When he was making the video for the song “Slave,” off his just-released album “Help,” Duval Timothy rounded up a pair of unimaginable co-stars: Prince and Nipsey Hussle. No, the UK-based ambient-jazz musician didn’t resurrect the late “Purple Rain” icon, who died in 2016, or the late rapper, who died last year, in the form of holograms, but rather he collaborated with visual artist Max Valizadeh to create stop-motion likeness of both to join an animated Timothy in his battle against the tyranny of record labels.
“There’s a deep history of Black artists being exploited by largely white-owned record labels,” Timothy explains. “Just characters like James Brown and so many people in hop hop getting messed over. A lot of the music I listened to was tainted by the music being owned by the business people And then you have heroic figures like Jay-Z, Nipsey, Prince, Kanye West who liberated themselves from what can maybe be described as shackles.”
Inspired by the efforts of Prince, who famously wore the word “SLAVE” printed on his cheek in the ’90s, during a protracted battle with his label Warner Bros. over his master recordings, and Hussle’s efforts to retain ownership of his work, Timothy liberated himself last year and bought his own masters from his old label I Should Care Records.
While his name may be less familiar to mainstream music fans than those of his heroes, Timothy has been creating his singular brand of modern jazz for nearly a decade. Since releasing his debut in 2012, the artist, who divides his time between South London and Sierra Leone, has amassed an ardent cult following. The limited vinyl edition of the “Slave” EP, which dropped on June 18 in advance of its official June 26 release, sold out within days.
“My music may be spoken more in terms of a jazz setting,” says Timothy, whose background is in visual arts. “A lot of the album deals with feelings of anxiety and depression.”
It’s his first release since purchasing his master recordings, a move that, for Timothy, represents a major step in reversing the fortunes of Black performers in a music industry that has often taken advantage of and underpaid one of its primary talent pools. The lack of equality is rooted in the very lingo of the business, in words like “master,” “slave” and “Urban.”
Timothy adds “the talent” to the list of triggering words: “Being referred to as ‘the talent’ is quite objectifying. It’s demeaning. They’re just summing you up, saying that’s all you are. You’re just the, whatever, ‘talent.’”
While the lyrics of “Slave” — which are basically just a sampled voice uttering the titular word — don’t expound on his argument against unsavory business practices, the video doesn’t spare the white guys in suits. And lest anyone think of him as lacking inclination to compromise, for the final scene, Timothy is joined on a mountaintop by Prince and Hussle as they extend a hand to a white executive below.
“That last scene where we offer a hand to the A&R guy was quite important, to see a vision which is more of a partnership,” says Timothy. “It’s not like, let’s abolish the system altogether. It’s more like reform. It’s a large critique, but I’m looking at it from a positive future outlook.”
Read Variety‘s feature on race, language and the music industry here and watch the “Slave” video below.