Black Is King: Did Beyoncé deliver or has the African continent been misrepresented?

Andrew White/Parkwood Entertainment

Queen Bey released her highly-anticipated visual album via Disney+ last week. Writer Kemi Fatoba and friends weigh in on why we need to manage our expectations and support Bey at the same time.

The name on everyone’s lips right now? Beyoncé.

The megastar dropped her highly anticipated visual album Black Is King, based on the music of The Lion King: The Gift, on Friday, 31st July via Disney+ and it’s been a hot topic since. Produced by Beyoncé, Emmanuel Adjei, Kwasi Fordjour, Blitz Bazawule, Ibra Ake, Jenn Nkiru, Jake Nava, Pierre Debusschere, and Dikayl Rimmasch, it promised to be a love letter to Africa”. The film is loosely based on The Lion King and follows a young African king who is guided by his ancestors as he embarks on a journey to reclaim his throne.

Black Is King left me feeling overwhelmed by its sheer opulence, artistry, and its many cultural references. The stunning imagery of Already, the empowering lyrics of Brown Skin Girl, and the Afrofuturist fashion in Find Your Way Back floored me. According to Beyoncé, it’s a sentiment that was shared by everyone involved: While working on this film, there were moments where I’ve felt overwhelmed, like many others on my creative team, but it was important to create a film that instills pride and knowledge.”

On Friday night, I watched the album in Berlin with a group of Black friends – from Beyoncé admirers to the opposite – who grew up in Africa, Europe and the US. All of us had different connections to Africa’s 54 countries, 3000 tribes and 2000-and-something languages, and we were curious to see what Beyoncé’s love letter would look like.

Our conversations quickly became heated.

Of course, there was controversy around the trailer on Black Twitter prior to the film’s release. The main criticism was that Disney+ isn’t available in Africa, an oversight that was quickly rectified through production deals with M‑net, Canal+ Afrique and OSN. Many questions surrounding misrepresentation and appropriation of African cultures remained yet to be answered.

In an attempt to write a balanced review, I asked participants of the watch party, namely Maureen Mutheu, Jibrāīl N’Diaye, Edna Bonhomme, and Jennifer Neal, to weigh in on some of the talking points.

(c) 2020 Parkwood Entertainment

Does Black Is King misrepresent the African continent?

When it comes to representation of the African continent, there are many stereotypes and tropes in popular culture – something the late Binyavanga Wainaina summed up perfectly in his satirical essay How to Write About Africa. Maureen Mutheu, a Kenyan cultural curator who describes her fan level as beyond stan”, believes that it’s not Beyoncé’s responsibility to tell the story of the entire continent and that she has every right to explore her ancestry.

She applauds her and her team for involving amazing creatives from Africa and the diaspora, such as Yemi Alade, Burna Boy, Wizkid, Pharrell Williams, Shatta Wale, Nandi Madida, Lupita Nyong’o, Tiwa Savage and Busiswa.

However, Maureen believes that the budget could have been distributed more evenly. She added that, as a Kenyan, I still feel conflicted about the fact that Beyoncé didn’t involve creatives from East Africa. If The Lion King inspired this whole journey to pay homage to the continent then why didn’t she go looking for East Africans, such as East African artists: Sauti Sol, Muthoni Drummer Queen, Diamond Platnumz, Blinky Bill, or Lilian Mbabazi?”

The verdict: No, but why was there no space for East Africa in Beyoncé’s love letter? Dear East Africans, we see you and we appreciate you.

Did Beyoncé treat Africa’s 54 countries like a pick & mix stand?

During our watch party, Jibrāīl N’Diaye, a Parisian with Senegalese, Congolese, and Cape Verdean heritage, stood out by identifying the most tribes, ethnicities, and customs – but it was still a game we couldn’t win due to the lack of hints. As such, it only felt right to let him answer this question. Jibrāīl is not a mega fan but he believes that Beyoncé is a great performer and successful businesswoman.

As N’Diaye explains, Black Is King definitely felt like a pick & mix stand of African cultures. If the main message was about Pan-Africanism then I could understand where all the mixing came from. The fact that Beyoncé didn’t mention specific countries, cultures, or people perpetuates the idea that Africa is a monolith, and that didn’t sit well with me.”

