The Colored Girl Goes Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do
An interview with singer-songwriter Kileza who is currently suing for a credit on a Maroon 5 song she believes was lifted from her 2016 recording.
A white woman washing a Black foot stands out as a cunning, cryptic image in singer Kileza’s 2020 music video to her song “Homegirl.” It’s a magnificent, spooky black and white piece that would make you think that Kileza is a bonafide rebel with a cause. However, according to the artist, she followed the rules laid out by the major record labels for years, only to find out that the only rule she should have been listening to was A Tribe Called Quest’s “industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty: record company people are shady.”
South African musician, singer and songwriter Kileza started studying piano when she was only seven years old. At sixteen years old she tried out for the South African version of American Idol. She went on to study music at the University of Toronto and has been hustling as a singer-songwriter ever since. She moved to Germany after college and mentioned in our interview that she always wanted to be signed to a major label. Kileza always looked at the charts to keep up to date with the most popular sounds and music trends and was never too cool for the major leagues.
In today’s world, the power of the internet has made it easier for artists to stay independent, as more artists are making it a priority to own their masters. However, Kileza stayed on the traditional trajectory and wanted a seat at the major table.
Until she found out that at the major table everyone would be eating except for her.
What’s deeply troubling is that Kileza played the game exactly how the powers that be want the game to be played and she still found out what it’s like to be cheated by an A&R. After a long and pleasant email exchange, Kileza shared a version of an original song with a representative from Universal Music, who then ghosted her. After a couple of years passed, Kileza says that one day while scrolling on YouTube she noticed a video with a title eerily similar to the title of her song.
Shockingly, she scrolled past the title thinking that there was no way she had been a victim of song theft.
Branden Janese: Can you tell me the story of what first started this debacle. When did you first hear the Maroon 5 song and what was your reaction to it?
Kileza: Well, it was on YouTube. I just noticed the title, “What Lovers Do,” and it stuck out because I’ve always kept an eye on the charts since I was a teenager and I've never seen that kind of title before, knowing that I had a very similar song title myself.
Kileza said that it took her about three or four months to listen to the Maroon 5 song and after a few listens she was convinced that it was deeply inspired by what she had already written, recorded and played for an A&R at Universal Music.
Branden: You recently released a video exposing the emails from 2016 that prove the A&R at Universal had indeed heard the song you wrote that sounds very similar to the Maroon 5 song. You mention in that video how you are prepared to use social media and the legal system as means to get credit for the song. Can you talk more about that?
Kileza: Yeah I’ve seen the amazing things that [social media] has done. For example, last year, Will.i.am plagiarized a song by a South African DJ and South Africans took to Twitter and got enough attention that Will.i.am was forced to come forward. Of course, I've seen what has happened with the “me too” movement. I've seen what's happened with [women] who spent years trying to sue [their predators] and I think what brought the most attention and probably the most success to [those] cases was social media. I've also had a relative who had to fight against a really big corporation once and it went on for ten years in court and back then they didn't have any power in the media and so their name was kind of smeared. If you don't have a billion dollars, your chances in court are very slim. So I've seen the success that social media has given women who typically have not had as much power in the world and especially people of color. The thing with the legal system, especially in America, sometimes is that it really does favor people with money. I find it very strange that in order for me to sue them I'd have to be already very rich. Lawyer fees are $250 to $500 per hour and not many lawyers want to work on contingency. So it's very risky and it's almost impossible for the common man to win against the huge multibillion-dollar corporation. [If] I didn't have social media I don't know if I'd have much of a chance, to be honest.
Branden: Have you seen any increase in views, numbers and/or followers since speaking out on social media?
Kileza: Yes, I have. The post I made on Instagram, maybe like three or four weeks ago, got over a million views which really surprised me because on Instagram I don't get that much attention. I've asked people to tag a lot of news agencies and stuff. So there is a lot of engagement going on.
Branden: You talked earlier about having to have a lot of funding behind you to even start the process of litigation. I'm wondering if you can talk about any pushback that you've received either from the public or people in your comments or even from people who are close to you.
