Ugo Monye and Gbemisola Isimi of Culture Tree are advocating African ownership through their legal action
Back in March, Amazon Prime Video premiered the hotly-anticipated sequel to Eddie Murphy’s 1988 Coming to America. Considered a classic to many Black audiences Coming to America, in its monolithic representation of Africa as an out of touch decadent culture, is a deeply problematic movie, that would likely face significant backlash if it was released today. So naturally, as the film’s sequel approach, Coming 2 America became the subject of query as to whether the film would make the same pitfalls as the original or if it would be retrofitted with todays; social clime in mind, where essentialist tropes and misrepresentations in media are rightfully being challenged.
Though all black people across the world are racially targeted and subjugated, in 1988, and for many years after that, Africans in the diaspora were discriminated against both for their blackness and for their proximity to their African national identities – exhibited through accents, food, clothes etc – even within Black communities. As global popular culture began to expand its gaze on Africa through the second half of the 2010s, discrimination did fade, but overt prejudice was smoothly replaced by erasure, less so of African cultures, stories and creations, but most obviously of the African people whose ownership is unfairly denied in the creative entertainment industries.
Twice this week alone, we have seen examples of Nigerian creatives being denied ownership of their cultural creations; but what is truly brilliant is that Ugo Monye and Gbemisola Isimi, like Fisayo Longe earlier this year, are all taking a stand against appropriation of African art and culture, showing us that we do not have to live in the shadows as our own greatness earns others success.
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Culture Tree vs. Timbuktu
On Sunday afternoon, Culture Tree, a UK-based educative cultural centre that teaches Yoruba, amongst other things, shared the outcome of their attempt to trademark the phrase “Yoruba Stars,” an affirmation of her students’ mastership of the language, especially those between 1.5 and13 years. Finding that a British company, Timbuktu had trademarked the word “Yoruba”, Gbemisola Isimi, the founder of Culture Tree was opposed by outdoor clothing store who made a proposition to sell her the “Yoruba” trademark, but refused to let her trademark “Yoruba Stars.” That is until Culture Tree’s Yoruba Is Not For Sale campaign went viral.
Having now withdrawn their opposition to Culture Tree’s “Yoruba Stars” and surrendered their registration of the “Yoruba” trademark, Timbuktu’s initial resistance is exemplary of the imperialist attitudes that persist in the creative industries in the West and continue to disenfranchise African people. Even in selecting the name of an African city, which they falsely describe as “a fictional location which literally means “the middle of nowhere”, a location that has intrigued mankind for centuries,” the company Timbuktu extends colonial erasures of African cultures and identities into the contemporary world, and has been allowed to get away with it for many years, with the support of the law.
“I feel this is the height of cultural appropriation,” Isimi shared via Culture Tree’s initial post, but according to Elnathan John, a Nigerian author, this case is “not an argument about ‘appropriation’. Just the law.” For many, it is both. In the first instance, as Gbemisola Isimi repeats, it is unethical for a single person or company to hold the trademark of an entire ethnic group, to possess the power to block other creators from using a key signifier in their identity in their business trademarks. Similar to the outcry regarding Disney’s years long trademark of ‘Hakunna Matata’ on t-shirts, Timbuktu’s resistance to Culture Tree begs the question, why should English or American corporations have the right to dictate how Africans use their own languages?
In the first place, this is appropriation, but there is also something to be said about intellectual property laws that enable, and in these cases facilitate appropriation and the subsequent suppression of African creators. The UK International Property Office, replied to Culture Tree explaining that, “when examining trade marks, [their] role is to interpret existing laws and be as transparent as possible in our decision making processes while reflecting the society around us,” pointing to that fact that the law doesn’t fault Timbuktu’s “Yoruba” trademark.
As John states in a tweet, “trademark, especially international trademark can be complicated and is governed by a series of agreements, accords and conventions.” Speaking with NATIVE, as she discussed Fisayo Longe’s ongoing against Boohoo, Fashion Consultant and Intellectual Property lawyer, Kike Ojewale corroborates, saying, “there are still gaps within the various forms of intellectual property protection.” Going on to assure Culture Tree via Twitter that, “once a trade mark is registered it is possible for a member of the public to challenge the validity of the mark if it is believed that there are grounds to remove the mark from the trade mark register,” the UK’s IPO shows that the “complicated” “gaps” in current IP law puts the onus is on us – the people whose languages and cultures are being capitalised on by people who don’t know, understand or live it – to fight back, if we wish to maintain ownership over our cultures and creations.
Ugo Monye vs Coming 2 America
COMMERCIAL NOTICE OF THE INFRINGEMENT OF THE REALE DESIGN OWNED BY UGO MONYE LIMITED IN THE MOVIE, COMING 2 AMERICA @paramountpics
@amazonprimevideo #IntellectualProperty #ip pic.twitter.com/At5PZ6mdnz
— Ugo Monye Fashion (@ThisIsUgoMonye) May 27, 2021
Fortunate enough to have won their fight with the support of public opinion (although Gbemisola Isimi is still appealing for more equitable property laws), Culture Tree were lucky to minimise their exposure to the gruelling legal processes of negotiating trademarks and IP laws. Ugo Monye, a Nigerian menswear designer, well known for his kimono stylisation of the traditional Agbada, might not be so lucky.
Back in March, Ugo Monye Official, as the brand is named on Instagram, posted their disappointment that their Reale design was copied in the movie Coming 2 America. At the time, many encouraged the brand to sue, legal action which they have now taken, calling out Paramount Pictures, New Republic Productions, Eddie Murphy Productions, Misher Film Productions and the movie’s costume designer, Ruth E. Carter specifically. In a statement released today, Ugo Monye Limited (UML) make clear that “all our brands and designs (including the Reale Design) and creations are protected by the Copyright Act, Trademarks Act and other Nigerian penal laws and International Treaties,” before going on to describe the extent of the alleged design theft. According to UML tailors and designers in Nigeria were commissioned to recreate the design without authorisation from UML, nor was the designer given any credit or compensation.
In this case, Ugo Monye does seem confident he has the backing of the law, but as Kike Ojewale says, “these rights are pointless if they are not enforced, and enforcement is expensive for any brand, let alone small brands.” In comparison to the huge business engines that produced Coming 2 America, Ugo Monye is David facing a giant Goliath. With unimaginable zeros to throw and a surplus of human resources, Ugo Monye, like Fisayo Longe are brave in their stand against global industry powerhouses, and they are doing so for the benefit of the next generation of African creators to come. “In addition to protecting our business and goodwill, we believe it is high time we took a stand against cultural appropriation; non-Africans continuing to profit off African culture [unauthorised],” UML’s statement concludes.
Though the likes of Coming 2 America, Black Panther, The Lion King, and its accompanying Beyoncé produced compilation album, were pieces intended to empower people, using the motherland as a source of Black pride without careful consideration, attention and behind the scenes representation, has led these movies to complicity in silencing African creatives and taking advantage of our art and artists. It is imperative that as more and more people from the West shine a brighter spotlight on Africa that they do not gatekeep exposure and they do not abuse their capitalistic advantage as creators from the imperialist America. African voices, designs, languages and cultures should be represented as our own and not minimised through the Western lens or co-opted by Western corporations looking to eroticise themselves by affiliating with a culture that isn’t theirs.
In 2021, Nigerian creators are not backing down, they are taking a stand and fighting back. The likes of Fisayo Longe, Gbemisola Isimi and Ugo Monye promise a future that holds the hope that we will no longer have to fight for our right to own and share our stories, our way.