BNXN, Cruel Santino & the importance of artist name trademarks

A previously neglected area of the music business in Nigeria

Around this time three years ago, BNXN, the artist formerly known as Buju was beginning to infiltrate ears and turn heads with his distinct, folk-tinged voice. As his stock rose and singles like the Zlatan-assisted “Spiritual” and “L’enu” brought him closer to the mainstream, the singer, was consistent in clarifying the source of his stage name: It was an abbreviation for “Beauty underneath just understood,” an expression that meant a lot to him. The reason for the clarification was glaring, since anyone could’ve concluded that he wilfully and liberally borrowed the moniker from popular Jamaican reggae/dancehall artist, Buju Banton.

Earlier this year, the man born Daniel Benson announced that his stage name going forward would now be the latter half of his government name, stylised as BNXN. There were no public explanations, and no philosophical reasons as to why he changed his stage name away from one that clearly meant a lot to him. While it may have very well been a straightforward artistic choice, the music industry hallways are always buzzing with spicier reports on these sorts of decisions. In this case, the speculation is that the Nigerian singer formerly known as Buju reached the awareness of Buju Banton and his team, after it became news that he would be serving as an opening act on Jamaican superstar Koffee’s next world tour. 

You might wonder, why would it bother a renowned Jamaican artist that his moniker is very similar to that of a burgeoning Nigerian artist? The answer is a two-fold reason that merges into one very strong argument: We live in a highly connected, globalised world, and the legality of an artist’s name is a unique feature. In terms of the former, it’s now trite to say streaming and social media has broadened the reach artists can aspire to, from local fame to worldwide recognition, a trajectory BNXN has been on with each solo release and feature-killing appearance. It’s the story of Nigerian pop music these days, where nascent artists are quickly exposed to audiences beyond boundaries and continent-separating oceans.


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A post shared by BNXN (@toyourears)

“It’s not just about the name, it’s the brand equity that comes with the name.”

With the upcoming Koffee tour, Daniel Benson might have been Buju to many new listeners, but to other listeners outside the African continent, he was effectively affecting the knowledge and prominence of Buju Banton, which leads to the other side of the argument. When these instances such as BNXN occur, there’s legal provision that helps protect that uniqueness and everything that comes with it. “Trademark, in general, is the aspect of intellectual property law that protects brand equity,” Oyinkansola Fawehinmi, a Lagos-based lawyer and music executive popularly known to insiders as “Foza,” tells The NATIVE. “It’s not just about the name, it’s the brand equity that comes with the name.”

Trademark is a precept applicable to any and everything with a distinct attached value. Names, logos, and colours, can be protected under trademark law, with the affiliated persons or entities owning exclusive use as long as these features are registered to them. This level of control plays a huge role not just as a means of stamping identity, but also within the very broad concept of branding. Every brand has a perception they want to create and an image they want to project, in addition to the services they offer, which makes distinct features like names and logos quite significant. Trademark prevents any copycats from gaining off the value attached to these features, making them recognisable and solely attributable to their owners.

As everyone with the faintest knowledge of the music business will tell you, an artist is a brand. Since names are important in the base level of brand identity, trademarks are an integral part of the music business. In Nigeria’s developing music industry, where due process isn’t always kindly received, trademarks aren’t being widely used just yet. “It’s kind of something we’ve been saying for a while now but people don’t really pay attention, because the posture in Nigeria to trademark and IP in general is quite lukewarm,” Foza explains of the parochial situation. “A lot of people have just neglected this thing over the years and no real action has been taken.”

Well, it looks like the days of zero consequences are winding down. Amidst the 2020 lockdown, the Nigerian experimental artist now known as Cruel Santino revealed that he had to lengthen his moniker following a strong request from a Spanish artist with whom he shared his previous stage name, Santi. Formerly known as Ozzy B, the artist had made the previous moniker change while undergoing an artistic rebirth that saw him move from rap lyricist to outré, fusion leanings. But this moment was different given that the name was inspired by his obsession with American genre-mashing singer/rapper Santigold, making the nominal situation with the Spanish artist Santi an honest coincidence.

