Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect DJBooth or any member of our editorial team. Furthermore, in the interest of full disclosure, after receiving Jonathan's request to publish his open letter to Kendrick Lamar on DJBooth, we immediately contacted Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony Tiffith to inform him of our plans and to inquire if he was interested in providing a response. As of press time, Top has not replied to our inquiry, but if he does provide a proper response, we will be sure to update this article accordingly.
Dear Kendrick Lamar,
This is not an attack; this is not a criticism or an affront to your character. I truly hope you will hear me out, and I also hope we can avoid our representatives seeing each other at our recently canceled court date in Montréal on March 28.
As independent artists, we face challenges. The biggest challenge is the oligarchy of major record labels that suppress, derail and ultimately limit the exposure independent artists can achieve. The same labels that control the radio waves, the performing venues, touring circuits, streaming platforms and online publications, also control the narrative. One of the reasons I wanted to work with you initially, is because you were a champion of independent thought, independent artistry and independent of the industry. I won’t pretend to know just how much control you have over your career or business, but I do hope that you will read this letter and understand what the action of your team and label will do to independent artists.
As you already know, just over two years ago, I independently released my first album The Lover/Fighter Document featuring all original music produced by myself and many contributing independent artists. Back in November 2011, my manager contacted your management at Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) for a collaboration that would appear on the album. I was really happy that Top Dawg himself got back to my team and that you were interested in working with me.
Top Dawg communicated to me that you were ‘feeling’ the song and were comfortable with the beat, subject matter and collaboration itself. He explained that we would have to make two installments to pay for a Kendrick Lamar performance. Top Dawg assured us that the paperwork would be taken care of by your lawyers at our cost—which we felt was fair. We managed to pull together some financial resources to make the collaboration happen; I really admired the work you had done up until that point and I looked forward to hearing what you delivered. Mixed by Ali sent us a sample of the verse after the first payment, and then the full song in early 2012 after the second payment. We loved the verse and we were happy with the product so we immediately hired a lawyer to draw up paperwork.
After the verse was delivered and the payment was made, all communication ceased. I had my lawyers reach out to your lawyer at the time Josh Binder,Interscope and Top Dawg Entertainment. No one would get back to us. Your team, and Top Dawg, in particular, was always difficult to deal with especially after the song was recorded. When they sent the final files for your verse, they didn't even provide the a capella vocals (only your parts pre-mixed to the instrumental). TDE took a long time to respond to emails, they didn't answer many of our questions, and they ignored our continued requests to sign the paperwork. Your career trajectory since then has been astronomical, so we assumed you were just busy and I continued to work on my album.
As time went on, I slowly put together my debut, which of course is essentially a lifelong process for a new artist, especially when incorporating concepts detailing my battle with cancer and falling in love while finishing school. I know you can understand this since you take quite a bit of time to produce your own work with far greater resources. Finally, I finished the project. In late 2014, my management set up a formal release date for the single "Heaven Help Dem," featuring Kendrick Lamar. We chose Martin Luther King Day, January 19, 2015, for the release as it was significant to me and to the theme of the song. Out of courtesy, we contacted TDE to inform you of our plans to release the song. I sent Top Dawg a sample of the track, he said that he didn’t remember it or the transaction and that it may be too old. So I sent him the transaction information along with the music. I heard nothing back. I emailed him a few more times to no avail and we just went ahead with our release schedule.
When we posted the song on YouTube, we received incredible press from all over the globe—major blogs, newspapers, television and more. The buzz was growing just as we had hoped and I was ready to release the album, The Lover/Fighter Document LP, in time for February (Black History Month, also significant to me and the themes of my project). This prompted a call from Top Dawg himself. During the call, Top Dawg threatened that Interscope and Universal Music Group (UMG) would take down the song, he eluded to possible legal action and took a highly aggressive stance. He also threatened that I would burn my bridges with TDE and that it was bad business for me to not listen to him. It’s hip-hop, so tough talk and bullying come with the territory. I asked him, why didn’t he tell me not to release the song? He evaded. So I informed him that I had every right to have the song released and that there was nothing I could do because it was live on the internet and scheduled for iTunes release. I proposed to remove the song if I was refunded, but Top Dawg refused. I asked to speak to someone at Interscope or UMG—at this point, he became angry and yelled that he was "the president of Top Dawg Entertainment and he has the final decision.” At that point, I said "OK", and informed him that I would act according to my best interest.
