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Beyoncé’s new film ‘Black Is King’ is stirring up controversy

By Eva Sauphie
Posted on Friday, 24 July 2020 14:24, updated on Thursday, 10 September 2020 19:07

Beyoncé in “Black Is King” © Travis Matthews

One year after the release of the album “The Lion King: The Gift”, Queen Bey is about to unveil a new Disney production.

Made in the style of a long, meticulously crafted music video, this condensed version of Black history is already proving to be divisive.

“The film is not available anywhere before its release,” warns a press officer about Beyoncé’s new visual album, Black Is King, which is set to be released on Disney+ on 31 July. But all it took to attract the ire of African-American feminists, especially the youngest among them, was the film’s one-and-a-half-minute trailer.

Criticism of the work is going strong and has a radical bent, with detractors calling out the trailer for romanticising Africa as well as for its cultural syncretism, pre-colonial aesthetic, cultural appropriation and “Wakandafication” (in reference to the Kingdom of Wakanda, a fictional African country depicted by the Marvel movie Black Panther).

Jade Bentil, a Black feminist historian and PhD researcher at the University of Oxford, commented in a tweet: “The Wakandafication of the continent and Black diaspora identities is entirely uninspired. The repeated tropes/symbolic gestures that homogenise & essentialise thousands of African cultures in service of securing the terrain for Black capitalist possibilities & futures is tired.”

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Judicaelle Irakoze, a self-proclaimed Afro-political feminist who is followed by more than 30,000 people on Twitter, expressed a similar point of view, disappointed that Beyoncé “use[s] her power and status […] to glorify africanness rooted in power game[s] against the white gaze.”

A bling-bling version of the Dahomey Amazons

Just a few seconds into Black Is King’s meticulously crafted trailer, Beyoncé appears astride a horse, wearing an outfit made of animal hide and a crown of zebu horns. This iconographic imagery is reminiscent of the film Touki Bouki directed by Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty in 1973. The singer had previously borrowed this aesthetic when advertising her “OTR II” tour with Jay-Z in 2018, without giving credit to the original artist.

The trailer shows Queen Bey glittering in all her glory, with layered necklaces wrapped around her neck and sparkling glasses framing her face, giving off an on-screen presence that could be likened to a bling-bling version of the Dahomey Amazons (an all-female military army of the Republic of Benin). Needless to say, this aestheticising phantasmagoria created in an Afrofuturist vein is not universally liked.

However, according to the journalist Sophie Rosemont, it’s precisely “the role of a pop star to make a statement through an aesthetic prism. Even if the statement is political, it has to be packaged as beautiful and spark people’s imaginations,” says the author of the French book Black Power, l’avènement de la pop culture afro-américaine (Black Power: the Advent of African-American Pop Culture), to be published in October by GM Éditions.

In a post on Instagram, the singer said that she “wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message.”

“It is too bad that Beyoncé doesn’t seem to take contemporary Africa into account in her film and has rooted its imagery in a tribal Africa. Other musicians before her, such as free jazz artists from the 1950s and 1960s, have already revisited these roots,” adds Rosemont. “Since that time period, pop culture has been so deeply influenced by ancestral reference points that it’s really about time to move on to something else.”

Biblical and Yoruba symbolism

“The ancestors never left you,” chants the 38-year-old star in a spoken-word style summoning the negro spiritual songs sung by slaves deported to the United States in the nineteenth century. Wearing a white dress, Beyoncé evokes a sort of Madonna as she cradles a newborn baby on the seashore. The sequence is a cross between biblical and Yoruba symbolism.

Black Is King has a soundtrack featuring songs from the album “The Lion King: The Gift”, all of which were performed by Nigerian, South African, Ghanaian and Cameroonian artists.

Kinitra Brooks, a professor of African-American literature specialising in Black feminist theory, notes in her work The Lemonade Reader: Beyoncé, Black Feminism and Spirituality, published in 2019, the prevalence of references to African ancestral religions in the film Lemonade, a companion to one of Beyoncé’s most politically-charged albums (released in 2016) which overflows with protest songs about Black and African pride.

In one of the sequences, Queen Bey has fun playing the role of the Yoruba deity Oshun, the goddess of love and fertility, protector of pregnant women and children, and queen of freshwater.

Brooks writes in her book: “The liquid element represents a literal or symbolic return to the Atlantic Ocean waters which are part of the ancestral past and collective memory. The presence of water […] points out […] to the Atlantic journey from Africa to the Americas.”

This bridge between Africa’s history and diaspora has continued to influence Beyoncé’s visual identity and sound since 2016. The problem is that this age-old narrative has gone stale, especially if it is not backed up with concrete action.

Black rights

Another criticism the R&B queen has faced is that she does not tour often enough in Africa. However, her focus has been on involving local stars in her projects to showcase contemporary African culture.

As Rosemont points out, whereas “Michael Jackson and Rihanna sampled a line from the hit song ‘Soul Makossa’ by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango without properly crediting him in their respective compositions”, Black Is King has a soundtrack featuring songs from the album “The Lion King: The Gift”, all of which were performed by Nigerian, South African, Ghanaian and Cameroonian artists.

The journalist continues: “With Beyoncé, the lines have shifted. And her commitment goes even further since she has also spoken out for social justice.”

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by several Minneapolis police officers, the singer openly took a stand against police brutality and demanded that all victims get the justice they deserve in a video posted on her Instagram account.

Through her BeyGood Foundation, Beyoncé campaigns for Black rights and makes financial donations to advance civil rights causes. In June 2020, she was the recipient of a BET Award in recognition of her humanitarian and philanthropic efforts, including the support she provided to Black communities in Houston impacted by COVID-19.

READ MORE Africa & Diaspora: Using Black Lives Matter campaign and Covid to change status quo

The pop star also launched a campaign offering $10,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses selected with the help of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

“As a pop icon, Beyoncé doesn’t have anything else to prove, and the same is true for her as a mother. It’s important to note that she hasn’t been no. 1 on the charts since 2017 (“Perfect Duet” featuring Ed Sheeran was her most recent hit). Today, Beyoncé is reinventing herself,” says Rosemont.

If someone like the French model Noémie Lenoir – whose mother is from Réunion Island and part Malagasy – has visited several African capitals to produce a documentary on the continent’s creative industries, then “Beyoncé has more than enough resources and intelligence to make a film which showcases contemporary Africa… it’s impossible for me to believe that she hasn’t contemplated the idea,”  adds the cultural journalist.

 

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