'Black Is King': Beyoncé's ode to ancestors depicts a fictional Africa and has fans crying 'appropriation!'
The singer has increasingly taken cues from her own ethnic and cultural roots to help shape her sound and visuals, but not all Black audiences are on board with the final product
Beyoncé has, in recent years, emerged as one of the most important voices for the African American community. While previously noted for her musical gifts, the singer made a shift over the last decade to more socially and politically conscious themes, finally making a massive statement with 'Formation' that declared her commitment to fighting for her fellow Black people, particularly Black women and trans folk, as well as clearly indicating she was against police brutality that was killing black boys in the street.
On top of it all, she made references to Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged through New Orleans in 2005 and the response to which saw Black communities left behind during relief efforts. It is enough to say, Beyoncé's activism through her music has made her stance on issues pertaining to her communities loud and clear, and that earned her a status as an icon and a legend among her people.
However, her recent shift towards including the larger African diaspora in her work, with a particular focus on the African continent, its people and its history, has not gone down quite as smoothly with African audiences. The biggest issue, it would seem, stems from what many are perceiving as a romanticization of the continent's reality and the revisionism of its vast history.
When the visuals for 'Black Is King' dropped, it was hard to deny Beyoncé's skills as a director and storyteller. The trailer is stunning, what most would describe as a visual treat, and it pairs perfectly with the singer's soothing voice. The visual album's press release states it "reimagines the lessons of 'The Lion King' for today’s young kings and queens in search of their own crowns."
'The Lion King' revolves around the story of a prince who, betrayed and cast out from his pride, finds his way back through a journey of friendship and love and reclaims his rightful place as king. 'Black Is King' tells more or less this same tale, with the press release noting it is "a tale about a young king’s transcendent journey through betrayal, love, and self-identity" and that it is "a celebratory memoir for the world on the Black experience."
Beyoncé further shared via an Instagram post that while it was originally filmed as a companion project to 'The Lion King: The Gift', "The events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant, as people across the world embark on a historic journey," and thus, she and her team elected to release it a little differently than what was originally planned.
Her post continued, "I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books. With this visual album, I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy." A noble justification, but sadly, not enough for some who felt the singer's vision of Africa was far removed from its reality.
In an interview with Flare, an Afro-political feminist and Maine-based academic Judicaelle Irakoze shared, "In 'The Gift', Beyoncé worked with artists from South Africa and then carried it on and called it 'a gift to the African continent...' which was wrong." The African continent has a vast and diverse culture, but what is known of it outside of the region stems largely from Nigeria and South Africa. This, Irakoze points out, is a very limited vision of Africa.
"People think of Africa as one country. But Africa is 54 countries and different ethnic groups, and these different ethnic groups have their own story [and] have their own ways of living. So Beyoncé talking of a whole continent as this one big family group, it doesn’t make sense." Irakoze linked this romanticization of Africa, which includes amalgamating all of its history and culture into one overarching visual, to a post-colonial hangover, one that other scholars and fans have dubbed the "Wakandafication of the continent and Black diasporic identities."
Oh my God! I was talking about this yesterday. Nobody ever claims certain items represent 'European' culture; as it accepted that it is hugely diverse. Same for Africa right! I wouldn't expect to represent the culture of Somalia, Angola and Nigeria all in one swoop!!— CNS (@ChannieN) June 30, 2020
Irakoze further highlights another issue with Beyoncé's portrayal of African history: her fixation on royalty, when, in reality, most Black Africans were neither royalty nor treated as such. On the contrary, the continent's pre-colonial history was not exactly glamorous, but it certainly gets portrayed as such by artistes like Beyoncé as a means to envision a Black experience outside of the White gaze.
But, as Irakoze points out, the figures she draws inspiration from, including Nefertiti and Cleopatra, were not representations of the average African, and thus, Irakoze asks, "So what does it mean to say ‘Black is King'?" She further asks, "My grandfather was a slave in the kingdom before colonialism, so what is 'Black Is King'?"
-if you’re gonna speak on something, come correct. Africa is not some prop, you can’t come and pull from our culture from when it’s convenient. That’s appropriation. And not everytime ‘we were kings’ pls some of us were palm wine tappers.— The Don. (@Dimssoo) June 29, 2020
This criticism, it appears, is one that has been levied against Beyoncé by many of her fans, Irakoze included. On Beyoncé's Instagram posts, several users took a second to share they were not happy with the Africa depicted in the trailer. One comment read, "This narrative is getting boring. We don’t wake up with white chalk on our faces or live in blue huts."
Many other young fans of the singer from Africa expressed similar views across social media, ultimately highlighting what appears to be the biggest issue with Beyoncé's work: it does little to dispel stereotypical narratives around what life in Africa is actually like. Instead, it feeds into them and layers on more. Beyoncé herself has not addressed the criticisms, but her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, took serious offense to it.
In an Instagram post, she highlighted that 'Black Is King' worked closely with African creators from Nigeria and South Africa. She also claimed projects like these are done out of love and not for profit, pointing to the fact that they make less money than Beyoncé's other work. The issue with this clap back, however, is that it doesn't actually address what many such as Irakoze have highlighted. On the contrary, it simply confirms it.
Ultimately, the issue is more than just about 'Black Is King' or Beyoncé alone. It has to do with the portrayal of Africa in non-African media, particularly with regards to the need to glamorize it in order to make it seem like a viable "alternative" to the current reality for many in the African diaspora. As Moky Makura, executive director of the pan-African group Africa No Filter pointed out in her CNN op-ed piece, 'Black Is King' highlights how African Americans want Africa to be portrayed, but "missed the pulse of how many young, urban Africans — both on the continent and the diaspora — want to see themselves."
Makura added that while much of the imagery in 'Black Is King', including "chalk markings on black faces, naked male torsos and a preponderance of animal pelts" are certainly a part of African history and culture, the fixation on them in the media makes African uncomfortable.
"The trap that Beyoncé's trailers fell into is the stereotypical (albeit visually compelling) story of a primitive continent that hasn't advanced much, which frustratingly still dominates too many Western perceptions." While not necessarily as bad as other depictions, which fixate on the poverty of Africa, this can still be a harmful representation because it omits the everyday realities of Africans. As Makura concludes, "Beyoncé picked the right story — but may have given it the wrong framing."