These days, most Cruel Santino fans still refer to him by that immediate, previous moniker, mainly because it’s a shortened version of the current one. However, the change underlines the real implications of using a trademarked entity when it’s not registered to you. It’s also interesting that the change happened after Mandy & the Jungle’, the 2019 debut album that increased Cruel Santino’s notoriety in the U.S. and across Europe, which may have caught the attention of the Spanish artist Santi and/or their reps, and ultimately enforced the change. “Even if your local situation isn’t as stringent, you have to be more responsible in the global age,” Foza says.

Within the context of music globalisation, though, it doesn’t mean name trademarks aren’t globally binding. That an artist registers their name as a trademark in Nigeria doesn’t mean it automatically translates in the UK, or even any other African country for that matter. According to Foza, it’s advisable that Nigerian artists locally trademark their stage names as soon as they’re certain of their path, regardless of their popularity. As they begin to grab more attention and based on future projections, they should start the process in other international territories.

“What we usually recommend is, there are some treaties that allow you to do one singular registration and you’re protected in Europe in general or America in general,” Foza explains. “Africa doesn’t have a central trademark thing going on, so you have to go to each country to register your trademark. So, if you’re an artist that’s starting out in Nigeria, what we usually advise is that you register in Nigeria and as your audience grows, we usually recommend you register in the UK because it’s very receptive to Afrobeats. If you see or feel that in the next 2 to 3 years, your band is going to grow into something exponential, you register in America.”

It’s sound advice, considering that even in more diligent music ecosystems, name trademarks are still disputed over. In 2020, the country music band formerly known as Lady Antebellum sued the American blues/soul singer Lady A over nominal rights, after the band decided to remove the “ntebellum” part of their stage name, due to its ties with slavery, following the wave of civil rights protests in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of police officers. After the band announced their name change, it became wider news that there was an artist who had been recording and performing under that moniker for over two decades. Both acts filed lawsuits against each other, and eventually settled earlier this year, but the dominance of the band on web search engines and streaming search tabs proves the importance of outright, legal ownership of a registered trademark.


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A post shared by Oyinkansola “foza” Fawehinmi (@fozadoza)

The semantics of registering a trademark are slightly more complex than picking a name. For example, “you can’t register your natural name, except that you’ve built so much clout with that name,” Foza tells me towards the end of our conversation via WhatsApp call. “Even someone like Beyoncé, she had to use the apostrophe to distinguish it. You can’t register state names, location names and the like; the other thing to it is maybe changing the spelling, changing the logo, changing how it’s written. So, even BNXN isn’t spelt the regular Benson, because naturally you can’t trademark that because it’s a lot of people’s name.”

Further, trademarks work in classes, meaning that a feature is only peculiar to a person or entity in each class it is registered. If an artist registers their name in the entertainment services class, that name can be used by someone else in another class. “If you’re registering, say, Foza in the Entertainment services department, it means no one can use Foza as a stage name, as a performing actor, as an actor or whatever it is,” she explains. “However, someone can use Foza in the cooking industry. If I don’t want anyone to use Foza for anything at all, I have to register for each class.”

Trademark is quite nuanced, but it’s quite the imperative endeavour because, as Foza puts it, “anything can blow up.” While BNXN might not have envisaged that his previous moniker would have caused a minor wrinkle in his transition, and Cruel Santino was entirely oblivious of the Spanish artist Santi, they are solid examples of why artist need to invest in the details of what makes them identifiable. Both artists have moved on quite well from these name changes—BNXN is part of the biggest song in Nigeria at the moment and Cruel Santino recently dropped his sophomore album to much conversation—but that sort of smooth transition might not always be possible for every artist that falls into the same situation.

When it comes to trademarks, like they say, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Or as Foza bluntly puts it, “We’re no longer in the era of artists being negligent, you could get away with it before but now you can’t.”