Black is King: A decolonial analysis
Ana Beatriz Almeida
4 Aug 2020, 5:07 pm
“The world is the journey, home is beyond it”
Multi-artist Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s journey with West Africa began earlier than we think. In 2013 she had already worked with the co-director of her most recent work, “Black is King” (2020), the Ghanaian Fante Kwasi Fourdjour in the work “Drunk in Love”. He is one of the figures responsible for bringing Africa and the Diaspora closer together in the cultural references present in the artist’s work over the years. He is the author of the diverse team of co-directors responsible for connecting different African cultures in a common narrative: the Ghanaians Emmanuel Adjei and Blitz Bazawule and the Nigerians Jenn Nkiru and Ibra Ake.
In elegant fashion, the duo starts the work “Black is King” introducing the viewer to different Africas: the desert with its nomadic peoples – a direct reference to tamashekis and massais; the Sudan basin (or southern Africa), characterized by savannas; and western, tropical Africa, with rivers and waterfalls, land of the Ewe, Yoruba and Fante peoples. Although it is impossible to account for all the vastness of cultures on the continent, the first images of the work bring out the message that there is not one Africa only.
The piece, narrated by rites, begins with Beyoncé’s voice in off during the first seconds of “Black is King”, and makes reference to the birth ritual of the Zulu ethnicity, something that was also done in the original 1994 film “The Lion King”. The Zulu are largely in South Africa and their traditions are part of the Afro-Brazilian culture influenced by Bantu. Humanitarian leaders Nelson Mandela and Zumbi dos Palmares, as well as visual artist Helen Sebidi, are examples of Zulu exponents relevant to modernity. In Beyoncé’s narrative, the hero Black is originally from this ethnicity and, having been born king, his birth is marked by the ritual of recognition of the ancestors. As in Candomblé, the white color appears as a reference to the ancestors, who according to Zulu logic inhabit the sea.
We can observe an intersection with the Ewe culture, present in Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. According to the Zulu and Ewe cultures, the calabash represents the feminine. For the Ewe, the sea is a symbol of the unknown and the impenetrable: they call it Hú, a supernatural force – which appears at the beginning of the initiation ritual with a calabash cut in half – represented by a turquoise blue dancer who accompanies Beyoncé in several moments throughout the piece.
After the appearance of this figure, we see a traditional Zulu palace, where again we have representations of different leaders of African peoples. Sitting in the throne, we see Black and the king, both dressed in jaguar and antelope hunting skins, which, unlike the derogatory and racist readings of this piece, do not constitute “stereotyped images” of “leopard and cheetah”, but rather, of royal costumes manufactured from animals feared by hunters, configuring a distinctive feature of the Zulu people whose identity is built from hunting.
At the end of this scene, there is an elderly woman in Sangoma clothes (Zulu medicine and oracular practice) who paints Black in white, and in the background there is an image of Beyoncé herself, resembling the Virgin Mary holding a baby. This image is recurrent throughout the work, alluding to the phenomenon of the Black Madonna and the popularity of this figure in the diaspora, such as Nossa Senhora dos Cobres and Nossa Senhora da Aparecida in Brazil. The artist also refers to the Oxum deity in scenes in which she appears wearing blue in a waterfall, a color also used to reverence the deity in Osogbo, the Nigerian city of this orisha.
The birth rite, full of multicultural references from the African continent, continues with women in single file, dressed in white carrying their calabashes close to the sea. This change is fundamental because while the daytime ritual is guided by the male figure with an incense burner, it refers to the Zulu traditions, which are patriarchal. The focus on women and their subsequent leadership in the ritual points to an alternation to matriarchy, a feature of Afro-Diasporic manifestations in the Americas. In the American continents, the cultures presented in the first moment are mixed in expressions such as Palo, Santeria, Lucumi and Ketu, Congo-Angola (Bantu) and Jeje Candomblé. The tribute to these events is accompanied by a quote at the beginning of “a journey where you can always find a place like home”. It is understood that Beyoncé defines the hero Black as a representative subject of a quest, both of African peoples and of the African Diaspora for their post-slavery identity. At this moment, both those who stayed on the African continent and those kidnapped from the continent form the subject who takes on the journey to claim his throne: Black.
The end of this ritual is marked by nightfall – a clear reference to the book “Sortir de la grande nuit” (2014), by the Cameroonian philosopher who coined the term “necropolitics”, Achille Mbembe. The nightfall is not without its references. It is marked by Dogon masks, an ethnic group that inhabits northwestern Mali, a territory that is currently at war. Well-known for their masks and ritual cycles, the Dogon believe that from time to time the world dies, followed by the rebirth of another world. This death and rebirth occur every sixty years and are marked by a ritual called Sigi, in which masks delimit the passages. According to this worldview, it is believed that the origin of the world and of human beings is in the stars. In this perspective, the masks mark the death or rebirth of a stage of existence. In a connection created by the directors of the work, between this logical system and the Zulu cosmogony (according to which people are manifestations of ancestors), a universe is designed where the masks of life and death take the place of ancestral kings. In this way, Black is the current manifestation of his ancestors, represented by the masks of life and death in the world and that accompany him throughout the narrative.
