Three long weeks after its release, one can tell the final thoughts on Beyoncé‘s Black Is King have not taken shape and the last word has not been said on a visual album that marks another watershed in the course of Beyoncé’s Afrocentrism.
Black Is King was written and directed by the singer as the visual companion to her 2019 soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift. The latter was itself the musical corpus of the live-action remake of The Lion King. Latter days Beyoncé has been philosophical Beyoncé. Starting with the celebrated 2016 Lemonade project which detailed a personal story of despair and ascension, Beyoncé gave a sneak preview of her future with the song Formation.
It has been unapologetic Blackness ever since, with Queen Bee shoving into the limelight reinvigorated brand of identity that dares to feel pride in spite of centuries of injuries. In many ways, capitalizing on the opportunity offered by the live-action remake of the Disney classic was a chance only Beyoncé was fit to take.
In July of last year when she spoke to Robin Roberts about the record, Beyoncé herself sold The Gift as an artistic venture that sought to touch base with its primary source.
“This soundtrack is a love letter to Africa, and I wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa, and not just use some of the sounds and did my interpretation of it. I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa,” she told Roberts on ABC.
The collaborative results on the album matched Beyoncé’s intention even though there was surprisingly just one collaboration with a South African musician, rapper Busiswa. South Africa is popularly acknowledged as the setting of The Lion King story.
Producers and musicians from across Africa were invited for various roles for Black Is King. Dancehall artiste Shatta Wale, Afrobeats crowd-pullers Burna Boy and Wizkid, as well as singers Oumou Sangaré and Yemi Alade were some of the talents who joined Beyoncé on the 17-track album.
There is no denying that this was one of the biggest boosts if not the biggest to the careers of all of the talents. In the year that passed, all of them have granted interviews where they have been forced to speak on how it felt to work with the most successful living Black songstress.
But all of this acknowledgment can be offered apart from a critique of what Beyoncé the filmmaker demonstrated with the musical film.
Black Is King is a rehashing of the Oedipal Lion King. It tells the story of a young African king who was forced by intrigue to face the world, bereft of elderly protection and guidance, but who returns home to claim his rightful place.
This regal child is not unlike Simba in the Disney film. The young king’s arc of triumph comes with the songs from the album which provide the moral lessons at every stage of our protagonist’s life.
Beyoncé narrated the film providing motherly omniscience. She makes it abundantly clear that the child is a king Already (song with Shatta Wale) and that the Brown Skin Girl (with Wizkid and Blue Ivy Carter) should be appreciated for who she is.
Going through initial remarks a few weeks ago, it was clear that a lot of Africans appreciated the effort to include substantial footage from Africa in the 85-minute film. The sounds and the dances also paid homage to what is known in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and other parts of the continent.
However, there is still a sizable number of people who were not pleased that Beyoncé took the creative license to romanticize the African condition. It is understandable why she would do that – she spoke of Black people arresting the negative narrative that has persisted for so long and seizing the means to tell our own story.
But many fear that the mysticism that Beyoncé slid into her vision of Africa was denotative of African-American desperation to see a “magical Africa”. Aside from that, she is also accused of lumping together all of Africa like it is one nation.
What can one say in defense of Beyoncé? Almost all of her artistic conclusions are met with either warmth or criticism with very little room for nuance.
In the case of Black Is King, all the aforementioned criticisms seem valid. They are curiously valid yet ineffectual in a way that they do not take away from what Beyoncé set out to achieve.
Living her Afrocentric dream in the full glare of a global audience, Beyoncé wanted to touch base with Africa in a way that has never been done by an artiste from the African diaspora. And it would seem that if she did not at least establish a perfect contact, Beyoncé has started a much-needed relationship for the profit of the global black community.