Rick Astley Sues Rapper Yung Gravy Over Hit Song With Soundalike Singer: ‘Flagrantly Impersonated’
The new lawsuit raises big questions about what can legally be borrowed from older songs, even when some licenses are secured.
When does a soundalike song sound a little too much alike?
Rick Astley is suing Yung Gravy over the rapper’s breakout 2022 hit that heavily borrowed from the singer’s iconic “Never Gonna Give You Up,” alleging that the new track — an interpolation that sounded a whole lot like an outright sample — broke the law by impersonating Astley’s voice.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday (Jan. 26) in Los Angeles court, Astley claims that Gravy’s “Betty (Get Money),” which reached No. 30 on the Hot 100 last year, violated the singer’s so-called right of publicity because it closely mimicked the distinctive voice Astley used in the chart-topping 1987 hit.
“In an effort to capitalize off of the immense popularity and goodwill of Mr. Astley, defendants … conspired to include a deliberate and nearly indistinguishable imitation of Mr. Astley’s voice throughout the song,” Astley’s lawyers wrote. “The public could not tell the difference. The imitation of Mr. Astley’s voice was so successful the public believed it was actually Mr. Astley singing.”
Pulling heavily from a song that boomed in recent years thanks to “Rickroll” internet memes, “Betty” was a major hit for Yung Gravy. But it often drew attention largely for its connections to Astley; the New York Times called it “a real-life rickroll that functioned as a comedy song, a TikTok trend and a nostalgia trip all at once.”
In their new lawsuit, Astley’s lawyers said the singer was “extremely protective over his name, image, and likeness,” meaning the unauthorized use of the soundalike voice had caused him “immense damage.”
Representatives for Gravy (real name Matthew Hauri) and Universal Music Group’s Republic Records (also named in the lawsuit as the label that released “Betty”) did not immediately return a request for comment.
Thursday’s new lawsuit raises big questions about the methods used in the music industry to legally borrow from older songs, an ever more popular tactic in a nostalgia-heavy age.
When they created “Betty,” Gravy and his team allegedly cleared the underlying musical composition to “Give You Up,” which Astley does not own. That gave them the legal right to recreate music and lyrics from the original song in their new track — a process known as “interpolating.”
But the lawsuit says Gravy and his team weren’t able to secure a license to use the actual sound recording of the famous track — the better-known process of “sampling.” That would mean they didn’t have any right to directly copy the exact sounds, including Astley’s voice.
Instead, Astley says they hired Popnick (real name Nick Seeley) to imitate Astley’s “signature voice” on the track. At one point, the lawsuit quotes from an Instagram video in which Popnick said he wanted the song to “sound identical” to Astley’s voice.
By doing so without permission, the lawsuit claims that Gravy and Popnick violated Astley’s right of publicity — the legal right to control how your name, image or likeness is commercially exploited by others.
“A license to use the original underlying musical composition does not authorize the stealing of the artist’s voice in the original recording,” Astley’s lawyers wrote. “So, instead, they resorted to theft of Mr. Astley’s voice without a license and without agreement.”
Astley’s allegations rely heavily on a 1988 federal court ruling, in which Bette Midler successfully sued the Ford Motor Co. for violating her right of publicity by running a series of commercials featuring a Midler impersonator. In that case, the court sided with Midler even though Ford had obtained a license to the underlying song.
The new lawsuit was filed by Richard Busch, a prominent music litigator best known for winning the blockbuster copyright case over “Blurred Lines.” In a statement to Billboard, Busch said: “Mr. Astley owns his voice. California law is clear since the Bette Midler case more than 30 years ago that nobody has the right to imitate or use it without his permission.”
In addition to violating Astley’s right of publicity, the lawsuit also accuses Gravy of violating federal trademark law by making false statements that made it appear that the singer had endorsed the new song. In an interview with Billboard, Gravy said he had spoken with Astley and that the singer had approved of the new song — that he “fucks with the song.”
“These statements were all false,” Astley wrote in his lawsuit.
Read Astley’s entire lawsuit here: