On Petite Noir, Beyoncé and What Artists Owe Each Other

In Jamaican reggae and dancehall culture, there is a thing called a riddim. An artist will release a track, and if the track becomes popular, multiple other artists will use their own lyrics on top of the already existing beat. Major 2000s dancehall hits like “No Letting Go” by Wayne Wonder, Sean Paul’s “Get Busy”, Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay” and Lumidee’s “Never Leave (Uh Oh)” all make use of the same Diwali riddim. The use of the riddim is seen not as a copying or lifting of another artist’s work, but rather as building on and expanding upon something that is already proven good. Being inspired by someone else’s work and building upon it to create something of your own.

On July 16th, Beyoncé released the music video for her song “Spirit” that accompanies the highly anticipated, live action remake of The Lion King. “Spirit” is featured on the soundtrack, executive produced by Beyoncé, called ‘The Gift’, which she has called a ‘love letter to Africa’. It’s a carefully curated soundtrack that draws on popular African talent to bring the energy and feel of the continent to life (despite completely omitting artists from East Africa, where the fictional Lion King is set). The soundtrack itself has been almost universally praised. The video for “Spirit”, however, has drawn heated criticism for its similarities to a video that also comes from the continent: Petite Noir’sLa Maison Noir”. 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?

“La Maison Noir” was released in 2018, in partnership with Redbull Music. The video is shot in a stunning desert landscape and opens with Petite and a young child wearing similar red cloth outfits. It is the second part of the video “Takula” which has, in the last few days, gained the most attention. In the opening shot of the sequence, a woman draped in red cloth is flanked by a group of men who lie at her feet and stand behind her back, almost like a throne. The camera zooms in to a close up of her face, half of which is covered by cloth, the other half exposed to the sunlight as she looks intensely into the camera. This shot is mirrored in Beyoncé’s “Spirit” music video where she, draped in a cobalt blue cloth, looks directly into the camera in a similar, intense fashion. “La Maison Noir” makes use of closeup shots of black faces and intricate shots of people in primary coloured cloth standing in a variety of formations, both sitting and standing. There is a shot of RhaRha Nembard, Noir’s wife and creative partner, wearing a green army outfit flanked by women in similar green garbs. Towards the end of the video, there is a gorgeous high camera shot of Petite, wearing only white underclothes, lying in the desert sand.

The shots I’ve just mentioned look a lot like shots that appear in the “Spirit” music video. Apart from the shot of her face partially covered by cloth, Beyoncé employs similar use of fabric, group formation and movement used in “La Maison Noir”. Parts of Spirit, too, are set in a similar desert location and thus make use of lighting tropes and frames that resemble “La Maison Noir” very closely. Beyoncé makes use of a young child dressed similarly to her (in this case, her daughter Blue Ivy). There is a scene where Beyoncé, dressed in green, is flanked by dancers dressed in the same hue who mimic her every movement. This scene is similar to the shot of RhaRha Nembard chanting “POW POW”, flanked by a female army in green. Finally, there is a high camera shot of Beyoncé, wearing in one shot a pink dress and in another, blue. In the first shot, she is laying in the desert sand and in the other, at the mouth of a waterfall. “Spirit” bears a distinct similarity to “La Maison Noir”, undoubtedly. But the video is not a shot for shot remake. What this video does do, is bring us to the question of what the boundaries and protocol are for artists in creation.

In 2019, all artists are standing on the backs of decades of work that has preceded them. At this point, almost everything we see and hear feels retroactive: inspired by or in conversation with something that has already been put out into the world. Nothing exists in a vacuum anymore, and almost nobody can claim to have created 100% original content. And that’s okay. Creativity is more circular than it is a narrow linear path.

Beyoncé released ‘Lemonade’: her “visual album” in 2016. She has said before that the project was inspired by Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’: an extended visual experience. ‘Lemonade’ wasn’t the first long format video to ever be released, but it is a piece of work that changed the landscape of music videos in the 2010s. After ‘Lemonade’, the nature of music video creation changed, and artists felt incentivized to release projects of a similar nature. In ‘Lemonade’, Beyoncé employs cloth, group formations and references to West/Central African spirituality in ways that we see recreated for the Lion King project.

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?

It’s safe to say that Petite Noir was on the mood board that Beyoncé’s team drew up for the “Spirit” video. The frames in question are too similar to deny. Someone on the creative team, if not Beyoncé herself, likely saw the video and saw shots that they liked and that they believed would make “Spirit” a stronger visual project. 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?

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