frank ocean screwing his label was a win for music

June 13, 2019
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Recently, Frank Ocean gave an interview to Dazed, and it got me thinking about musicians who flip their middle fingers at institutions that try to control their creativity and profit. Thankfully, there are platforms to talk about adversities we face, allowing us to learn from each other. Today’s artists understand the importance of sharing their personal industry struggles in hopes of sparing the ones on the come-up. 

At some point or another, most artists have been exploited by big corporate arts establishments. Exploitation almost comes with the creative territory, but hopefully not for much longer. We’ve already made great strides in independence, with game changers like Chance The Rapper, Frank Ocean, and Jay-Z. We’re still in progress but the shifts and strides give us reason to continue. 

In one of the most extreme cases of exploitation in music, we can look to 1970’s American soul and funk band 24-Carat Black. Their 1973 record Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth has been sampled time and time again on tracks by artists like Kendrick Lamar, Pusha-T, Nas, Jay Z, Jill Scott, Common, Scarface, Madlib, the list goes on. Their debut album came out in ‘73 and they were unable to release another until 2009 though they had plenty of unreleased songs under their belt.

24-Carat Black became a goldmine for samples by the rap community but to this day they remain largely unknown. The surviving members see no money from people sampling their work leaving them broke. Thanks to Pitchfork’s reporting of the matter, the Numero Group (an archival record label) has begun to collect paperwork to pay the surviving members as much as they can get (which is not much). One example of the work they are doing is to get the group paid the clearance money for Pusha-T’s sample on his Daytona record with his song “Infrared”. 

Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth is an album that is entirely about poverty and inner-city hardship, and the story of getting the album out there is just as sad. Lead singer, Princess Hearn, who now works as a corporate receptionist in Cincinnati has only received $500 from the “rebirth” of 24-Carat Black, and this was thanks to the Numero Group. We are unsure if the estate of Dale Warren, who is credited with writing most most of the groups songs before his death in 1994, receives payment. Though it is thought that the publishing royalties should go to his estate, Warren’s widow has been unreachable and not confirmed this.

“In those days, when we signed a contract, we didn’t read the bottom line,” says Manchurian, the producer-arranger sometimes described as Warren’s right-hand man. “A lot of things were not [understood] because of our lack of education on the music industry.”

Unfortunately, 24-Carat Black’s story was not uncommon. In the 1970s many creatives were taken advantage of — sucked dry for their art — but left uncredited and unpaid. There was an immense lack of education by the self-profiting music industry, which left artists vulnerable. You can look to stories like TLC being millionaires for five minutes before becoming bankrupt during the peak of their fame and success. Or remember the story of Sly Stone, who had no ownership of royalties from his music (owned by his ex-manager and production company), leaving him homeless, living in a van. And how about James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, the “Funky Drummer” who has been sampled thousands of times with no credit, no payment? The heartbreaking stories are plenty but hopefully will lessen with artists educating themselves more than ever.

Which brings us back to Frank. The Dazed interview was made up of questions to Ocean from his contemporaries like Janet Mock, Billy Porter, JPEGMAFIA, Big Freedia, Warsan Shire, and more. The standout moment? JPEGMAFIA’s question to Frank.

I am no musician, but I am an artist so I thank modern creative minds like Frank Ocean for sharing the professional struggles he has gone through. These are constant reminders to do the necessary work to protect ourselves, our legacy and our ideas. People like Ocean strategically planned so that the ones who come after do not have to. Or… Okay, that’s a little optimistic, but maybe now we can just plan ahead instead of stewing about getting out of bad relationships. Thanks to Frank, I did my research and learned about treasures like 24-Carat Black. More than learning who they are, I learned their story and will make sure that the creatives around me and I are not taken advantage of. The power of sharing can save legacies.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JUNE 11: Frank Ocean performs at The Parklife Festival 2017 at Heaton Park on June 11, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Visionhaus#GP/Corbis via Getty Images))