of the Stones’ “Play With Fire.” Amusingly, for a band that for so long marketed itself as “the bad boys of rocknroll” (“the Beatles want to hold your hand; the Stones want to pillage your town”), the suit against Lil Wayne additionally sniffed that Wayne’s riff on “Play With Fire” contained “explicit, sexist and offensive language” that, if associated with the Stones, might cause the aging rockers Harm.
One would think that, particularly given such history, black artists might be more sensitive to laying hands on one another’s work. But one would be wrong. For, as Kelefa Sanneh relates in the July 6 New Yorker, Michael Jackson built “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the first track off Thriller, on “Soul Makossa,” a song by Cameroon musician Manu Dibango. Jackson was eventually forced to come to a financial arrangement with Dibango, but apparently did not learn his lesson. For, even as he collapsed last week into death, he was facing another suit, in France, alleging that he had passed sampling rights to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” to Rihanna for her hit “Don’t Stop The Music.” Problem is, he wasn’t empowered to pass on said rights without Dibango’s say-so, which he had failed to ask for or obtain.
Manu Dibango—born Emmanuel Dibango N’Djocke in 1933 in Douala, Cameroon—is a classically trained pianist who in 1954 picked up the saxophone and charged into jazz. He later fused that music with blues, reggae, soul, and African dance music, and today is known as “The Lion Of Africa.” In 1972 he hit the charts big in Africa, Europe, and the US with “Soul Makossa,” described by Sanneh as “a honking galloping funk track,” and acknowledged as something of an ur-disco record. “Makossa” in Duala, Dibango’s native tongue, means “dance.”
As Sanneh relates:
A generation of disk jockeys learned to wield the power of the song’s famous introduction: a hard beat, a single guitar chord, and Dibango’s low growl. He named his song after the makossa, a Cameroonian dance, but he stretched the word out, played with it: “Ma-mako, ma-ma-ssa, mako-makossa.”
About a decade later, Dibango was in Paris, listening to the radio in his apartment, when he heard something familiar: those same syllables, more or less, in a very different context. The d.j. was playing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the unconventional first song from Thriller . . . The galloping rhythm sounds a bit like “Soul Makossa,” and near the end Jackson acknowledges the debt by singing words that many listeners mistook for nonsense: “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” Soon, Dibango’s phone started ringing. Friends and relatives were calling to offer their congratulations: Michael Jackson was singing his song! But Dibango’s pride turned to puzzlement when he bought the album, only to find that the song was credited to Michael Jackson and no one else.
Jackson was eventually required to acknowledge publicly his debt to Dibango and “Soul Makossa,” and privately he concluded with the Cameroonian one of those financial settlements a requirement of which is that all parties remain mum as to the amount.
Things went swimmingly until 2007, when
the pop singer Rihanna had a hit with “Don’t Stop The Music,” which was based on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” She sings along with the old syllables: “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” Once again, Dibango heard his chant on the radio, and, once again, he noticed that he wasn’t given credit. (Jackson is listed as a co-songwriter, but not Dibango.) And so the process started anew.
Dibango filed suit in French court against both Jackson and Rihanna. He reportedly seeks 500,000 euros in damages, and has petitioned that Sony BMG, EMI, and Warner Music be barred from receiving Dibango-related income until the matter is resolved.
The original Dibango 1972 “Soul Makossa” may be heard below. If you do French, you can read the 75-year-old Dibango’s website here.