California’s Reparations Task Force Takes on the Historic Theft of Black Art and Culture


Elvis Presley in Florida - Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Elvis Presley in Florida – Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The California Reparations Task Force has issued its first interim report, a nearly 600-page document that spends a full chapter focusing on the longstanding inequities surrounding the history of arts and entertainment in the United States.

“Throughout American history, the federal government historically deprived Black American artists and innovators of intellectual property rights, copyright protections, and patent protections resulting in intellectual and cultural theft and exploitation,” states the report — which, according to task force Chair Kamilah Moore, is “the most extensive government-issued report on the African-American community since the Kerner Commision in 1968.”

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The report includes a series of preliminary recommendations for California, encouraging the state to create an “Office of Freedmen Cultural Affairs,” to “compensate individuals who have been deprived of rightful profits” for their creative work, and to prevent further discrimination in arts and entertainment industries through a series of policies and legislation.

The report echoes decades-old arguments that legal scholars, activists, and artists themselves have made regarding longstanding structural problems of equal compensation in the music industry. “Federal and state governments allowed white Americans to steal Black American art and culture with impunity,” the report states, “depriving Black creators of valuable copyright and patent protections.”

“What I like about this report, and particularly the chapter about African-American creative, cultural and intellectual life, is that not only does it catalog the harms against the African-American community from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the present, but it also talks about the vast contributions of the African-American community in spite of, or despite, those ongoing harms, oppression and genocidal tactics,” Moore tells Rolling Stone. “Reparations is about honoring those contributions and making up for those harms.”

One of the many dozens of scholars whose work is cited in the report is law professor Kevin Greene, who provided testimony to the task force last year.

“One thing that people object to with reparations is this idea that, ‘My ancestors were slaveholders; I had nothing to do with this,’” Greene told Rolling Stone this year. “In the music space, that is a harder argument to make, because it’s an ongoing harm, rather than an ancient harm. Because copyright terms are so long, a lot of these works [that have never been properly credited to their originators] are still valuable. They’re still generating income.”

The report points to artists like Arthur Crudup — the Black Mississippi blues artist who tried, largely unsuccessfully, to seek royalties for widely covered compositions like “That’s All Right Mama” in the rock era — as demonstrative of this dynamic. While Elvis Presley cited Crudup as a key influence on his work and repeatedly expressed his respect for the older musician, the report notes that Crudup “was paid so little for his recordings that he had to work as a laborer selling sweet potatoes”: “The original song creators whose work [Presley] appropriated,” the report continues, “were not even paid for the use of their music.”

Created in 2020 by governor Gavin Newsom, California’s reparations task force is the first of its kind in the United States. Its interim report was released by the state’s Department of Justice, and it is expected to issue a final report in July 2023.

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