Roughly eight days after the release of "Heaven Help Dem,” the song was removed from SoundCloud and YouTube. A notice was placed on these sites, for hundreds of thousands of people to see, stating: “Jonathan Emile has violated UMG/Interscope’s copyright.” I received generic emails stating that I had violated copyright owned by UMG/Interscope, though the song was paid for and arranged prior to your public signing with Interscope. The situation left me frustrated and feeling completely powerless after all the love, money, time and energy invested into the release of this song, and the first single off my debut project went right down the drain. We had to postpone the marketing and release of my album until we had this sorted out.
After many emails and calls to both International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), YouTube, SoundCloud, your management and associated labels via my lawyer in New York, we were able to get the false copyright claim revoked. The song went back online around two months later, however, all our views were gone (we had hundreds of thousands of views/plays in those first eight days alone) and the negative online chatter had already begun. People were saying I stole the verse from an old Kendrick song (not true) and all sorts of other libel against me. I was genuinely hurt. I had invested my heart and soul into this release all for it to be stripped away by Top Dawg himself. Top Dawg later confessed to my lawyer (who signed a sworn affidavit) that he personally asked Interscope and UMG to remove the song because he felt “disrespected”. I do not believe it was honorable for me to be attacked simply because of mismanagement and lack of judgment on the part of your representatives.
There was nothing I could do—I'm just one independent artist with no major backing trying to go up against the Goliath that is UMG/Interscope.
Last year, I hired a lawyer, weighed my options and then filed a small claims case against Universal Music Group. Finally, I got a court date and plead my case. The judge agreed that my moral rights, copyright and integrity as a person were violated. I won the case, not simply by default, not because your label, management and Top Dawg refused to show up, but because I plead my case and the court heard the facts and published judgment that referenced The Canadian Charter of human rights and freedoms.
Still, your label, through its lawyers, has refused to honor the court’s decision. They have continued the bullying and intimidation in an attempt to strong-arm me. They have since filed a retraction to stay the execution of the judgment. After the judgment was handed down, I was phoned by your legal team and I was asked to enter into a settlement agreement — of course, I cannot discuss any of these details. The bullying, intimidation and exploitation I have experienced by your team and by your label is not something I expected. A day after sharing the first version of this letter with select media outlets for consideration, I received a phone call from the court informing me that the application to revoke judgment was withdrawn. Still, UMG has not signed the documentation to close the legal procedures, admit fault and obey the court order. In essence, this reveals UMG will continue their legal action to undermine my rights as an artist and by extension the Canadian Charter. I am of the belief that my case—this letter—is relevant to the rights of independent artists, specifically, to fight false copyright claims and UMG’s misconduct. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as simply an isolated incident.
By removing my song, TDE broke the law and set a small legal precedent for artists whose work is being silenced and censored. By silencing "Heaven Help Dem,” for whatever reason—artistic, business or personal—you and your team have violated the rights of independent artists and broken the original contract/exchange we had. Now, Universal Music Group will attempt to have this case thrown out. The special relationship that major labels have with YouTube, SoundCloud and other services was abused. What TDE did opens the door to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of independent artists being compensated for false copyright claims made by major labels.
As you can clearly see, the honor and integrity you represent as an artist is not being mirrored by the people who represent you. Never have I spoken ill of you, lashed out at you or attacked you. This is simply because I truly believe we are not enemies or even adversaries. As we both fight oppression, injustice and share our perspectives on the human condition with the world in our respective forms, I will continue to be in solidarity with you. Too often, in hip-hop especially, we devolve into machismo, harmful rhetoric and self-destructive opportunism. As an artist, as a feminist, as a black man, I will not do this. I have been wronged, and misdirected anger toward you would simply compound the wrongness of the situation.
But I will appeal to your greater sensibilities, and ask you to honor our original agreement and hold your representatives to account. I can only hope you have this type of influence over these processes.
In the meantime, I’ll be preparing for the legal battle ahead, and releasing more music.
You can listen to Jonathan Emile's latest album Phantom Pain on Spotify.
Jonathan Emile Photo by Alesya Kornetskaya.