Can you appropriate your own heritage?
Making sense of critiques of Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Black is King.
By: Maria Prudente
In the final hours of Friday, June 19th or Juneteenth- the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, Beyoncé released the song, “Black Parade.” The lyrics celebrate Black activists of the past like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights leaders of today, “Need another march, lemme call Tamika,” she sings, referencing American activist Tamika Mallory. She demands reparations, boasts about owning Black art, encourages listeners to raise their Black power fists in the air, claims rubber bullets bounce off her body at protests, and suggests that “being Black, maybe that’s the reason they always mad.” “Black Parade” was a radical expression of Black pride at a time when it was most needed.
A month later, the trailer for Black Is King- a visual film written, directed, and produced by Beyoncé- was released online. It would feature music she had curated for the Disney film The Lion King: The Gift, for which she voiced the character for Nala. Diamond encrusted turbans, crescent-moon print catsuits, duku crowns, crystal crochet ponchos, iridescent floral jackets, hot pink and rainbow ruffled gowns, cow print miniskirts, metal halo headdresses, money print pajamas, cowrie shells and beads, gold plated mouth garbs and crystal rope neckpieces filled our screens. During a summer of great unrest, Beyoncé offered us a little joy.
I never have to choose how and when I express my Italian identity. (...) I travel to parts of Italy often but never to Pordenone or Nusco from which my families emigrated, and yet I feel a physiological link to Italy as a place- to the shores of Lago Maggiore, the winding streets of Siena, the olive trees of Greve in Chianti.
But Black Is King was not immediately received with the same kind of verve and regard given to “Black Parade” a month earlier. In a piece for The Africa Report under the header “Wakandification Worries” -a reference to the fictional sub-Saharan African country in The Black Panther comics and movie writer Eva Sauphie highlights Beyoncé’s attempt to assign all African people into one collective whole. Afro-political activists, feminists, and scholars were concerned with Beyoncé’s film conveying Africa as a primitive, tribal place, essentializing African people as a monolith in a continent made up of 54 countries, and appropriating a culture that is not her own. In a tweet, Black feminist historian and scholar at the University of Oxford, Jade Bentil derided the film for its “repeated tropes/symbolic gestures that homogenize & essentialize thousands of African cultures in service of securing the terrain for Black capitalist possibilities & futures is tired.” Black Is King is only available on the streaming service, Disney+, which is not available in many parts of Africa.
Dimso, a model and Instagram influencer from Nigeria, tweeted criticism at Beyoncé for “including African culture in her music but never adding Africa to her tours” and for her perpetuating old tropes of Africa as a country, not a continent. Africa is quickly modernizing, writes Dimso, “We wake up and open Twitter like the rest of the world.” Nigerian Health Journalist, Nneka Ikawn Orji, expressed similar dismay for the film, tweeting, “I think it’s crap. I’m tired of seeing animal skin costumes portray Africa. (…) I think this is how the Western world likes to imagine Africa. So, it’s for their consumption, not ours.” Are the rules different for African-Americans like Beyoncé?
As a white woman in America who is second-generation Italian on my father’s side of the family and third-generation Italian on my mother’s side, I never have to choose how and when I express my Italian identity. When I speak to my Italian-born friends in English, because I do not speak the Italian language, I am never seen as “less Italian” than they. I travel to parts of Italy often but never to Pordenone or Nusco from which my families emigrated, and yet I feel a physiological link to Italy as a place- to the shores of Lago Maggiore, the winding streets of Siena, the olive trees of Greve in Chianti. Is it right to tell Beyoncé, a Black woman born in the West, how to imagine her roots, or are there limits to expressing her Black identity? I question if it’s possible for one to appropriate a place they come from, and so I ask, for whose consumption is Black Is King?
The critique is correct in that Black Is King is not entirely pan-African as it leaves out Kenya and most East African countries but it still sheds light on parts of Africa, African designers, performers, and the like who would ordinarily not be seen on such a highly accessible platform.