In the next scene, Black finds himself in front of a shed, where a monkey shows the way through a door. The text, which in the 1994 film version of “The Lion King” is originally said by Rafiki, is transferred to Lord Afrixana, an exponent of the original Kumasi afrobeat. In the piece he wears white, with an albino python. Both clothes and animals are characteristic of the main divinity of the Ewe people, known as Dan, also worshiped in Brazil as Bessen (in Jeje communities) or Oxumaré (in Yoruba communities). For the Ewe, the vodoun Dan is the keeper of fortune, as it connects the visible with the invisible and the world of the living with the world of the dead.
Not by chance, the performance of the song “Don’t Be Jealous” begins with the same line as Rafiki in the original version, since it is in this meeting that Simba, the lion king, connects with his father after his death. What we see is a reinterpretation of the film scene based on logics from the Gulf of the Benin region. This trend continues throughout the work, from perspectives already presented, such as the king’s funeral, which is re-enacted under the proposal of white as a guide color in reference to the world of the dead.
The next significant stop is the scene where Black follows in the back seat of a Mustang car with jaguar print – a real distinction for the Zulu. The car descends along a large road, and at the wheel of this vehicle is a Dogon mask of the world’s life and death. This scene is a reinterpretation of the original film, when Simba meets the character Timon and he guides him to embrace the future, since bad things always happen, in a dialogue that introduces an expression that became the hymn of a whole generation: Hakuna Matata. In this passage, two characters are on the side of the road watching the scene: Beyoncé, who appears in red, making reference to the principles responsible for the paths whose predominant color is red: Elegua (vodoun) or Exu (orisha); and Hu, the sea, the impenetrable and invisible.
This last character still has a special moment, which is the performance of the song “Already”, where a reference to the 1990 work of African-American artist David Hammons appears in the crowd. It is a flag of the United States in the colors of the Pan-African flag, developed by Marcus Garvey and used by most African countries.
It is not by chance that this music has a greater role for Hú, since Atlantic slavery figures as a fundamental characteristic in the constitution of communities from the African Diaspora. In this way, the sea itself, in the figure of Hú, reveals itself to be a relevant character in Black’s journey returning to the throne. In this performance, there are quotes related to ethnicities with warlike traditions such as the Maasai (southern Kenya), who appear in their traditional heels in purple suits, and the Himba (originally from Angola, now occupying the territory to the north of Namibia), adorned with red clay and their characteristic hairstyles.
This is the first appearance of the Himba in “Black is King”, and it opens the debate about the feminine in this piece. There is a reflection between the relationship of the feminine and water as a symbol of rebirth, as well as a debate about pigmentocracy that is absolutely relevant in the song “Brown Skin Girl”. Pigmentocracy, or colorism, is a trait of racism in which light-skinned black people have greater acceptance, to the detriment of dark-skinned black people. This is reflected in several humanitarian crises, for example, the skin whitening industry being the third largest in all of Nigeria, second only to products such as tea and soap, in addition to the lower incidence of murders when comparing lighter and darker people in Brazil and the US, greater institutional promotion and, obviously, greater representation in communication channels. Beyoncé refers to this last manifestation in order to produce a visual statement through the protagonism of dark-skinned celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Adut Akech, in addition to her former stage partner Kelly Rowland.
The debate on the issue of the feminine appears again only in the performance of “My Power”, when the artist briefly returns to the theme, and one of the few moments of the narrative in which a warlike notion of the feminine is present. The big problem of “Black is King”, and perhaps the only one, is not being able to get rid of the narrative in which the man is a protagonist chasing his destiny, and the feminine function realizes itself in the encounter with this man, or in the maternal function. In addition to being hetero-normative, the artist’s perspective on the subject is counterproductive in disputing the imagery on power and in promoting women in a leadership position.
Fortunately, there is still a reflection on the masculinity of black men and the impacts of this symbolic universe on the community. In this perspective, marriage appears as a reunion between Black and the river, or water, in the female figure, making it possible for him to return to the moment when he was removed from his home. This moment is symbolized by the encounter with children using beautiful adornments of colors and flowers characteristic of the Suri ethnicity of the Omo Valley, an Ethiopian region that has never been colonized or enslaved.
This ethnicity, which hasn’t been studied by many people, is the main point of research of the visual artist Thiago Consp, from São Paulo, who relates the ethics and aesthetics of the Suri with the black resistance to the dictatorship of the Queixadas, a group of workers from the Cement Factory of Perus, outskirt region of the city, that promoted one of the largest non-violent movements of the 1970s when protesting for more humane working conditions after reporting their working situation as analogous to slavery.
Based on the same train of thought, Beyoncé ends her work with significant performances. The first is the potent “My Power”: at this moment the Himba archetype is evoked in an allusion to the passage of the original work in which there is an uprising of the lionesses in order to promote the restitution of Simba’s power (a male figure?!). In this performance she brings together a squad of Americans and South Africans, gathered around war figures from the cultures of this country, including pregnant women, in order to define a symbolic irredeemable situation of war. A direct allusion to the ongoing racial revolution, of which the artist is an integral part.
Finally, in “Spirit”, her final performance, she evokes the enactment of past situations through the bodies of her dancers in the desert, performing Gamboot, a dance created in the 1970s when people from different parts of the African continent converged to South Africa, drawn by the possibility of work in the mines. Speaking different languages, one of the entertainments of this group was dance, unifying everyone in moments of leisure, something analogous to the identity process of the black cultures of the Diaspora.
This analogy works as a final statement of the main theme of the work: that the current racial crisis has a dimension that transcends death, since the current demands echo a journey started by our ancestors, which, until the present moment, has not arrived at an end.