Singer, rapper Lizzo sued over samples in 2016 song 'Coconut Oil'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A few bars of a gospel hymn are the subject of a federal lawsuit claiming Detroit-born rapper, singer and flautist Lizzo used the audio from a mutual relative's funeral without permission on her 2016 song "Coconut Oil."

Detroit resident Orlandus Dunning is seeking $750,000 in the lawsuit, which claims he "suffered anguish, embarrassment and outrage" after the song was released by Atlantic Records. The record company is a defendant in the suit, along with Lizzo, whose real name is Melissa Jefferson; Nice Life Recording Co., an Atlantic subsidiary; and Warner Music Group Corp., which owns Atlantic.

Lizzo arrives at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday, March 14, 2021.

Dunning, an elder in the Church of God In Christ, filed the lawsuit in Wayne Circuit Court in December, but it was moved Friday to U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

David Landry, the Farmington attorney representing Lizzo and the record companies, did not immediately return a phone call or email Sunday.

Dunning claims in the lawsuit the snippets of audio that open and close "Coconut Oil" were recordings of a hymn he sang during a funeral of a mutual relative.

"When Plaintiff sang the devotional, it was at a private funeral and done for the specific purpose of uplifting his family and friends during their time of bereavement," the lawsuit said.

"(Dunning) had a reasonable expectation of privacy and that his voice would not be heard publicly, as the funeral where he sang was held privately and open only to family and close friends," the suit said.

The suit claims Lizzo "recorded this audio without either (Dunning's) knowledge or consent," adding he "did not and would not have consented to the use of his voice this way because the message in the song is contradictory to his own brand and beliefs as an ordained elder in the Church of God In Christ ... organization."

Lizzo, the suit contends, "knew or should have known that portraying (Dunning) in such a light would cause him distress based on his position as an Elder in the church."

The lawsuit does not specify why the song is contrary to Dunning's beliefs.

"Coconut Oil" was the title track on Lizzo's six-song EP, her first major-label release. The song did not chart, although the EP reached #31 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart.

Lizzo told Rolling Stone magazine shortly after the EP was released: "'Coconut Oil' is the ultimate ode to self-care and to my process. I’m not there yet, but I’m creating my music so I can get there.”

Lizzo, 32, was born in Detroit, but grew up in Houston. She currently lives in California, according to the lawsuit.

Last year, Lizzo was named Time's Entertainer of the Year, and earned multiple honors at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards in 2020, including Best Pop Solo Performance, Urban Contemporary Album prize and Traditional R&B Performance.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN