When the original animated version of The Lion King was released in 1994, writers and co-directors stated that it loosely mirrored Hamlet: an evil uncle (Claudius / Scar) kills the king (King Hamlet / Mufasa) and usurps the throne of a young prince (Hamlet / Simba); the rest of the story follows the prince’s attempt to assert his rightful place at the head of the kingdom, with some supernatural help from his ancestor’s (his father’s ghost) and a childhood romance (Ophelia / Nala).
‘History Is Your Future’
Black Is King is Beyoncé’s most intertextual and aesthetically rich work to date, referencing Nefertiti as readily as Dogon kanaga masks. It sees the singer draped in everything from Swarovski crystals to red rope, pythons and black and green body paint that evokes the Pan-African flag. An opulent ode to the African diaspora, Black Is King serves as a visual companion to the 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, a tie-in curated by Beyoncé for Disney’s remake of The Lion King the same year.
"An opulent ode to the African diaspora"
"the question of succession is married to roots"
Likewise, Black Is King stitches together a series of music videos to tell the story of a young African prince (Folajomi Akinmurele) exiled from his kingdom following the death of his father. Growing up into a man (Nyaniso Dzedze), our human stand-in for the lion cub Simba must journey into his own history to prepare to be king, the question of succession married to his roots. Jeffrey Kisson, who directed the UK’s first all-black (cast and creatives) version of Hamlet in 2016, remarked that ‘Remember me’ became the theme of the production: ‘by saying ”Remember me”, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is urging Hamlet to remember not just him, but his background, heritage and all those that came before him.’ The same could be said of Beyoncé’s visual album. (‘History is your future,’ Beyoncé narrates: ‘One day, you will meet yourself back where you started.)
We open with an aerial view of a riverbed, which sets up water as a metaphor for endurance and spiritual transformation, as well as, on the other hand, the pain and suffering of the Middle Passage, while a baby in a woven basket, recalling Moses, floats down the stream. Cut to an aerial shot gliding over the ocean, zeroing in on Beyoncé standing on the shoreline in a diaphanous white gown. Next, holding the baby she has presumably drawn from the water, she kneels in front of two men swinging censers, describing ‘coils in hair catching centuries of prayers spread through smoke.’ She carries the infant to a ceremony mimicking baptism, walking past women holding baskets of pink flowers. ‘You are welcome to come to yourself. Let Black be synonymous with glory.’
Beyoncé, cradling the baby on the beach, appears not like just any mother, but like the Madonna. Later, a portrait of a Beyoncé holding a baby can be seen hanging in a mansion. It recalls the Madonna and Child as depicted in Renaissance paintings, including a golden halo; only difference is, here there are cherubs handing her Grammy Awards.
"water can be spiritually transformative, for others it is a matter of survival"
Elsewhere, Beyoncé wears cow prints and bull horns, which symbolised fertility and divinity in ancient Egypt; she wears a drapey yellow dress that evokes the Yoruba deity Osun, or Oshun, a river goddess, crucially a mother. As Constance Grady explains for Vox, ‘Her waters were central to the creation of humanity, and she looks after small children before they can speak.’
‘Water’ is the fourteenth track on The Gift and a major motif throughout Black Is King. Water is used in climactic, symbolic moments — like when the African prince is reborn in water; Beyoncé can be heard saying, ‘You’re swimming back to yourself. The coast belongs to our ancestors.’ Pharrell performs in front of a wall of water jugs, perhaps suggesting that as much as water can be spiritually transformative, for others it is a matter of survival. There are dancers dressed in cowry shells, which were once used as currency throughout Africa, and in some cultures symbolised the strength of the ocean. During ‘Mood 4 Eva’ Beyoncé assembles a group of predominantly Jamaican synchronised swimmers for a Busby Berkely-esque spectacle that recalls the surreal ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ animation from the original Lion King.
Riffing off the Hamlet-Lion-King framework, Beyoncé leaps from a domestic-dynastic story forever gesturing to one far more universal. One downside to this, as suggested by Lauren Michel Jackson in The New Yorker, is that Black Is King ‘envisions a fairly conservative idea of Black being, one that is rooted inexorably in the integrity of Mother and Father, Son and Daughter.’ Another related criticism comes from Nelly Y. Pinkrah and Eric Otieno, writing for Frieze: they suggest Black Is King ‘can’t be accepted as a universal representation of global Blackness’. I wonder whether this representation is even possible, let alone one advanced by one woman. While I think Jackson, Pinkrah and Otieno’s criticisms are valid — and important — it’s perhaps the ambitious scope of Beyoncé’s visual album that makes us greedy for more inclusive or totalising political messages.
"a veritable kingdom of music royalty"
Would we criticise Shakespeare for using the nuclear family unit as a stand-in for love more generally and as a proxy for the state? Might black heritage be reclaimed, with all the pride and suffering that might require, and remembered bit by bit, shot by shot, rather than in one fell swoop?
Even with the film’s dedication, Beyoncé’s underscores her simple and poetic message. ‘Dedicated to my son, Sir Carter,’ it reads. ‘And to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom.’ Firstly, by calling their son ‘Sir’, Beyoncé and Jay-Z seem to simultaneously honour the early 20th century African American tradition of giving men honorifics as first names (such as Master, King and Prince) and give him the kind of name that opens doors, even if not strictly necessary, since he stands to inherit a veritable kingdom of music royalty. Secondly, Beyoncé invites her black viewers to dream of a better life.
Call it Disney-fied, call it putting forward a fantasy that panders to Western audiences and without being tied to any specific contemporary African city or group, but in terms of what it is — a visual album, not a polemic — Black Is King raises the bar very high indeed in terms of pop storytelling. As it happens, it’s probably the most overtly political statement Disney has ever given us. ‘So, Uncle Sam, tell me this,’ demands Joshua Abah in a spoken word snippet, as six pallbearers walk through a quiet church, ‘if I will never know me, how can you?’
By Sammi Gale