Three months after Nicki Minaj‘s Queen album was reportedly delayed over a sample-clearance issue, the dispute has landed in court. Tracy Chapman‘s lawyer tells Billboard that he filed a copyright infringement suit against Minaj in Los Angeles on Monday (Oct. 22) over the unreleased Queen track “Sorry” featuring Nas, which interpolates the lyrics and melody of Chapman’s 1988 track “Baby Can I Hold You.”
Minaj’s team made multiple requests to license the song from Chapman’s self-titled debut, but according to the singer’s longtime attorney, Lee Phillips, “Tracy Chapman very much protects her rights and she has a right to deny a license when requested.” Phillips adds that Chapman has received potentially “hundreds” of requests over the decades to sample or interpolate her music and that, as far as he knows, she has never granted a single one. In this case, it had nothing to do with Minaj or the quality of her song — which Phillips believes samples another singer performing “Baby” in what sounds like a live recording — but is rather tied to the very private Chapman’s blanket policy on sampling.
The suit, filed against Minaj (born Onika Maraj) and 10 other unnamed defendants, explains that Chapman’s reps “repeatedly denied” Minaj’s requests to use the song after “Sorry” had already been recorded and that the track was then leaked to New York DJ Funkmaster Flex, who teased on social media that Nicki had given him something “ft @nas” that is “not on her [Queen] album.” The song was then played on Hot 97, and according to Phillips, quickly spread across the Internet.
“This action is necessary to redress Maraj’s disregard and willful infringement of Chapman’s rights under the Copyright Act, and to ensure that her misconduct is not repeated,” the suit reads. Because “Sorry” clearly “incorporates the lyrics and vocal melody of the Composition, its most recognizable and memorable parts,” comprising “approximately half the Infringing Work,” without authorization, Phillips was forced to file the suit on his client’s behalf once the song was played on the radio; the suit notes that “on or around” July 16, 2018, Chapman’s business managers informed Minaj’s team that they would not grant consent to use the song.
Minaj’s manager then reportedly requested that Chapman’s team reach out to discuss the “idea [of Maraj’s] that is one of the most personal for her that was inspired by [Chapman’s] art that [Maraj] would like the opportunity to touchbase (sic) with [Chapman] about. Minaj later also reached out to Chapman in a tweet — Phillips says the singer does not have a social media presence — and asked Chapman directly to clear the license for the song. Minaj’s now-deleted “Sis said no” tweet from Aug. 11 may refer to Chapman refusing to clear the sample.
Following a series of tweets on Aug. 11, Flex (born Aston George Taylor Jr.) played the song on his Hot 97 show that night; the song was then reportedly played on Power 105’s The Breakfast Club two days later. Because the song has now spread far and wide — including to Nigeria — Phillips says it has become difficult to track down every site that has posted it so far. The suit seeks to restrain Minaj for “copying or otherwise using or exploiting the Infringing Work” and to prevent third parties from doing so, as well as damages for Chapman from any profit Minaj makes from the track. Click here to see a copy of the suit.
“There is no question this is infringement,” says Phillips, senior partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP. “If someone asked what Nicki Minaj’s defense is going to be we have no idea.”
A spokesperson for Minaj could not be reached for comment at press time.