They just had to ruin it.
This was supposed to be an article about the many talents and looks involved in the making of “All the Stars.” Instead, we’re taking a different look behind the scenes of the video we collectively swooned over last week, when Kendrick Lamar’s lead single from the Black Panther soundtrack—featuring one-woman hair band SZA—was released. We’d fallen in love with the looks served alongside the lyrics, the black panthers prancing alongside Lamar, and the black excellence on full display, climaxing in that dazzling black-and-gold tableau (at the 2:59 mark) clearly created by British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor in the style of her Constellations art series ... *record scratch.*
OK, in homage to Viktor?
Unfortunately, neither is the case, though Lamar, director Dave Meyers and their little friends—I mean, “the little homies”—will likely claim otherwise. As revealed by the New York Times on Sunday, Viktor was unaware that her signature artistic style had been co-opted for the scene until friends began showering her with accolades for contributing to the video. [Editor’s note: As of press time, Viktor could not be reached for comment. Lamar and Meyers either refused comment or did not respond to requests for comment by the Times.]
And perhaps the imitation would’ve been at least mildly flattering, except for one thing: She’d already said no.
As it turns out, Viktor was purportedly contacted not once, but twice, with requests to use her art in association with Black Panther—first for the film itself, and a year later to be a contributor to the artistic campaign for the film. The first offer didn’t meet her financial requirements; the second would’ve required her to exclusively license the work she produced to Marvel and Disney, likely putting into jeopardy an upcoming solo exhibition. Regardless, she was well within her rights to decline.
“We walked away. That’s the last I heard,” Viktor told the New York Times.
So one can only imagine her shock and anger in discovering that someone—or several someones—on Lamar’s production team felt entitled enough to mimic her work for “All the Stars.” As Viktor’s lawyer Christopher Robinson told the Times: “We’re in an age when ‘no’ is supposed to mean ‘no’ in whatever field you’re in ... [i]t’s outrageous that they’re taking advantage of her.”
But there are far deeper implications here, especially since Lamar and Co. are likely aware that in art, as in fashion, “style” is not protected. While clearly inspired by Viktor’s work, nothing we saw in “All the Stars” was a clear forgery, meaning that her recourse may be limited, but what we indisputably have here is a particularly grimy case of appropriation.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly from a rapper who is widely considered perhaps the most “woke” of his generation—though this is not the first time he’s been accused of swagger-jacking.
Adding to that, what does it mean for a black male artist at the top of his career—taking home five new Grammys mere weeks ago—to poach from a black female artist arguably on the verge of a breakthrough in hers? What level of arrogance and cognitive dissonance does one have to have to admire someone’s work, yet risk diminishing it by imitating it?
Culturally, black people have become experts at calling out appropriation when we see it—and occasionally been called appropriators in return. Black Panther has been no exception, whether weathering speculation about how it perpetuates stereotypes or taking criticism for not actually filming the fictional Wakanda in Africa.
But while those debates may ultimately be matters of opinion, this situation is ripe for a discussion about cultural currency, who possesses it and who feels entitled enough to wield it, regardless of who else might end up collateral damage.
“Why would they do this?” Viktor asked the New York Times. “It’s an ethical issue, because what the whole film purports is that it’s about black empowerment, African excellence—that’s the whole concept of the story. And at the same time, they’re stealing from African artists.”
While “All the Stars” would arguably be less stellar without the climactic black-and-gold scene, the insistence upon appropriating Viktor’s work—despite her express wishes not to be involved—raises deep questions about our allegiances to one another, both artistically and culturally.
Were those 19 seconds worth betraying another artist? And even if and when the law doesn’t protect us, shouldn’t we feel the least obligation to protect—or, at least, respect—one another?
One can only hope that Lamar’s camp finds a way to make this right with Lina Iris Viktor—especially since, for us, at least, the video is now tainted by the knowledge that all of the intellectual property wasn’t given willingly. But the bottom line is that Viktor deserved better—and frankly, so did we.