The Many Lessons of Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King’

The year was 2007. Beyoncé had just dropped her B’Day Anthology Video Album, the often overlooked turning point in her illustrious career. With thirteen music videos, the anthology was essentially Beyoncé’s first visual album — a genre that she has revolutionized throughout the latter half of her career. From 2013’s landmark eponymous surprise album to the masterpiece that was 2016’s Lemonade, visual albums have become as synonymous with Beyoncé as leotards and choreography-packed shows. All this is to say that Black Is King, her latest visual album, cannot simply be taken as a singular work of art. Black Is King, is an entry into her oeuvre that builds on a slew of music films that become more intricate and complex (in narrative, symbolism, and world-building) with each new addition.

A Disney+ exclusive, Black Is King debuted on the platform on July 31. The film functions as the visual companion to The Lion King: The Gift, the stellar compilation album that Beyoncé released alongside the debut of the 2019 photorealistic remake of The Lion King. The 85-minute film reimagines the lessons and plot of The Lion King through music videos, dance, fashion, spoken word, and poetry. Black Is King features a star-studded and award-winning main cast of African talent: Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele (Young Simba), Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze (Adult Simba), Nandi Madida (Adult Nala), Warren Masemola (Scar), Mary Twala (Rafiki), and Stephen Ojo (The Blue Man). Black Is King also features appearances from a number of artists featured on The Gift such as Yemi Alade, Moonchild Sanelly, Busiswa, Lord Afrixana, Salatiel, Wizkid, Mr Eazi, Tiwa Savage, and Shatta Wale. In addition, the film’s script was anchored by poetry from Yrsa Daley-Ward and Warsan Shire.

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On June 27, the first trailer for Black Is King leaked. Immediately, the trailer went viral on Twitter and other social media platforms with a wide range of takes about the alleged content of the new visual album. Even before its official release, Black Is King reminded us all of an extremely valuable lesson: patience. The art of critique is difficult, complicated, and sometimes feels impossible. In an industry and world that has become increasingly reliant on engagement and clickbait titles, it is easier than ever to create a fully-formed critique out of thin air mere minutes after the debut of something. There is always a race to be the first and a race to capture as much attention as possible before the world shifts focus to the next hot topic.

With Black Is King, that initial one-minute trailer sparked a month-long debate that undoubtedly had merit but also lacked the important context of the full film. Some social media users slammed the trailer as a further “Wakandafication” of the continent of Africa in the vein of Black Panther, while others immediately hailed it as Beyoncé’s best work and the best film of this wretched year. That term, “Wakandification,” caused quite the stir, but the fear and exhaustion behind the claim had some validity. Too often in American media, the rich multitude of different cultures of different African countries and tribes are boiled down into one overarching picture of the continent. In the case of a film like Black Panther, the 2018 film pulled from different cultures in Nigeria, South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Kenya, Tanzania, and more, to bring Wakanda to life. While the intent (to appreciate the beauty of Africa and the deepness of our roots) of these depictions is in good faith, the impact can be quite negative and lead to a fantastical view of Africa and the illusion that we all come from kings and queens. In that vein, Black Is King has also been faced with critiques for the intrinsic relationship it forms between royalty and African identity. In the way that Black Is King preemptively addresses these critiques, the lessons the film teaches to young viewers are tied to the lessons its release and evaluation have taught us as consumers.

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As another interpretation of the story of The Lion King, Black Is King essentially recreates the classic animated film scene-for-scene with a few twists. For example, in the music video for “Scar,” Jessie Reyez soundtracks the stampede that kills Mufasa, except in Black Is King the wildebeests are a gang of motorcyclists. The visual for “My Power,” which features Moonchild Sanelly, Busiswa, Nija, and Blue Ivy, is a direct parallel to the battalion of lionesses that valiantly fought in the 2019 remake of The Lion King. However, there are three music videos in particular that complicate, elevate, and challenge the original story: “Mood 4 Eva,” “Otherside,” and “Already.”