Kileza: When you get people who don't believe you, people close to you who know your heart and who know your level of talent and who know the things you've achieved, people you've been asked to write for when they don't believe you it is almost more heartbreaking than a stranger on the internet. I think I was much more affected by the negativity because I'd never experienced that much hate. My following was not very big before at all. So I never had that much attention on social media. So [I got] a lot of trolls and people saying “cap” as the young kids say, or [saying] I just do this for attention, or [saying] your case will never win. You know that it's not true, but you still take it personally almost every time. At first, I used to have wisecracks at the trolls but you learn to never argue with a fool. It's just a waste of time.
Branden: What is motivating you to keep going?
Kileza: It's tough. Some days I do feel like giving up when a post doesn't get as big as I imagined or hoped that it would or if I'm not getting as much financial donations as I wished I would, I think, ‘are people over this?’ because it's been going on for a year. Do people not believe me or do people think I'm not motivated and dedicated enough? So there's tons of self-doubt, tons of stress, tons of worry but I pretty much dedicated my whole life to music. I took every risk that you could possibly take. There's that famous quotation that I probably said to you before about ‘how fortune favors the brave.’ I found that life is a little bit more complicated than that. This idea that all you have to do is work hard and have talent, unfortunately, I found that also not to be true. I just realized at some point that I did everything I was supposed to do. I played the game the way they wanted me to and I brought the talent. I brought the great material and I was still being made a fool of, being played and that's years and years and years of my life that I can never get back. I don't regret the risks that I took but I am angry about that. That's my life that has been stolen from me. I am now realizing that I probably never would have really fit into the system anyways.
Some people feel like what I'm doing is going to ruin any chance at a career for me with these major labels and a part of me feels like, well, I just don't want to work with them anymore because I know what they're all about. So I’m motivated to keep pushing because it's what I deserve. I've worked incredibly hard for an incredibly long amount of time and just because you don't see someone that's prominent and famous it doesn't mean that they haven't put the hours in. I want a more fair industry. I know that this will motivate a lot more people because I know hundreds of people [going through the same battle] but most of them don't [fight] because they think that it won't amount to much. My mother [is] a lawyer. I see her fighting for things and winning sometimes. So I feel like [going] for it. If it fails I don't feel like I would have lost anything because I don't feel like [the music] industry even wants someone who looks like me.
Branden: After all of these years of singing and performing and putting in so much work, when you say that you don't believe the industry wants someone that looks like you anyway, can you talk a little bit more about that? Is that a conclusion you’ve made since this has happened with the Maroon 5 track, or have there been more experiences during your journey that make you say that?
Kileza: Yeah, there were a few, a few things. When I was in Canada there was a management company of a quite famous, prominent Canadian musician who was interested in me. But the impression I got was that I was too dark-skinned for them. I don't really even consider what color people call me, but that was kind of the first shock. The person that they went for was extremely light-skinned. I looked at the charts in Canada, and I didn't really see anyone who looked like me, maybe one or two women, but it was still tough for them. So I decided to go to Europe. I thought maybe in Europe, my differentness will actually be something that appeals to them because I did see that sales of Black music are quite high in Germany. I just realized that after a few years despite all the great things I was doing, there was still very little interest. The other women that I was coming up with who were around my age were getting signed and they were white.
An ex-Universal Music employee was trying to help me. He was “one of the good guys.” He said to me ‘you know, it's kind of not that interesting when a Black girl sings well.’ I guess he was trying to say that it's kind of boring because all Black people can sing. If this is what one of the “good guys” is saying, what are the “bad guys” saying? So, I think when you start looking at the charts [in Germany] and even in the UK, I didn't really realize it until I met [other] female musicians in the UK who would just complain all the time about it. A few weeks ago I looked at the British charts and there's no one who looks like me on there. So you start to add things up. And of course, you don't want to put these negative limitations on yourself but reality starts painting a picture. You just wise up to it.
Branden: You came up in Canada, right? That's where you went to high school?
Kileza: No, I went to high school in South Africa, and then after high school, my family immigrated to Canada.
Branden: Oh, okay, okay. I think that's really profound what you just said about the music industry and colorism. For people who don't know what did racism and colorism look like for you growing up in South Africa?
