‘Black Is King’ but Beyoncé Doesn’t Share the Crown

The album is a timely affirmation for the global African diaspora, but it can’t be accepted as a universal representation of global Blackness

BY Eric Otieno Sumba AND Nelly Y. Pinkrah in Music , Opinion | 14 AUG 20

On 31 July, Beyoncé released her new visual album, Black Is King (2020) on Disney+. Announced in a press release as a celebration of the ‘breadth and beauty of Black ancestry’, it is based on Beyoncé’s companion album to the 2019 remake of The Lion King (1994). The music is enchanting, the fashion virtuoso and the scenography spectacular. The frames are an aesthetic accord of movement, colour and skill. From joyous to gloomy, Black Is King is a dense sensory journey that validates Blackness throughout, and it is important because nothing like it exists.

Beyoncé, Black Is King, 2020, film poster. Courtesy: Disney

Black Is King is a timely affirmation for the global African diaspora, but it can’t be accepted as a universal representation of global Blackness. Its biggest problem is not visible within its frames, but has an intangible, hovering presence. Beyoncé’s promise to ‘present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message’ is compromised by the project’s very foundation: The Lion King ontology, which is the ongoing belief that Disney’s fictional imaginary is an adequate basis to appraise the varieties of contemporary global Blackness.

When The Lion King was originally released in 1994, writers and co-directors stated that it loosely mirrored William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599–1601). Over the years, however, commentators have claimed its makers should have credited the Sundiata Keita, a 13th-century griot epic about the founder and emperor of Mali, whose great-nephew Mansa Musa (name-checked by Jay-Z in the 2019 song ‘Mood 4 Eva’) was one of the richest men that ever lived. Despite its African backstory, which goes unmentioned, the film was written and directed both times by all-white Hollywood teams.

The Lion King, 2019, video still. Courtesy: Disney

The Lion King’s resulting imagery is yet another reason why – as Nairobi-based writer and artist Awuor Odhiambo argues in her essay ‘Silicon Savanna’ (2020) – the vast unpeopled savanna remains a running motif in the visual semiotics of East Africa. Loosely based on the landscape of Kenya, Disney created a fictional wild idyll full of (talking) animals, only to then have an African American singer redeem it. Even with many talented African creatives, actors and designers on board, Black Is King relies on imagery that is evocative of fictional African countries invented by Hollywood, such as Zamunda (Coming to America, 1988) and Wakanda (Black Panther, 2018). Beyoncé’s visual album reifies a romantic, broad-brush visualization of Africa that is common in Black America, which celebrates but misrepresents the continent’s diversity, complexity and – most importantly – people (many of whom don’t self-identify as Black). Within this Disney imaginary, a Zulu king (South Africa) occupies the same frame as Dogon masqueraders wearing Kanaga masks (Mali, Burkina Faso) and Himba women (Namibia). While the result is visually appealing, the constituent cultural references are utterly depleted of any significance beyond aesthetics.

Beyoncé, Black Is King, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Disney

Significantly, these tropes are being co-opted by a superstar with immense cultural influence, a politicized aesthetic and a desire to capitalize her art. Black Is King is the project of a woman who is closest to Black royalty in the current capitalist system of power relations. (All hail Queen Bey.) Though widespread in Black popular culture, the fantasies of royalty parsed in the work’s title contradict the transcendental visions of Blackness that it promises. For Beyoncé, royalty translates as influence: a power that enables her singular vision of Blackness to subsume all others, including the work of lesser-known creators who either find themselves entangled in asymmetric ‘partnerships’ or omitted from the credits altogether.

In a speech given at Portland State University in 1975, Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison said: ‘Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’ Beyoncé dredges up art and kingdoms and, in Black Is King, Blackness is defined in approximation to African American reality. This is a story that, ultimately, caters to the American gaze by re-appropriating an already appropriated version of a story, without transcending its ontological limits. Black Is King is a visual feast but, as far as global visions of contemporary Blackness are concerned, it may be one of the most formidable attempts yet, but it’s still a failed one.

‘Black Is King’ is currently streaming on Disney+.

Main image: Beyoncé, Black Is King, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Disney

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.

Nelly Y. Pinkrah is a cultural and media theorist and political activist. In her research she is interested in a conflation of media thinking, black studies, and political thoughts and practices. She regularly writes on racism, media (and) technology, and the digital. At Leuphana University, where she is a research assistant, she is writing her doctoral thesis on Édouard Glissant and cybernetics.