Of all the life-altering and terrifying changes that have occurred in 2020, one of the more fascinating shifts has been happening in celebrity culture. Stars have always been placed on a pedestal, and now that pedestal’s being shaken.
Maybe that’s why I initially had little interest in watching Beyoncé’s latest visual album, Black Is King. As a self-described member of the BeyHive, I surprised myself when I couldn’t even bother to check out the trailer. (I partially blame the source material; last year’s terrible remake of The Lion King still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.)
But after numerous friends texted me — blasting me for not watching it — I finally succumbed to pressure and took in Black is King. It didn’t take long to understand why I’d been bombarded with so many exclamation marks. The film features a myriad of Black performers who are beautifully shot, spectacularly outfitted and elegantly staged. It left me struggling to contain my emotions. Black is King is a visual masterpiece that is overwhelming and grand and excessive and extra in all the ways we have come to expect from a Beyoncé project. But alongside its eye-popping visuals, Beyoncé’s love letter to Africa has drawn some eyebrow-raising critique.
Reading review after review, I became hungry to hear the thoughts of African artists. The first time I viewed the film, I was watching with one of my best friends, Muginga António, an architectural designer from Angola who also attended school in South Africa. Her observations helped me to realize just how many cultural references I was missing. And I wanted to learn more.
So rather than share my thoughts (which are many) on Black is King, I’m turning this space over to seven female-identified and gender non-conforming creatives. All currently based in Toronto, they were either born in or raised by parents from Ethiopia, Somalia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Angola. Participating in this dialogue are António, writer/filmmaker Aden Abebe, visual artist Bishara Elmi, choreographer Esie Mensah, artist/curator Chiedza Pasipanodya, author Téa Mutonji and fashion designer Abiola Akinsiku.
Their opinions and insights are varied and rich, and they provide important perspectives that I think need to be front and centre in any conversation around Black is King.
How would you describe your response to watching Black is King for the first time?
Esie Mensah: To be honest, I really wasn’t expecting much, and I almost didn’t want to watch it. Listening to the album last year — I applaud her for working with the biggest artists on the continent, but I just didn’t want this to turn into the Beyoncé show. However, from the wardrobe to the movement, I was screaming as I saw Africa manifest on screen.
As someone who paved the road for the Afrofusion/Afrobeats scene in Canada, to see our spirit not get lost on screen is huge. The energy was explosive and raw in “My Power,” jovial in “Keys to the Kingdom.” Papi Ojo dancing beside the Queen herself? Chale, c’mon!
I was proud to see that she caught the vibe of the Afro contemporary movements coming out of the continent. Moves like Zanku, Gwara Gwara and Burna Boy’s favourite Gbese kick had me dancing and throwing up gunshots at my computer screen.
The vibrations coming out of Africa right now have been life-changing. I often question if they are aware that they are changing the world. The ancestors manifested a spirit in this generation that will bring Africa into the future. From movement, to fashion, to music — both on the continent and in the diaspora — [we are] rewriting the narrative of what Africa can be. Whether you enjoy the film or not, the message is loud and clear: “Remember who you are.”
Aden Abebe: I could write a whole dissertation about this film. Within the first few minutes of Black is King, I was locked into an emotional journey that I didn’t want to end.
The first song, “Bigger,” begins with Beyoncé on the beach, holding [a] baby in her arms.
Baby in her arms, she bows in front of two men dressed in white, wafting frankincense. We then see her by the ocean, joining in as mothers touch their children’s faces with holy water.
As an Ethiopian who grew up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church, every bit of these scenes reminded me of home, of my culture, my mother and the love that it symbolizes to bless your child.
Beyoncé repeatedly singing the words “you’re part of something way bigger” brought me to tears. This level of intentionality communicated love for her Blackness, love for our Blackness, love for our heritage, love for our legacy and love for us as a community of artists. In tears!
Chiedza Pasipanodya: My initial response to the film was complicated. Complicated because I was born in Zimbabwe and have lived in Toronto for 20 years. Complicated because I felt proud of its positive representation of Blackness (of which there is often so little in mainstream media at this scale) and yet suspicious of the Disney brand. Complicated because I loved the music and danced through much of it, but was wary of the dated representations of Africa as seen through Beyoncé’s storytelling.
