Sonia Bouadma, vice president of rights services, discusses the company’s allegiance with trailblazing icons of past and present
For over thirty years we have represented and worked with some of the most iconic trailblazers in modern history. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Ella Fitzgerald, Marlon Brando and Andy Warhol and Bob Marley are just a few of the celebrated personalities whose rights we have worked with, and it is our great honour to be responsible for protecting their legacy.
In their own unique way, each of these icons defied all odds by dismantling the existing social framework which threatened to stifle their creativity, talent and beliefs to achieve great success in their respective fields. In 1934, seventeen year old Ella Fitzgerald made her on-stage debut in New York City, a performance that would solidify her as 'The First Lady of Song' and one of jazz music’s most iconic voices. In 1963, civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. recited his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to a crowd of over 250,000 people in Washington, a moment that captured Black Americans’ struggle for social justice and equal rights. In 1973, influential actor Marlon Brando declined to accept his Best Actor Oscar in light of the film industry’s mistreatment of Native Americans, in what is now considered to be the first instance of political activism at a Hollywood awards show. In 1974, young boxer Muhammad Ali entered the ring as the underdog in the Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman, but would leave the stadium in Zaire as reigning world heavyweight champion of the world. In 1978, while on stage at his One Love Peace Concert, Bob Marley convinced rival leaders of the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party to shake hands, utilising his position of prominence to promote peace in Africa.
At BEN Group, we facilitate relationships between the commercial and entertainment industries, by connecting brands with the world’s most beloved personalities. Rights clearance and talent representation is in our DNA and we have become known as pioneers in this space. Our reputation and expertise are powerful tools which can be put to good use in the industry, as we proudly support the work of icons such as MLK and Ali, acting as the representatives of their estates.
By representing the powerful legacies these talented individuals left behind, we have a duty to ensure their voices are aligned with their real beliefs, and attributed to stories that forge genuine change in public perception and make way for positive social impact. We help brands tell these stories by thoughtfully clearing the authentic voices where appropriate, careful to ensure any instance of commercial and theatrical use honours the legacy they left behind.
Here in the UK, we observe Black History Month every October. We see it as an opportunity to celebrate the contributions Black people have made to society, honouring the voices of trailblazers from each generation of Black history and acknowledging how they have shaped the world we live in today.
Last year we worked with BT on their Hope United campaign, a Black History Month project focused on spreading knowledge of the unsung heroes from Black British history who have not made it into the mainstream consciousness. The spot sees Nigerian football player and one of Hope United’s coaches, Eni Aluko, share her admiration for Emma Clarke and Laurie Cunningham, groundbreaking pioneers of the sport. Emma Clarke, one of the players that shaped British sports, is considered to be the first known Black women's footballer in Britain and Laurie Cunningham, the first Black football player to represent England in a competitive international match. The campaign also highlighted an initiative by Nubian Jak Community Trust – the only commemorative plaque and sculpture scheme focussed on commemorating contributions of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain. The inclusion of these icons didn’t just enhance the message of the campaign, it was intrinsically part of the message.
When working with AMV BBDO on the Guiness ‘No Colour in Music’ campaign we cleared the rights of jazz legends Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. The resulting documentary style two minute spot told the story of talent scout and trailblazer John Hammond, who set out to remove the racial segregation afflicting the New York jazz scene. The clips of Holliday, Goodman and Basie were selected to feature in the spot because each of these talents played a pivotal role in the history of jazz music. Benny Goodman led one of the first integrated jazz groups, Count Basie introduced several generations of listeners to the Big Band sound, Billie Holiday’s vocal style and improvisation skills left a lasting influence on music. Researching the representatives of each of these icons was the trickiest part of this project and whilst we had worked previously with some of the representatives, others were harder to track down. Perseverance and connectivity in the industry meant we were able to clear those talents in time for the client’s release of the spot.
For the 2020 Summer Olympics spot, ‘Lines’ featuring U.S. gold medalist Simone Manuel, we cleared the rights of iconic Black sports stars Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. Working closely with Burrell Communications and Comcast, we secured permissions to use the likeness of these disruptors, each of whom overcame barriers designed to divide people in their pursuit of excellence. The story of Owens and Robinson tied in perfectly with Comcast’s powerful message: “the only lines [athletes] should need to cross are finish lines.”
Even after thirty years in this industry, we are just as passionate and proud of our role in the amplification of voices from Black history. We will continue to work towards educating audiences on the subjects not taught in classrooms, through advertising, a medium that has the power to move global viewers. Spreading positive messages through the legends of times gone by is part of our heritage and if by clearing the rights of these trailblazing icons, we can change the narrative, then our work here is done.