Beyoncé stars in her latest visual album, “Black Is King.” (Photo credit: Disney+/screencap)
Black Is King is the third of Beyoncé’s visual albums. To me, it’s also her most realized and self-actualized one.
I came into Black Is King already loving her The Lion King: The Gift album, which is, in itself, a feat, because I’m not a huge Beyoncé fan. As someone who has only bought one of her albums, Spirit was a huge surprise for me. I like Beyoncé singing in her lower register–a register I feel she should have been singing in for her entire career–since it sounds more natural for her. Also, as a Lion King superfan, I wholeheartedly co-sign the themes of family, cultural grounding, and self-worth.
The commercials for Black Is King also threw me for a loop because I could see how Beyoncé had grown in her confidence and artistry. The visual album is a love letter to Afrofuturism, evident in every frame of the film especially in the imagery of Blackness and ancestral knowledge being intrinsic to the universe. There were also societal references, such as Madam C.J. Walker’s mansion, and religious references to the story of Moses and Black Madonna iconography (with Beyoncé herself as the Madonna, more on that later).
I'm enjoying the cultural references in Already. I'm looking forward to seeing more from the entire #BlackIsKing film. I saw this & immediately thought of women in rural Eastern Cape. Also the horns on the hair remind of the Mursi women of Ethiopia. pic.twitter.com/Xaojo1TMkz— Zikhona Valela (@valavoosh) August 1, 2020
Beyoncé serves as the film’s narrator and spirit guide, protecting both little Simba (Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele) and other Black babies so they can pass on their legacy and lineage. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention in her visual album so she can focus on her mission of uplifting her Black fans and, in her way, providing them with a way to reconnect to their African lineage.
But in the same breath, Black Is King is very much Beyoncé’s story of coming to terms with her Blackness and how it functions in society. I’ve been a critic of Beyoncé’s stardom because her image seemed to rest on racial ambiguity. Earlier in her career, it seemed like she focused on being seen more as “Creole” than “African-American.” Her music was more about being acceptable to the masses rather than making a statement. She had a sustainable pop star career rather than delve into actual artistry. In short, she was a marketable product, and at the time, she was a product I wasn’t interested in buying.
But as she’s progressed in her career, taking back her image and establishing artistic autonomy, I’ve slowly seen what kind of artist Beyoncé wants to be, and it’s not the vapid pop star. She wants to make an impact and inspire those who follow her. I commend her for that, and I’m glad to see this ideology reach its current zenith in Black Is King.
However, with that said, some of Beyoncé’s pop star habits aren’t dying quickly. “MOOD 4EVA” is probably making a self-reflexive point about how Black Americans, being stripped of their original culture, have become afflicted by the notion of using money and wealth as markers of respect and status. Some of us, including me at times, tend to think that if we have the means, then America has to respect us since the only thing America seems to recognize is money. If you can’t earn respect, you can buy it.
She could be talking about herself and her capitalism and how she became a pop star because of a need to feel respected by others. I feel like we can say that about her husband, Jay-Z. I did feature him in my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans, because of his business acumen, something I feel his fans can take inspiration from. But I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that part of what drives Jay-Z’s focus on business is that hip-hop “make paper” philosophy.
But, while Beyoncé might be critiquing herself and her husband’s lifestyle, she’s also actively engaging in it throughout the visual album, with “MOOD 4EVA” being the most overt. You can only make Black Is King, complete with lavish sets, location scouting, multiple hair and costume changes, dancers, actors, and Disney+ negotiations, via hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can only flex that hard in numerous points of the visual album if you’re used to flexing to showcasing your self-worth.
Indeed, commissioning someone to paint you as the Madonna and your children as holy icons is a flex that needs unpacking. Again, Beyoncé means well–she wants her fans to see Blackness as sacred, something we don’t see in society often. But does it dull the message by having her be that holy figure, especially when some of her most fervent fans already idolize her?
Beyoncé’s throughline of tying Black self-actualization to wealth and social status isn’t something new. It’s a theme that’s most overt in The Carters album, in which they are bragging about their stacks upon stacks and how it has allowed them to ascend above the African-American poverty line. In that album, they are equating themselves with kings and queens of a bygone era. Some of the criticism levied at them was that they compared themselves with individuals whose wealth accrued from subjugating others via white supremacy. If they merely want to be seen as on par with other human wealth vacuums who benefitted from a system that hurt Black people, how can we measure the Carters’ “wokeness”?