I understand the work she is trying to do through this film, for her son and a Black livelihood and thrivance. It is the same work of repair and elevation, of strengthening one’s purpose, that was instilled in me from a young age by my elders and has shaped my identity. Even with all the symbolism, softness and affirmation, there is an uncomfortable feeling similar to how I felt when I first watched Drake’s God’s Plan video: a feeling of this seemingly profound and highly affective thing happening on camera alongside a negative and extractive act. It is what Ilan Kapoor calls “celebrity humanitarianism,” which helps promote a celebrity’s brand and institutional aggrandizement while advancing consumerism and corporate capitalism, rationalizing the very global inequality it seeks to redress.
As I watched, in the background my heart was, and is, heavy with an awareness of the current economic, political and human rights crisis occurring in Zimbabwe, and how a beautiful and enticing film like this does very little to repair it.
After watching the film, I am thinking about who this film will serve. How will it serve those on the continent, those in the diaspora? How will it serve capitalism, Black Lives Mattering to non-Black people and the issues of representation surrounding the cultures and traditions reflected in the film?
Was there any particular moment that you found particularly moving?
Téa Mutonji: In a general sense, the more I see little Black girls as little Black girls, I quite literally struggle to contain my emotions.
Rarely on television, in Hollywood, in literature, are little Black girls allowed to be little girls. I feel the same way about little Black boys. I would like to see more literature, more texts, that give childhood back to Black children. Black is King is full of dark Black-skinned children in their youth, in their innocence, in their love of community, of art and music.
The beginning of “Brown Skin Girl,” seeing these girls as debutantes, watching them run in the field — this broke me. Blue Ivy singing broke me. The angel spreading her wings as the melody fades broke me. It broke me, and then it put me back together.
Abiola Akinsiku: As a dark-skinned woman, I appreciated the celebration of my skin tone in “Brown Skin Girl.” What she produced felt genuine and sincere. I saw her embrace of Kelly Rowland as a call for Black women to strip away all the negative tropes cast on us, as well as those that we cast on ourselves. It was a call for us to strip down to our most naked selves in order to honour, acknowledge and love the strength and beauty that makes us who we are. I also liked the juxtaposition of white garments against the skin tone shown in much of the video.
EM: For me it was “Brown Skin Girl.” I got about halfway through the video and the tears started to fall. I thought about my younger self and how much I needed to see this when I was 10, 22 and 29 years old.
Actively speaking out about shadeism/colourism has given me much time to contemplate what I didn’t receive as a child. Seeing and engaging with active images of dark-skin women being celebrated shifts your barometer of self-pride. I think about my niece and this next generation growing up with these positive images. [They] can reconstruct a new reality.
I do feel it’s important to remember that the song “Brown Skin Girl” is being sung by Beyoncé, who is a lighter-skinned woman. There are many people that feel excluded from the song because they [think] the words don’t apply to them. But it’s not about feeling excluded — it’s about acknowledging these women as seen. The conflict surrounding beauty between dark-skin and light-skin women is extensive, and the need for healing is long overdue. I think this song can continue to support a conversation of healing amongst Black women.
MA: Watching “Keys to the Kingdom” was pure nostalgia of growing up in South Africa. I was shocked at their ability to cover so many memories in one video. Chale, I wanted to cry!
It opens with the architectural masterpiece that is the National Arts Theatre, the main performing arts centre in Lagos, which is shaped like a military hat. It then moves on to Tiwa Savage singing in front of a Ndebele house design. [It’s] a type of African art practiced mostly by the women of the Southern Ndebele people, and popularized in North America by the visionary artist Esther Mahlangu of the Ndebele tribe. All this while our very own Zulu princess, singer/actress Nandi Madida (who plays Nala in Black is King), is strolling around Ndebele grounds getting married in a traditional Zulu wedding alongside legendary Soweto actress Mary Kuksie Twala-Mhlongo (now an ancestor)? What! Showcasing Afrofuturistic and traditional beauty, these buildings tell our stories. I was beyond ecstatic to see some of our radical styles of architecture on the screen.
As much as this is a Beyoncé project, it is also showcases artists from across the African continent: musicians, directors, designers and more. Are there any artists whose work you were particularly excited to see/hear?
Abebe: Black is King is an astounding example of collaboration in art and storytelling. When I watch it, I see the contributions of an army of artists who together created an epic expression of beauty, manhood, regality, and godliness, not sourced from colonial depictions and teachings of these things, but rooted in African traditions, African rituals. And [it’s] framed within the African landscapes of rolling mountains, scenic rivers, waterfalls, and oceans. A personal favourite element of the film is Pharrell Williams singing on a stage made of blue jerry cans. Jerry cans! To repurpose something that seems inconsequential and rework it to become something grand — like a stage for a world-renowned artist — is very much an African way of doing things. It was incredible.