Beyoncé has grappled with black respectability throughout much of her career. As a fan, I have watched Beyoncé transition from the late 1990’s-early 2000’s girl group, Destiny’s Child, into her solo music career where she sings about finding safety with a man in the ballad “Halo” or singing about her man putting a ring on it in the pop anthem “Single Ladies.” She later went on to star in movies like The Pink Panther and Austin Powers. I cannot remember a time when Beyoncé wasn’t always on top of the world; however, Beyoncé had never made music and curated performances that were explicitly centered around her black identity until now.
I believe Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade was our first introduction to her exploration and expression of Black womanhood told through music and imagery made real by her positionality as an African-American woman from the American South. The overall reception to Lemonade appears remarkably more successful than that of Black Is King. It seemed to be acceptable in the eyes of critics and fans. Is this because Beyoncé offers us an experience of which she is an expert? Is Beyoncé most safe when she stays within the confines of what it means to be black in America?
What Beyoncé was able to achieve with Black Is King, is an 85-minute powerful disentanglement of the relationship between the Black identity and Africa. She doesn’t have to fictionalize or reimagine all of Africa-she can simply create an interpretation.
Like Black Is King and “Black Parade”, which were both released this summer during heightened civil unrest, Lemonade was released in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, again giving Americans some joy in deviating from the constant political discourse. Lemonade is American to its bone. Though it shifts between dreams and reality, Beyoncé places us in the context of the American South-specifically in New Orleans, Louisiana- filming in the city’s parks, neighborhoods, parking garages, Bourbon Street, The Superdome, and at the Maplewood Plantation built in 1846. We might not have grown up there or visited the city of New Orleans, but Beyoncé uses the imagery associated with black Americans to ground her audience. In the opening song, “Pray You Catch Me,” Beyoncé appears standing amid a field of cornstalks. The pastoral imagery is Beyoncé “reminding us of our American origins-of the cotton fields, the killing fields (…) the original location of black rupture” writes Zeffie Gaines in “A Black Girl’s Song Misogynoir, Love, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade”. She is wearing a hoody, often associated with Hip-Hop and urban fashion which has throughout history incited white anxiety. Her choice to wear a black hoodie connotes the imagery of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot by police in 2012, assumed to be suspicious because he was wearing a black hoodie and because he was black. These images of slavery and criminalization are ways Beyoncé invites us into her visual and sonic world where her Black identity is challenged and regenerated.
Are these moments truly promoting a tribal Africa or exploiting African terrain to secure Black capitalism, or are they appropriating language? I don’t think so. It was evident to me by the time we arrive at the fight between Scar and Simba, that Beyoncé has invited us to enter into her dreamscape the same way the creators of the original The Lion King asked us to enter their dream Africa.
Beyoncé underscores the treatment of the Black American woman and infidelity in the raging Janis Joplin-Esque rock song, “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” The song is co-written and produced by Jack White, who adds his biting and bratty timbre to the song’s hook and adds a familiar Led Zepplin booming drum sample from the song “When The Levee’s Break.” She again positions us in the framework of urban America, appearing masculinized wearing tight braids pulled behind her ears and walking around in a fur coat with a kind of swag the eye is more accustomed to seeing in Hip-Hop videos from the late 1990s, not from Beyoncé. But her looks match the aggression of her lyrics, as she sings about a man who doesn’t appreciate her worth, while surrounded by equally swagged out women, “You ain't married to no average bitch boy” she sneers to the camera-reminding him that she doesn’t need him, “And keep your money, I got my own”.
The voice of Malcolm X interrupts the song as the Black nationalist and activist states, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is a black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” As his voice plays, images showing everyday Black women in New Orleans wearing hoodies and head wraps similar to Beyoncé, as if Beyoncé is naming one by one, the very women of which Malcolm X speaks. Zeffie Gaines emphasizes the statements of Malcolm X and Beyoncé’s choice to include them as a way to underline “the way sexism and racism make Black women doubly vulnerable." We believe Beyoncé when she expresses her Black womanhood through the context of Malcolm X but also because we believe her experience as an African American woman.