Something similar is happening with Black Is King when it comes to equating “wokeness” to Black African royalty. Even though we all want to imagine we are a direct descendant of an African royal line, the fact of the matter is that it’s a pipedream. A lot of us are just regular African-Americans descended from ordinary Africans. While Beyoncé’s point of equating Blackness to royalty is to remind us of our inherent worth, Judicaelle Irakoze wrote for Essence about the “danger” of always putting Black Americans’ self-worth as a marker of royalty.
“There is a real danger in romanticizing pre-colonial Africa. The glorification of kingdoms before white men met us erases the reality that Africa wasn’t exactly a paradise,” she wrote. “African kingdoms were rife with slavery, imperialism, women’s oppression and class oppression. Not everyone was a king or even a queen. More importantly, not every Black person in African countries had the potential of being born into a royal family or accessing its benefits.”
“My queen Beyoncé is a powerful transcending artist with the power to instill in us liberating imaginations. As a woman [of] African descent, whose ancestors survived generations of enslavement, she has the right to tap into her Africanness and find her connections to the continent and her belonging to the land,” she continued. “But when she willingly, through her art, participates in telling romanticized African royalty stories, rooted in glamorizing Africa, she indirectly dehumanizes our Africanness. She validates neo-colonialism, entrenched in negotiating and proving our humanity by pretending we’re superhuman. One could wonder are Africans humans with dignity if they are not kings and queens, draped in gold and diamonds? Are we saying our ancestors shouldn’t have been enslaved because they were kings and queens and not simply becuase they were humans?”
Something interesting that backs up her point: in my research for my book, I came across African slaves who were princes or businessmen shipped off from their native lands. One of them, merchant and nobleman Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, went to work for the Royal African Company as an interpreter after gaining his freedom, entering polite British society. My theory is he might have equated his enslavement to being mistaken as a low-class African. This compartmentalization could allow him to work for the people who captured him. The truth, though, is that the white slavers didn’t care about his humanity or wealth. They saw him as a Black body that could make them money.
Even Beyoncé’s penchant for curating Black bodies on-screen could hit viewers one of two ways. On the one hand, she’s celebrating Blackness and showcasing it in a heightened adorned form, symbolizing her love for her culture and people. But on the other hand, is her curation of Black individuals appreciation or exploitation? What are we, the viewer, supposed to get out of it? I assume it all comes down to the individual, since her stylistic choice of presenting us with Black faces, usually front-faced to the camera, allows us to project all of our thoughts, feelings, and theories onto those people. The way Beyoncé crafts these images uplifts us in one direction but objectifies us in another.
With all of this said, though, I don’t think Beyoncé means any harm. Indeed, I believe her mission to uplift her fans, especially her fans of the Black diaspora, has been achieved. She has given us a visual feast for the eyes, and if I had any technical criticism to offer, it’d be that some of the Lion King dialogue takes me out of the experience. I think her message of Black global unity and reconciliation could have been much stronger without relying on The Lion King audio clips and focused solely on pushing her narrative to its utmost potential.
For me, the section of the film where she makes her most significant artistic push is “FIND YOUR WAY BACK.” We see a Black Black boy floating in the universe before hurtling towards Earth like a comet. The idea of Blackness being a grand astronomical concept, of painting Blackness as part of the cosmos, is fascinating. Even though I just wrote about Beyoncé’s possible objectification of the Black body, I was moved by this particular image because it can expand what Blackness means in the world’s collective consciousness. With this imagery, she’s asserting that Blackness is limitless, which is far more meaningful to me than seeing Black people adorned in jewelry and expensive clothing.
Overall, I would watch Black Is King again, taking inspiration from its imagery, locations, and Beyoncé’s feats of fitness. I have to commend her for how much dancing and gracefulness she shows in this visual album, and she, along with Megan Thee Stallion, is body goals for me.
I think anyone entering Beyoncé’s body of work for the first time should start with Black Is King, as it is the pinnacle of her career thus far. In this visual album, you can see how Beyoncé has matured as a Black woman, a mother, and a representation of Black excellence. She’s also upped her quotient of giving back by hiring Black creatives worldwide to help her bring her vision to life. On top of that, her “Black Parade” song is part of her initiative to highlight Black businesses to raise the value of the Black dollar. I’m interested to see what else she’ll do creatively and politically as she dives deeper into her relationship with the ancestors.