Beyoncé tapped into the West African Afrobeat sound and marshaled African artists, poets and creatives for “Black Is King.” She worked with the Ghanaian musician and visual artist Blitz Bazawule, the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, shared writing credits with Jamaican-Nigerian writer and poet Yrsa Daley-Ward; she also worked with African designers such as Ivorian Loza Maleombho. In her previous visual album, “Lemonade,” Beyoncé also invoked references to Oshun and Yemaya, the Yoruba female orishas of fertility and motherhood, respectively.
Given this emphasis on international blackness, one problematic aspect of the enterprise is that Disney’s “The Lion King,” which forms the narrative ground for “Black Is King,” is not an authentic African story. The continent is rich with its own stories and oral histories, including from the orisha pantheon of Yoruba spirituality or the Ghanaian tales of Anansi the spider, if you want to stick with animal tales from the continent. All this time, Disney could have adapted a film based on Yaa Asantewaa, the Ashanti queen who led the resistance against the British in the Gold Coast. Or how about a story about the Battle of Adwa, when Ethiopians were able to ward off the Italians in the 1800s (Ethiopia was never colonized)? Many of these stories would be fertile ground for Queen B’s next project.
Disney’s “The Lion King,” along with “Black Panther” and “Coming to America,” today represent somewhat of a holy trinity of movies in the American imagination about Africa, promoting the fantasy of the African man as a powerful king, with beautiful African women serving as support staff — as wives, mothers and militaristic guardians. Perhaps it is a male fantasy in particular that the only power worth cultivating and wielding is top down, fueled by conquest, hierarchies and bloodlines. Like “Black Panther” before it, “Black Is King” nurtures the notion that the only Black African men who deserve to be celebrated and admired are royal ones, and not the healers, the thinkers, the farmers, the craftsmen.
The message that black boys and men are kings and royalty plays like a propagandistic loop through “Black Is King.” The insistence that Black men’s true power comes from being descendants of monarchical societies that somehow disappeared once Africa had the White encounter is not entirely true. For starters, tribal chiefs still exist, and they wield influence and power. In fact, my paternal grandfather was a chief in Ghana, and when it came time for my father, the first-born son, to take the royal stool after my grandfather’s death, my father said he wanted little part in it. The role demands hard work, the commitment of a servant leader rather than an authoritarian sovereign; it requires settling disputes and attending ceremonial functions, all while maintaining a job that actually pays the bills.
But despite all the legitimate criticism of “Black Is King,” Beyoncé remains a true, undisputed cultural leader, a queen with unparalleled influence to lift other Black and African creators into the spotlight.
In 2018, she famously tapped Black photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot her Vogue cover, making him the first Black photographer to shoot a cover in the magazine’s then-125-year history. During our interview on Tuesday, Knowles-Larson said that Beyoncé’s inspiration to do “Black Is King” came after learning that a South African composer, Solomon Linda, originally wrote the song that inspired "The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Beyoncé made a point to feature the original song, written in Zulu, for her film instead of the one written in English by the 1960s band the Tokens, later used in the animated “The Lion King.”
Those feelings of revindication seem to have driven Beyoncé to create a film about African royalty, before the trauma of slavery. Still, her power has limits. No other Black photographer besides Mitchell has shot a Vogue cover. Can major entertainment corporations include Black creatives without Beyoncé forcing their hand? That is the real test.
But there’s no question Beyoncé has created a strong work of art to explore deeper questions. Many have argued that the forceful cutting of ties to the homeland is central to the Black experience in the United States. The relationship between Africans and Black Americans is rich but has always been complex and complicated. “Black Is King” capitalizes on the opportunity to answer the question posed by writer Afua Hirsch, “How much Africa is there still in African-American identity?”
With “Black Is King,” Beyoncé is answering: plenty.