In many ways, “Mood 4 Eva” is the crux of Black Is King. On The Lion King: The Gift, the song is essentially the reimagined version of “Hakuna Matata.” Beyond the obvious narrative parallels, the song is melodically derived from “Hakuna Matata” as confirmed by Beyoncé herself in the 2019 documentary Beyoncé Presents: Making The Gift. By far the most lavish video in Black Is King, “Mood 4 Eva” is draped in gaudy leopard print, a massive mansion, white servants, and gold and jewels. Out of context, “Mood 4 Eva,” in a lyrical and visual sense, dangerously toes the line of the capitalism-induced Wakandafication of Africa that so many were afraid of. Instead, “Mood 4 Eva” proves to be one of the most effective pieces of satire in recent cinematic history. The entire video takes place inside of a dream sequence. Young Simba, played by Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele, falls asleep and dreams of a world of riches and power. In this dream sequence, Young Simba attempts to draw an equivalency between royalty and riches, but the dream sequence teaches him otherwise. In “Mood 4 Eva,” Beyoncé reprises her role as Adult Nala and Jay-Z plays Adult Simba; their empty eyes and hollow smiles emphasize the vapidness of opulence that surrounds them. Beyoncé isn’t happy when she’s getting her diamond grill brushed by a butler or aimlessly parading around the front of the mansion in a luxurious gown, she’s most happy when she’s next to her husband and eating a T.V. dinner.

It’s no surprise, that the video for “Ja Ara E” immediately follows with the introduction of Adult Simba, played by Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze. That video, filmed in Johannesburg, showcases a less gaudy and more urban setting. The Simba portrayed here, more genuinely joyous and grounded, is juxtaposed against the Adult Simba in “Mood 4 Eva.” With parallels to The Poppies from The Wiz and allusions to worldly temptation, the “Ja Ara E” video visually recounts the meaning of the Yoruba title: “wise up.” In the context of Black Is King, Simba has to wise up and learn that true royalty is how he helps to build up his community and find wealth in the love of himself and his family, not through worldly possessions. In recent years, both Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s music has been called into question for increasingly attaching “Black excellence” to wealth. So, using their sole collaboration on The Gift to address those concerns and teach the youth a timeless lesson was nothing short of genius. Furthermore, the “Mood 4 Eva” video adds depth to the concepts of wealth and royalty within the film because, in actuality, there is simply no way to accurately retell the story of The Lion King without centering royalty and kingship in some way. There’s no way to get around it because it is quite literally the plot of Hamlet and both versions of The Lion King.

Black Is King is a visual marvel, one that could not be achieved without the help of the tens of hundreds of African creatives Beyoncé tapped to help bring her vision to life. In addition to Beyoncé herself and some longtime collaborators such as Jake Nava (“Partition,” “Flawless”), and Dikayl Rimmasch (The Formation World Tour), a slew of new directors of African origin were brought into the fold for Black Is King. Jenn Nkiru, a British-Nigerian director, helmed the star-studded visual for “Brown Skin Girl,” a visual that beautifully highlights brown-skinned women from all races and subtly draws the lineage of Black hairstyles. In an Instagram caption, Beyoncé’s longtime hairstylist, Neal Farinah, detailed that her braided crown, a style that elongates the skull and is a status symbol, was influenced by eastern Congo’s Mangbetu people. Throughout, the “Brown Skin Girl” visual, Beyoncé wears a number of similar styles and eventually dons a big Southern updo that recalls her Texan roots and the debutante ball setting of the video. Blitz Bazawule helped bring “Find Your Way Back” to life. A Ghanaian film director and afrobeats artist, Blitz is best known for his beautiful 2018 film, The Burial of Kojo. The film, which follows a man left to die in a mine while his daughter travels through the spirit world to save him, was awarded Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 Luxor African Film Festival. Blitz got to center the tradition and celestial mythology of the Dogon in the “Find Your Way Back” visual, a song about coming home to your ancestors.