Again, we accept Beyoncé because we recognize the America she conveys with her images but also because “Formation” sounds American-it sounds like New Orleans. She sings in her Houston draw, “Earned all this money, but they’ll never take the country out me” overtop the New Orleans bounce-meets-trap-beat (..) with a marching band playing along to the song’s melody.
In his article for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica describes the final song on the Lemonade visual album, “Formation,” as “a fantastical post-Katrina hellscape, but radically rewritten”. In the video, Beyoncé mixes high and low references to the state of the American South she sits on top of a New Orleans police cruiser submerged in water (alluding to Katrina), claims she’ll treat her lover to Red Lobster- the beloved American fast-food chain- if he pleasures her right, preserves her southern pride by keeping hot sauce in her bag and ends the video with a sign that reads in spray paint “Stop Shooting Us” –directly referencing police brutality and the killing of innocent Black lives. Again, we accept Beyoncé because we recognize the America she conveys with her images but also because “Formation” sounds American-it sounds like New Orleans. She sings in her Houston draw, “Earned all this money, but they’ll never take the country out me” overtop the New Orleans bounce-meets-trap-beat elevated at the chorus with a marching band playing along to the song’s melody. Artists from the city are included, the queen of bounce music, Big Freedia, and the late New Orleans rapper Messy Mya are sampled, asking “What happened at the New Orleans?” Beyoncé consistently reminds the audience that she is representing the “Big Easy” as well as making a connection between herself and the city, boasting about her southern roots, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana.” If Caramanica can receive Beyoncé’s interpretation of New Orleans as a “fantastical post-Katrina hellscape”, then is it possible for critics and audiences to later receive Beyoncé’s Black Is King as a fictionalized pre-or post-colonial dreamscape?
Beyoncé covertly acknowledges her African heritage throughout Lemonade. She wears a golden African ankh pendant, a cross with a hoop, around her neck in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” which, in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics means “life” or “afterlife.” In the video for the reggae-heavy “Hold Up,” she emerges through two doors blown up by waves of water wearing a yellow off-the-shoulder Roberto Cavalli dress signifying the Yoruban river goddess, Oshun. Dancers wear Ori or geometric patterns of white face-paint, and body paint in the video for “Sorry,” and Beyoncé poses as Egyptian queen Nefertiti wearing a braided “lipombo” or elongating hairstyle made popular by the Mangbetu people. With Lemonade, Beyoncé can lay claim to the African part of her African-American identity through subtle imagery, but in Black Is King, critics claim Beyoncé is appropriating. It seems Beyoncé is limited to place- freely able to express her Black identity in the diaspora but questioned and, in some ways, denied entry to do so in connection to the motherland.
Afro-political activists, feminists, and scholars were concerned with Beyoncé’s film conveying Africa as a primitive, tribal place, essentializing African people as a monolith in a continent made up of 54 countries, and appropriating a culture that is not her own.
From Swahili to Twi to Yoruba to Bambara, Black Is King, tells the story of a child on a journey to finding himself through language, dance, music, and imagery through Beyoncé’s lens of Afrofuturism. While I watched the film, there were moments where the critiques by Dimso, Bentil, and Orji, who claim it depicts Africa as too primitive and Beyoncé, an interloper, are understandable. In the dance track “Already” featuring Ghanian rapper Shatta Wale and Major Lazer, Beyoncé dances the Nigerian zanku dance with a dancer painted in blue representing the subconscious of the main character. Beyoncé appears wearing a Zebra print bodysuit while other dancers in blue paint appear sitting in trees. In the outlandish club banger “Mood 4 Eva”, which opens with a sample of Malian singer Oumou Sangaré’s song, “Diaraby Nene”, capitalist critics watch Beyoncé and Jay-Z drinking champagne for dinner, walking around their mansion in money print pajamas and Jay-Z boasting before his verse, “That’s the sound of the price going up.” Toward the end of the film, we hear Beyoncé sing in Swahili intonations in the dreamy ballad, “Otherside.” Are these moments truly promoting a tribal Africa or exploiting African terrain to secure Black capitalism, or are they appropriating language? I don’t think so. It was evident to me by the time we arrive at the fight between Scar and Simba, that Beyoncé has invited us to enter into her dreamscape the same way the creators of the original The Lion King asked us to enter their dream Africa.
