In a move that is both culturally and monetarily astute, Beyoncé is centered on a Black audience that is too often overlooked. The visual album directs the viewer to contemplate the rich diversity of the Black experience throughout time. As the question “Who are you?” repeats again and again, it becomes clear that the film is most interested in what Black folks say to each other and about each other. White people are welcome to watch, but they are not the focus.
Beyoncé’s unique talent is her ability to capture the zeitgeist of a movement — often just before it explodes into the public imagination — and make popular art that helps to define it. The July 31 premiere of “Black Is King” offered an aural and visual rendering of Afrofuturistic Blackness in the 21st century, with a Disney-size budget to match her monumental aspirations. Beyoncé wants viewers to confront modern Blackness, which was built on an ancient and multifaceted past that neither begins nor ends with the transatlantic slave trade.
Afrofuturism is a new name for ancient philosophies from the Akan, Congolese and Dogon peoples of western Africa, which have been reimagined by African American writers and artists such as Martin R. Delany, Octavia Butler, George Clinton and N.K. Jemisin, and in movies such as 2018’s “Black Panther.” It is the conscious practice of imagining what Black people could be in the future, grounded on who they were in the past. Who would we be if we remembered who we were?
These acts of speculation are critical for the well-being of African Americans, whose historical contributions and lineages have been erased or overlooked and who have been marginalized in popular visions of the future. Afrofuturism urges Black people to recover their pasts in order to create their own futures. “Black Is King” imagines what it looks like to be there, whole and healed.
A significant criticism of both “Black Is King” and Afrofuturism more broadly is that they offer a romanticized view of Africa that focuses too much on what Africa was in the past, with no room to consider the Africa of now. The continent continues to be perceived as a monolithic space of masks and animal prints — both feature prominently in “Black Is King’s” visual narrative — rather than 54 countries with a vast array of peoples, practices, languages and cosmologies.
Beyoncé’s visual album acknowledges that some African Americans do want to create a nostalgic Africa in order to reconnect with what was lost in the transatlantic slave trade, preferring cultural products that heal generational trauma over realistic portrayals of contemporary Africa. But by giving African and African American writers, cultural critics and pundits a range of tropes and depictions to discuss, Beyoncé has created a pop culture moment that provides fuel for the difficult conversations ahead.
By spotlighting this conversation and making Blackness hyper-visible in her work, Beyoncé has made a conscious decision to become virtually illegible to the majority of her White American fan base. She no longer has to play the game of mass appeal, which traditionally has meant making herself palatable to the White gaze.
Beyoncé paid her dues in Destiny’s Child and as a young solo artist but then launched Parkwood Entertainment, her own management company, in 2011. Entering into her own deals with studios, (HBO for “Lemonade” in 2016, Netflix for “Homecoming” in 2019 and Disney Plus for “Black Is King” in 2020), Beyoncé has used Parkwood to purchase her freedom from the prison of the mainstream.
Today, she can create elaborate, expensive audiovisual extravaganzas focused on her personal explorations of Black identity — and by owning the final products, make even more money doing things her way. Her album sales have suffered, but her influence as a cultural icon (along with her bank account) has exploded. She is defining a pathway for success that does not blatantly center Whiteness.
“Black Is King” demonstrates that Beyoncé has a vested interest in highlighting and supporting the cultural development and sophistication of Black folks the world over. This visual album cements the reign of Queen Bey as a global icon, creating her own rules and markers of success. She has gone all-in on Black. And Beyoncé rarely, if ever, loses.