MA: I was so happy to see Blitz Bazawule as one of the directors. He made a stunning feature film called The Burial of Kojo. I love how he brought the African cinematography to Black is King. I was also very happy to see Joshua Kissi as one of the directors. It has been extraordinary to watch [his growth] since Tumblr days. And [I love to see] the continued support Beyoncé shows to Senegal’s very own Sarah Diouf of Tongoro Studios.
There are numerous cultural references in this film that North American viewers may not recognize — from set pieces to dance moves, hairstyles to rituals. What are the moments that stood out to you?
Bishara Elmi: I caught a lot of references. My favourites were the African cosmologies of ancestors watching you from the stars, [the] Grace Jones shoutout, and the […] shoutout to Malick Sidibé and contemporary African photographers that were the pioneers of African portraiture. And the J. D. Okhai Ojeikere [reference], of course.
MA: All the pre-colonial hairstyles worn by the Mangbetu Congolese people and Yoruba women seen all throughout the film. You already know I’m plotting to try them on myself!
The cattle and cow prints, which in the Bantu culture represents harvest and wealth.
The Himba women prepping otjize paste made from butterfat and red clay to put on their locs and skin, which protects them from the sun and cleanses the skin in periods of water scarcity. (The clay is also an insect/mosquito repellent and deodorant.)
Interestingly, the Himba people work vigorously to ensure that their beliefs and cultures aren’t contaminated in any way by outside influences, [and as a result they] have mostly avoided contact with modern society to keep the culture alive. So the fact that Reginaldo Mar, a Namibian creative who works closely with the Himba women, was able to get special permission from the OvaHimba leaders to let the women leave the Kunene Region [and] get on a plane to fly to Durban was insane to me.
In order to do so, they had to get these women birth certificates and passports on very short notice. The Beyoncé team maintained integrity in how the tribes and people are represented, and for that I applaud them.
Do you see any part of Black is King as a work of appropriation? Beyoncé worked with numerous collaborators, and yet critics continue to address the subject due to the power that she wields.
BE: No, I don’t. The discussion on appropriation is important, but it’s also important to not get carried away. Beyoncé is a part of the African diaspora. The African diaspora cannot appropriate what is also theirs, which in this case is continental African cultures.
CP: I loved the collaborations in the film, especially the video for “My Power” with Yemi Alade, Busiswa, DJ Lag, Moonchild Sanelly, Nija and Tierra Whack. Unfortunately, like other critics, I do see many acts of appropriation because Beyoncé is from a dominant culture as a Black-American and is adopting elements of […] continental Africans’ culture, of which she is not a part. This is the definition of appropriation.
We see this as she lets the dominant African cultures — those of Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa — represent themselves, while the less dominant cultures are represented by her.
Now, is it unusual for artists to do this? No, it is commonplace. In many ways, it is seen as an acceptable way of introducing novelty and newness to the dominant culture. But I think we must make no mistake: this is an inherently colonial practice.
Beyoncé has said that this film is her “love letter to Africa.” It seems as though her kind of love is one in which you consume a thing until you become it. This consumption may be likened to what Brazilian poet and theorist Oswald de Andrade calls cultural anthropophagy, the urge to ingest a culture and digest it in terms of one’s local reality.
My issue with the representation in this film is that these representations, symbols, and references of Africa the monolith then work as a substitute for something that is far greater, more pluralistic, and very able to represent itself on its own terms.
Abebe: Growing up, I remember people making fun of African peoples: our accent, languages, cultural dress, food, eating with our hands, everything. It was especially hurtful seeing it come from Black people because it signalled a desire to be separate and distinguished away from Africans.
Fast forward to 2020, and I see African Americans ordering Ethiopian food on television and dressing up in dashikis and ankaras for prom.
In many ways, it feels like waking up in an alternate universe. “Wakanda Forever,” The Year of Return, ancestry DNA tests and Black is King: [they] are all responses to this shift of reconnecting to Africa, and ultimately, to home.
Black folks want to expand their knowledge, to identify to a place and a land that accepts them. Some have argued that this film appropriates African cultures, and to them, I say: Africa belongs to Black people. Period.
Appropriation is the process of claiming something as your own and taking ownership or credit for it. Black is King is a collaborative work of art that pulled on the knowledge, histories and cultures of contributing artists involved in its storytelling. Beyoncé shares the spotlight, and in doing so, reflects a truly African value for communal giving and communal rising, and I am really proud to see it.