The “Find Your Way Back” visual is the beginning of Black Is King‘s quest to elevate the narrative complexity of Beyoncé’s visual albums. Out of context, the video just appears to be a collection of glamour shots and fun choreography. In the context of the film, Beyoncé isn’t playing herself, she’s acting as the ancestors that lead Simba on his path back home. In fact, “Find Your Way Back” is the first time we see The Blue Man, played by choreographer and dancer Papi Ojo. The Blue Man, Simba’s subconscious, and Beyoncé, an ancestral spirit, appear together in the videos for “Find Your Way Back,” “Mood 4 Eva,” and “Already.” In “Mood 4 Eva,” young Simba drives past Beyoncé and The Blue Man as he enters the dream sequence. Most importantly, the relationship between The Blue Man and Beyoncé culminates in the raucous visual for “Already,” the song and moment in which Simba fully realizes his destiny and begins his victorious homecoming. Papi Ojo and Beyoncé perform a tightly choreographed number while shots of communal joy and pride in Ghana are spliced throughout the visual. The Blue Man is painted haint blue, a color with deep significance for enslaved Africans as it represents water and protection from evil spirits. In that vein, water, which appears in almost every video in the film signifies life and healing. It joins the chess piece (birthright) as the two primary symbols of the film.

Unlike Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016), in which Beyoncé effectively played herself, she takes it a step further by playing a fluid character in Black Is King. In videos for songs that she does not sing, “Don’t Jealous Me” and “Ja Ara E,” she appears as visualizations of concepts like danger and temptation. In the visual for “Otherside,” the narrative bends in at least three different directions; it’s the most complex moment of the film. The video can be interpreted as Simba going to the afterlife to seek guidance from his father, a direct reference to The Prince of Egypt, or Beyoncé’s reunion with the child she lost in her miscarriage. The latter interpretation isn’t entirely out of the question since The Carter family frequently appears in the voiceovers, visuals, and dedication of the film. This presents one of a number of conflicts with Black Is King: can a retelling of The Lion King be accurate and still allude to the personal life of the creator? Is there a line? If so, where is it and was it crossed? Nonetheless, there are bigger questions at hand. Obviously, Disney+ had to be the primary distributor of Black Is King as they own the intellectual property of The Lion King, and soundbites from the 2019 remake were used throughout the film. However, how does one reconcile a multi-billion-dollar corporation with a history of racism as the home for a film like Black Is King? What are the ethics of Beyoncé having so much money on hand to basically self-fund the production of such an obviously expensive film? Regardless of the film’s performance on the platform, Black Is King expanded the audience and brand of Disney+ in a way that none of its original content has done and could ever be able to do. Nevertheless, do these implications muddy the intent of the film and its mission to retell The Lion King for young Black children? I’d like to think that Black Is King can exist at the crossroads of that contradiction and still be loved. What’s art without paradox?

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Black Is King is overflowing with different cultural references. It would quite literally take a series of books to accurately and adequately delve into them. From the allusions and depictions of a multitude of Orishas to the intricacy of the hairstyling and costumes (think of the oversized jeans forming puddles around Beyoncé’s feet in the “Water” video) and the significance of the film’s myriad locations (Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, the U.K., the U.S., and Belgium), Black Is King is a patchwork of cultural appreciation that drips with respect and care. The film celebrates the richness and weight of the diaspora in a way that we haven’t quite seen at this level or at this intersection of music and film. If viewed as an answer to all of the issues that exist within the diaspora, Black Is King is a failure. In fact, if the film is viewed as anything other than a sonic and visual retelling of The Lion King, it will fail simply because that is beyond its jurisdiction. Black Is King isn’t a film that reveals all of its secrets on the first (or second or third) watch. Like any great piece of art, it requires multiple viewings and time to process it.

Black Is King houses lessons for all of us. It is a gorgeous reminder that artistic boundaries are just figments of our imagination — there is always more to be done. Black Is King is about homecoming. It is about finding and connecting with your roots and sitting with the pain and trauma of your history to fully grasp the power and righteousness of your present and future victories. This is one of the most ambitious projects mainstream music has ever seen from someone as big as Beyoncé. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is a gorgeous and uplifting reminder of the sanctity of Blackness in one of the most turbulent times that our world has ever seen. The film can be read as a call for global Black unity — there’s a reason the Pan-African flag was featured so prominently in the “Already” video. In the time of a burgeoning revolution, Black Is King may feel tame to some and it may feel radical to others. However it makes you feel, it elicits some feeling from you as any good piece of art should.

“You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let Black be synonymous with glory.”

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