It’s a sentiment shared by all who attended our watch party as we wondered where in Africa certain scenes were shot, which cultures and tribes were mixed, and why.

The verdict: Unfortunately the answer is yes. Beyoncé, we appreciate your artistic vision but this kaleidoscope of cultures left us feeling dizzy and confused.

Andrew White/Parkwood Entertainment

Is Black Is King guilty of Wakandification?

Jade Bentil, a Black feminist historian and PhD researcher at the University of Oxford (who was not present at our watch party, but perhaps she was watching alone), coined the term Wakandification in a now deleted Tweet that read: The repeated tropes/​symbolic gestures that homogenise and essentialise thousands of African cultures in service of securing the terrain for Black capitalist possibilities & futures is tired.”

Naturally, our entire group was curious to find out how Black Is King would navigate these tropes, as Bentil was cited multiple times in the conversation that followed the trailer’s release.

Edna Bonhomme, a Haitian-American feminist, historian, writer, curator, podcaster, and postdoctoral fellow who was present at our watch party, believes that Black Is King homogenised the cultures and ethnicities that exist on the African continent.

Bonhomme described herself as a stan”, mostly because she loves the new Beyoncé and her curves. She is not part of the Beyhive or any other hive, for that matter.

She argues that the album is trying to do something to overcome what Black Americans are often taught, which is that the African continent or specifically sub-Saharan Africa is a place of poverty, and one of the entry points to undoing that messaging is to imagine it as quite the opposite.” She believes that Black people want to see positive things, even if that image is a homogenisation or a flattening of the continent.

To some extent, this might also explain Beyoncé’s focus on royalty and Black excellence, which inevitably raises the question: if everyone was royalty, who worked on the fields and who produced palm wine?

The verdict: Beyoncé is guilty of homogenising African cultures. She did it in order to make us focus on the positives rather than the ugly part African elites played during colonial and pre-colonial times, and that’s why I’ll let her get away with a slap on the wrist this time.

In Black Is King white people only appear as servants, i.e. as butlers in Mood 4 Eva. Does this vision of Black excellence make Beyoncé a Black supremacist?

This is, of course, a trick question.

It still felt right to include it because an image of Beyoncé’s family and friends enjoying a lavish tea party sparked an intense debate about Black supremacy and reverse racism.

Jennifer Neal, an American-Australian writer who didn’t want to comment on her fan level, believes that we would have to erase the entire history of white supremacy to make a thing like Black supremacy even remotely possible: Black supremacy is a white supremacist notion because it gives us the idea that we are equally as culpable in this racial power misalignment, and we’re not.”

The outrage over a depiction of white servitude is somewhat reminiscent of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 which stated that white-slavery shall not be treated”, while depicting the enslavement of every other race was, and still is, totally acceptable. The fact that the image of a white butler caused such uproar says a lot more about the society we live in than it does about Bey.

The verdict: Absolutely not.

Did Black Is King live up to our expectations?

It really depends on what our expectations were.

Those who banked on seeing an authentic representation of modern-day Africa were probably disappointed, while those who hoped for a visual album that referenced elements of Black history and African tradition, most likely weren’t.

Perhaps, when it comes to Beyoncé, we really need to manage our expectations?

She is a Black American superstar whose music is so unique that it deserves its own genre. Beyoncé produced this album while working on The Lion King, a film that relies heavily on problematic on-screen tropes such as the Magical Negro or the Effeminate Psychopath. It also paints a one-dimensional picture of the African continent and its people.

We know that Beyoncé believes in Christianity, Black excellence, and Black capitalism and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see this reflected in Black Is King.

It’s easy to criticise Beyoncé for her biblical references and for stylising herself as a Black Madonna – but did we really expect anything less from Queen Bey?

Something we can probably all agree on is that nobody of her calibre does more to elevate Black people and show Blackness in all its beauty – and for that, I have no choice but to applaud her.

The verdict: Yes. Beyoncé did the most and gave us a beautiful gift for our eyes, ears, and our souls. We appreciate the generosity, Bey. We’re looking forward to seeing East Africa represented in your next album.

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