Let’s Talk About Beyonce’s “Black Is King”
On Sunday, Beyoncè announced her visual album Black is King with a one minute trailer posted on her social media pages and her website. The album was inspired by the 2019 version of The Lion King where the singer starred as Nala and produced a soundtrack album for the film. According to a press release by Disney and Parkwood Entertainment, the album was made to honour the voyage of black families throughout time. It goes on to say that Beyoncè describes this album as a labour of love, and a tribute to Africa much like her last album The Lion King: The Gift which featured songs that were tributes to Africa.
However, the internet exactly appreciative of this as a lot of Africans took to their social media pages to openly criticise the trailer for a myriad of reasons. For the most, the biggest criticism of Beyonce’s visual album came from people who insisted that the portrayal of Africa was outdated and unrealistic. In the trailer, there are clips showing a royal family, some traditional dances and what looks like a coronation of some sort. Most of the comments insisted that this was similar to the depiction of Zamunda from Coming to America and Wakanda from the 2018 blockbuster film, Black Panther, a sort of weird homogenous exotic fantasy, without any likeness to any country in Africa.
This is where the subject of Afrofuturism comes in – a cultural aesthetic that hopes to reclaim black identity through art, culture, and political resistance. Like a list of other books, films and elements in popular culture, Black is King fits in, diving into African and black American cultural values, and offering a visual representation of Africa’s many cultural traditions. These representations of African culture are responsible for creating new ideas of what a black future might look and feel like. In a way, it can be argued that it challenges people to imagine a greater world than the one that currently exists.
In recent years, this has been a major recurring theme for Beyonce and it can be seen in the ways she chooses to express herself. During her 2018 Coachella performance, she was intentional about the world she wanted her predominantly white audience to see. She would then expose them to a different form of art, one centred on blackness in a more textured way. And even before that, there was her 2016 album ‘Lemonade’ which tapped into various elements of African mythology and her 2017 Grammy performance where she channelled the Osun deity. And this is not far from it – with keying into black history and African tradition, she presents a modern twist that takes on self-identity. And she doesn’t do it alone, she works with black creatives – prominent of which Blitz Bazawule, who directed Burial of Kojo, Kwasi Fodjour who serves as creative director for Parkwood and a host of other African creatives in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.
However, while all of these sits well with a good section of the audience, it is imperative to mention that the people who seem to have a problem with this art medium aren’t far off with their claims. Despite the merits that this could come with as with other afrofuturist projects, there’s also the further fetishization of Africa which is an actual problem. Various white people have built their illusion of Africa and Africans based on the image they see on their screens – and it is one of the reasons black people in entertainment are fighting for more representation outside being the help and maids because it has aided people’s perception of them in their day-to-day world. And so for this, it could look like a more palatable illusion that Beyonce is picking over a more realistic one.
The truth about this remains that both claims, unfortunately, are true. This visual album, which fairly speaking, seems to have gotten the internet trembling with just a one minute trailer, could be a blessing and a curse as well. It would be the same with most Afrofuturism projects – showcase culture and tradition and aid some type of representation while enriching black creatives but it may also lead to some sort of homogeneity when a continent with over fifty-two countries is brought in the question. We now need to decide, whether we can do without the perks, or whether we can find a thin line to co-exist. The truth remains that in the end, this will elevate elements of black culture, but does it do this at the detriment of the owners of the culture?