Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s long-awaited film, Black is King, was released over the weekend across the world to much acclaim.
It was first shown on Disney+ (not available in Africa) on Friday in the United States and Australia among many other developed countries and released in Africa only on Saturday. I watched Black is King and was stunned by the beauty and magic that is Beyoncé: the visuals and cinematography were spectacular.
In spite of myself, I even took to Twitter to share my reactions with my followers, jokingly saying: “… Beyoncé can terrorise, colonise, Wakandify and motherlandise Africa all she wants, because these visuals are everything.”
“Motherlandisation” is a term I came up with to refer to the process, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, intentional or unintentional, by African Americans to romanticise and reduce Africa to a monolithic, frozen and fixed “motherland” that serves their views. They treat Africa as a repository for their use and consumption.
As much as I can appreciate the beauty of the film and joke about it, I take issue with how Black is King depicts a white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal image of blackness and Africa. I constantly saw glamourised patriarchy in praxis throughout the film and my inclinations were confirmed at the end when the whole project was dedicated to Beyoncé’s son and neither of her two daughters.
In my opinion, Beyoncé culturally appropriated African culture for the Western and global capitalist gaze, although others argue that it is “cultural appreciation”. I think she crossed a fine line because she is getting praise, money and adoration from a culture that is not expressly hers, even though she collaborated with African artists.
Identity is becoming, not being
In my interpretation, Black is King (which is an extension of The Gift, Beyoncé’s track on The Lion King, released in 2019) is about identity formation and exploration. I am also of the view, however, that identity is about becoming and not being. Identities are socially constructed ideas that have tangible ramifications and crystallisations.
Art is a powerful tool, through which identities are formed, reified, expressed and contested. Beyoncé announced the release of her “visual album”, saying that her intention is to reimagine the story of the lion king. She hopes to shift the global perception of the word “black”, which is regal to her. This contributes to identity formations of blackness that I have alluded to — blackness as regal is quite reductionist, because it does not allow us to explore and imagine blackness in all its complexity. It is harmful to think of black as either king, queen or peasant. Rather, black is much more complex.
When the trailer came out more than a month ago, I wrote a comprehensive critique on a Twitter thread. Some people agreed with my sentiments; others attacked me for daring to criticise their “queen”.
Jerzy Kosinski writes that “the principles of true art is not to portray, but to evoke”. Beyoncé’s art in Black is King evoked a lot of contradictory feelings and reflections inside me. I believe art is not void of intention: art can be very political and does not exist in a vacuum; art is created to be consumed and critiqued, without fear or favour.
It is thus harmful to want to silence any discourse about Beyoncé’s art and artistry. She exists at the confluence of many contradictory identities as her matrix of oppression and domination in the kyriarchy will tell us with careful unpacking.
Intersectionally speaking, “Queen B”, as she’s affectionately known, is both an oppressor and the oppressed, occupying multiple roles at once. She is a super-rich, famous, light-skinned African American woman who has power and privilege. She is also hypervisible and has a lot of global relevance and influence.
(A caveat, I am a Beyoncé fan. Since I was 10 years old, I have always listened to her music and I am constantly impressed by how she raises the bar in her artistic work, pushing the boundaries and outdoing her previous projects and giving other artists the platform to shine.)
I am also an African, a well-travelled South African to be exact. I am privileged — in a country where most people cannot afford to traverse their own backyard because of high levels of inequality and poverty — to have travelled to a few other African countries for both work and pleasure.
A complex continent
Africa is a continent with 55 states and is a tangible concept to me. I have seen and experienced the good, the bad and the ugly. Africa is a complex continent, with thousands of languages and diverse cultures and realities. I have fed giraffes in Kenya, snorkelled and been mugged in Zanzibar, eaten the best seafood in Mozambique, sipped tea and watched my colleague break her knee in Tunisia, been searched for drugs in Rwanda, and negotiated shea-butter prices in a local market in Ghana. For me, Africa is not an abstract concept I only read about in books or see in movies: it is a continent I have explored and will continue to do so.
It is this positionality that influences my reaction to Black is King and most art that I consume. Positionality refers to the space that you occupy in the world relative to another person, based either on real or perceived identity markers. This can be said about my own personal identities relative to Beyoncé or the various African artists she worked with on the Black is King project. In my view, most identities are fluid, unstable and dynamic; thus, they are perceived and not real (although they do have real effects).
Stuart Hall aptly captured these sentiments when he said: “Identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by and position ourselves in the narratives of the past.” This shows that our identities are constructed by broader social narratives, which should be comprehended as carrying our histories, as fluid, contested and negotiated by ourselves. My personal identity is found within the narratives told by the society around me.
My reaction to Black is King is complex, as I have narrated multiple times on social media and in newspaper and radio interviews recently. It is linked to my identity, which lies strongly within both historical and current social narratives of Africa.
I’ve also been to the United States. I have taught Americans and I have lived with Americans of different races, classes and creeds. Something I noticed was the misinformation and misrepresentation of Africa in the US media and education system. My main qualm and my critique of Beyoncé is, therefore, not just based on the film alone.
For decades, the West has represented the African continent in problematic ways, linked to struggle and suffering. Writers such as Binyavanga Wainaina have explored this comprehensively elsewhere. The new supposed “corrective representation” of my continent showing Africa solely as “better off” through a capitalist lens, is also problematic and equally harmful, because it reduces Africans to a few wealthy “kings and queens”.
Africa is many things, not just one: we need to treat it with complexity.
Most of the backlash I have received (calling me ugly, a monkey and stupid, among other ad hominem attacks) is that my critique of the film is disrespectful of the work and collaboration by African artists. In actual fact, I am very happy for the African artists who worked with Beyoncé. Some of my favourite South African artists and creatives — such as the late Mary Twala, Busiswa and Moonchild (who were authentically themselves), Trevor Stuurman and Warren Masemola — were involved in the project. Seeing them get the exposure and global stage they rightfully deserve made me beam with pride and joy.
My excitement and pride, however, do not mean I am barred from critically consuming the art they worked on. Or are we saying that Africans are sacrosanct and we should be sensitive about critiquing anything they do for fear of being seen as jealous or anti-progress? We can celebrate and critique this work without diminishing African artists.
Beyoncé has more power and influence than the African artists she worked with. There are power dynamics that exist between black Africans and black Americans that need to be reckoned with. The US is a global hegemony, which means there’s a privilege that comes with being a citizen there, even though African Americans face many obstacles, including racism and police brutality.
I guess white supremacy is the common thread that binds black people in both the motherland and the diaspora.
On the danger of the single story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Africa and black people are complex. So, the answer to the question I have received multiple times about what I would have done differently if I were Beyoncé is that I would have represented Mother Africa in all her complexity and as the kaleidoscope that she truly is.