When the trailer for the film was released, there was an immediate response on social media that the images were drawing on dated and tired illustrations of the continent. Some people labelled it the “Wakandafication” of Africa. After watching the film, do you think those critiques continue to hold weight?
TM: A lot of the criticism of Beyoncé’s work is inherently anti-Black. The idea of “Wakandafication of Africa” comes with the deeply problematic belief that Africa isn’t beautiful. To imagine Africa without brutality is essentially deceiving. To imagine Africa as wealthy is uncomfortable. It goes against the narrative. There are only a few texts that depict Africa the way Beyoncé and Wakanda does.
Though I agree with some criticism, you lose me the second you talk about the supposed “beautification,” of Africa.
I’ve seen Africa in its sandy beaches, palm trees and deep greens. I’ve seen Black women in their dark, sun-f*cked, glistening melanin glory. In my childhood, as a tween refugee from Congo, the Africa I saw on TV [was] the Africa of children with pronounced bellies, people dying of famine on the street, the Africa of recently attacked women with bruising skin. That Hollywood Africa began my path toward self-hate and identity crisis. That was not my continent, and if it was, I didn’t want any part of it.
This isn’t to say hardship, poverty and dead bodies aren’t true to my country. To some extent, they are, but so is Wakanda. So is hope, so is love, so is magic. Black is King reinforces my path toward “Brown Skin Girl” self-love, toward my Congolese pride and my African loyalty. And Black children, especially, need to have access to these images, too.
CP: This film for me seems interested in the business of creating monoliths and monuments through its use of the same colonial tools employed through history to build narratives about us. The problem with monoliths, as we are currently witnessing, is that they enforce ideals that are not fluid and often oppress those that are unable to adhere to them. Here, these dated and tired illustrations of the continent appear to be an attempt to enforce a particular worldview that misses the mark on acknowledging the fluidity of the many cultures that were referenced, and the many others that were not referenced (“3,000 ethnic groups,” as my Zimbabwean cousins [have] reminded me in our group chat).
Black female artists are rarely given seemingly limitless resources to create. But Beyoncé’s work is also deeply tied to a glorification of capitalism. Many on social media have critiqued this. How do you feel about the excess, wealth and splendour that is so frequently on display in her work?
Akinsiku: Unfortunately, Black is King was [a] display of the excess, wealth and splendour that not only Beyoncé, but other affluent Black artists enjoy. It was an excellent depiction of how Black people in the diaspora who have never been to Africa — or have been to those parts that cater to the rich and wealthy — have fantasized [about] the continent.
Many people’s thoughts on Africa are not founded in reality, and though I want to believe that Beyoncé is aware of the truths related to the continent, I don’t believe that her album was a reflection of [that] knowledge.
Yes, Africa has vast wealth and is rich in natural resources such as diamonds, gold and oil. The reality is that so many living on the continent do not get to enjoy its riches.
Further, so many on the continent die and are murdered for these resources. And so as I watched her album — with her draped in diamonds, wearing luxurious garments (many of which were made by houses led by white creatives) in lush, lavish and palatial venues — I struggled with simply viewing her album as a piece of artistry.
[I struggled with] viewing it as a piece of work that was a reflection of what so many Africans do not get to enjoy. [I struggled with] the acceptance that those in the diaspora are actually a part of the system that continues to rape the continent, enjoy[ing] the spoils without having to experience the reality. [I struggled] with the realization that the imagery in her album should, in fact, be Africa, but instead is [an Africa] reserved for those who can afford to buy the experience.
TM: In literature, I think we call this magical realism. This work, Black Is King, is an inspired-by-life fiction, a performance. And the intent, more than to tell an accurate story, is to ignite. It’s for bliss, it’s for joy, it’s for imagination — in the same way fairy tales and fantasy movies give us hope, make us feel powerful.
In this particular work, Beyoncé is essentially playing with folktale as a narrative device. Folktales are grand; they’re extravagant in nature. I expect nothing less than splendour to deliver it correctly.
Beyoncé’s work does this effectively. The outfits, the costumes, the sparkles, the landscapes, the big castles. [They] give us permission to dream, therefore, let us dream. Black Is King, Black is royalty. That’s how you create that glass-slipper magic. And, isn’t Africa amongst the wealthiest continents in natural goods?
Also, anyone who’s hating on this excess wealth, to them I say: “That’s that jealousy, don’t you jealous me.”