The queen of pop’s visual album casts a positive light on African culture at a crucial time
Eli Glasner · CBC · Posted: Aug 01, 2020
Beyoncé superfan Andre Matthew Gordon has had the fortune of seeing his queen perform in concert twice. He says she has “a stage presence that is second to none.”
Beyonce has been a big part Gordon’s life since he was younger, hearing her songs that he says made him feel invincible. As a performer he says he admires how Beyoncé refuses to be contained by any labels.
“She’s given us rock, she’s given us country, and no matter who you are she’s given us something for you to love.”
On Friday morning Beyoncé gave subscribers of Disney+ something more.
Inspired by her album Lion King: The Gift, the 95-minute Black is King is essentially a series of interconnected music videos following a young Black boy as he discovers his royal heritage.
On Instagram, Beyoncé described the visual album as a way to “celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry.” But, she added, she never imagined it would “serve a greater purpose. “
The greater purpose she’s referring to, is framing the Black experience in a positive light, during the continuing conversation about anti-Black racism.
What Black is King offers is a booster shot of pride. Shot in parts of Africa, the U.S. and Europe,it presents a stylish, inspiring view of African culture and its diaspora. Some scenes explore history, while others would be equally at home in Wakanda.
Pop culture writer and producer Kathleen Newman-Bremang is a self-avowed follower in the church of Beyoncé. Beyond her pop songs, what strikes her is Beyoncé’s evolution as an artist.
“We’ve seen her really grow into this feminist icon which is unusual for someone who is such a mainstream pop artist. She has led a lot of her work with talking about Black women’s liberation, with talking about Black motherhood [and] injecting feminist lyrics … which is unprecedented,” she says.
Part of what also set her apart is the degree to which Beyoncé controls her own media narrative. Newman-Bremang says it is “the Beyoncé way.”
At this point her career, Queen B does not sit down for interviews. Instead she sends pre-taped messages, or emails answers. Every new Instragram post is an event that comes with a flurry of analysis. Newman-Bremang says Beyoncé’s approach comes from having begun in heavily controlled girl groups. She started out in the trio Girl’s Tyme before fronting Destiny’s Child in the 1990s.
“She’s played this game a lot. I think at a certain she point realized that if she gave an interview, things would be twisted … So because of that she decided to take the narrative back.”
Newman-Bremang says what’s also marked Beyoncé’s career is her willingness to elevate other Black artists. “Beyoncé’s been doing that since [the album] Lemonade and before. She has really led the way.” She points out Beyoncé ‘s Vogue magazine cover, the first to be shot by an African-American photographer.
“She made sure that her Vogue cover was shot by a Black man. In this moment of upheaval she is a groundbreaker.”
While Black is King features fashion from major style houses such as Burberry and Valentino, it also showcases a range of Black designers including Côte d’Ivoire’s Loza Maléombho and 5:31 Jérôme from New York City.
University of Waterloo associate professor Naila Keleta-Mae studies Beyoncé as part of her explorations of race and gender. She says she’s very impressed with what Beyoncé has endured. “She’s a Black woman working in the music industry in the United States that has historically been so violent and horrific to Black artists,” she says.
Pushing the limits of pop
She says the fact that Beyoncé is so singular however, speaks volumes. “It’s a testament to her particular skill and it’s a testament to the kinds of female Blackness that the world is willing to accept.”
Ultimately Keleta-Mae says Beyoncé can only do so much.
“She’s pushing within the confines of pop music. Pop music and pop culture requires you to reinforce certain views at the same time. Pop music doesn’t ask you to radically reimagine the world, it doesn’t ask you to take down statues that are supposed to be revered.”
But for Gordon, the superfan, there is something radical about how Beyoncé’s new film reimagines the Black experience.
“What Black is King is doing, is allowing us as Black people to go back to a time in our lives when we were not less than and we didn’t feel inferior. We have beauty and we have intellect and that’s what Black is King means more than anything.”
For her part, after staying up all night to watch Queen B’s latest release, Kathleen Newman-Bremang remains in awe.
“For every derivative depiction of Africa we’ve seen through pop culture, Beyoncé gave us a stunning visual of beauty and depth to counter that.”
“Through her work I feel seen. I feel empowered. I am just so grateful for her.”