Kileza: Oh, yeah, that's a great question. Well, I think in the music industry there were a lot more people of color so that wasn't an issue there but I did go to a white private school. And yeah, that was quite a difficult place to grow up. This was just a few years after apartheid and there was still a lot of remnants of that in the air in that white school. Blackness wasn't celebrated or appreciated the way that it is today and in terms of the colorism, yeah, it was there. I had a friend at the time who was darker skinned and the other Black girls sometimes made fun of her. Eventually, we all became friends but yeah it was some of that as well. Some self-hatred I would call it.
Branden: Being Black in America, everything is so intertwined with race. Racism and class and anti-blackness. But it's not really just from white folks. A lot of communities here that are predominantly occupied by immigrants are actually the most anti-black communities. They're more anti-black than the white communities. And I think that's because when you immigrate somewhere you just immediately want to assimilate. And in America, unfortunately, it seems like the best way to assimilate it's just to show how much you hate Black people. So I find it so interesting hearing Black perspectives on race that aren't American. And I think it's such a rich and needed kind of voice and an experience that we don't really get to hear a lot. I think we kind of just assume Africans don't deal with racism in Africa, I think a lot of people just kind of assumed that.
Kileza: Yeah, I know. You're totally right. We do have the same issues in terms of different groups of minorities battling it out for space. And yeah, everyone kind of wants to put Black people on the bottom. And as you say, it's a way to assimilate, the way to elevate yourself in society, I guess which is really sad. I always feel sad when minorities do that. Because in my mind, we all need to stick together, but I guess that's not how it works. And, you know, I want to be so careful about my words because I know that race is such a sensitive topic and things can be misconstrued. But yeah, people can say we are living in a post-colonial world or whatever, but it is kind of white supremacy that we're all [still living in] and that informs a lot about how the world works as you were saying. A couple of months ago we had the riots here in South Africa and it was so sad to see what that brought out in people. There was this video of a man of Indian descent beating a black man with a baseball bat. And so you see these tensions that have always been there coming to the surface because of things out of everyone's control, lack of financial security for a lot of people. So yeah, there is colorism here. There is a hierarchy of race. I do feel better about being Black now. I don't know if that's because I'm older and wiser, and I know more and I think we just embrace ourselves so much more, but it wasn't like that when I was growing up.
Branden: Anti-blackness is just so appalling to me. We know white people have been stealing Black music for a very long time and if we’re talking about non-Black POC folks whipping up their own version of white supremacy, it's really hard for me to not hear the blatant influence of K-Pop, Trap Latino, or even a lot of these non-Black creators on Tik Tok. Everything in pop culture seems to be lifted from Black artists. Now we see that when Black influencers go on strike, things start to change. For example, Black internet creators can now copyright their content. So considering your situation, what is the end goal for you? I know you have the hashtag #creditliza but can you fill us in on your asks? To me it seems like you're not trying to cancel or bad-mouth Maroon 5, you're really trying to get credit for your work. Do I have that correct?
Kileza: Yes, I would put most of the blame if not all of the playing on the A&R in question. My goal is to get credit for my work. I'd like to be paid back royalties and royalties in the future as well.
Branden: How long are you willing to engage in this battle?
Kileza: That's a good question. I don't have a number in my mind. I think right now what I'm thinking is until I win, until I get justice. I don't know how long that's going to be, could be two years, could be two months. I don't know if I'd go on for 10 years. That is just too much energy to give to something like this, but I think that's kind of out of my hands because I've never dealt with this kind of situation. I don't know what will happen, but I want to fight as long as I have the energy to. It is quite a draining thing to do when you could be creating other beautiful things. I’ll go for as long as I get justice.
Contribute to Kileza’s battle for credit through her GoFundMe.
Follow Kileza’s story through her social media channels below.
Tik Tok: https://www.tiktok.com/@musicbykg
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Branden Janese is an artist. Her writing is published in The Wall Street Journal, Complex, Greatest, Flaunt and more. Her research appears in several documentary films and t.v series. She wrote and recorded two seasons of the podcast, Sick Empire. She lives in the Bronx