The critique is correct in that Black Is King is not entirely pan-African as it leaves out Kenya and most East African countries but it still sheds light on parts of Africa, African designers, performers, and the like who would ordinarily not be seen on such a highly accessible platform. “I’m proud [that] young Black girls from my hometown Mthatha in South Africa’s Eastern Cape are going to see me and know that anything is possible,” says Busiswa, a South African singer featured in “My Power” a song that signifies the fight between Scar and Simba. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly-both South African artists who feature in the song and video, acknowledge that because of the gender-based violence in their country, the video which features only female artists should serve as an inspiration.
With Lemonade, Beyoncé can lay claim to the African part of her African-American identity through subtle imagery, but in Black Is King, critics claim Beyoncé is appropriating. It seems Beyoncé is limited to place- freely able to express her Black identity in the diaspora but questioned and, in some ways, denied entry to do so in connection to the motherland.
“My Power” features the metallic drum played in 4/4 and has an energizing clapping rhythm in 3/4. The West African adrinka symbol Bese Saka representing power and abundance appears on the floor beneath the dancers and where performers like Tierra Whack rap, “Ebony and ebonics, black people win,” and Beyoncé sings, “Oh, gotta protect my braids, keep it locked in a safe.” Black pride and the expression of Black identity is strong in that the song features African American female artists and African female artists. Busiwsa appears rapping in her native Xhosa wearing a headpiece by South African designer, Nikiwe Dlova. Moonchild Sanelly wears a cattle horn crown, which represents leadership in South African culture. “My Power” in Black Is King not only speaks to the character of Simba and Pride Rock but to the entire African diaspora. Moonchild Sanelly’s wish is that “My Power” will teach children, in particular, that “wherever in the world they come from, to make their dreams come true, to fight for what they stand for; to believe in themselves and to remember that they are just pure magic. I want them to be reminded of their strength and that there’s nothing that is impossible.”
She demands reparations, boasts about owning Black art, encourages listeners to raise their Black power fists in the air, claims rubber bullets bounce off her body at protests, and suggests that “being Black, maybe that’s the reason they always mad.” “Black Parade” was a radical expression of Black pride at a time when it was most needed.
It seems as though the rules are different for African-Americans artists like Beyoncé. Even though she is the biggest performer in the world, it seems even Beyoncé is not safe from criticism when it comes to acknowledging and celebrating her African heritage. She was able to achieve acclaim for Lemonade, which told the story of Black womanhood in the context of the African-American identity as if the audience and critics understood her within that context only. But she is a Black woman with a complex heritage, and I do not believe she has appropriated her roots because Africa is her bloodline. Africa, as home, is a complicated idea for Black Americans. In her review in The New Yorker, “Beyoncé’s Knowing Ethnic Splendor in Black Is King” Lauren Michelle Jackson writes, “For Americans, including those of the darker cast and caste, Africa tends to be little more than an idea, a formless place in which to house so much grief and longing.” What Beyoncé was able to achieve with Black Is King, is an 85-minute powerful disentanglement of the relationship between the Black identity and Africa. She doesn’t have to fictionalize or reimagine all of Africa-she can simply create an interpretation. In America, where many Black Americans have only known their connection to their heritage through enslavement; Black Is King encourages them to explore and celebrate their culture and tradition separated from slavery. Being a king or queen is not Beyoncé advocating for wealth and superiority but pride. Be rich in your Black identity, be it African American or African.