Beyonce’s ‘Black is King’ is a Masterpiece
When Beyoncé dropped The Gift in 2019, in conjunction with the live remake of “The Lion King” she blessed our ears with a heavily afrobeats album, partnering with some of West Africa’s finest musicians, in Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage, Mr. Eazi, Burna Boy. Every song was a vibe, some were anthems and allll were ear worms. It was a musical affirmation.
Now, she circles back one year later with a visual album to go with it, in Black is King, and I am in awe. I said this about Beychella, and before then, Lemonade. And I say it now, knowing I might say it again about her next thing. Black is King is the best piece of art that Beyoncé has put forth yet.
No one piece can capture everything worth discussing about Black is King. This one is no different. I sat down to write this and was like “where do I even start? What part do I tackle?”
Is it the costumes which were so ridiculously lush and luxe that I kept yelping every time I saw a new look? Zerina Akers and her team really SNAPPED on this.
Is it the makeup which made her skin look like it ODed on vitamin C from the intense glow? WHAT WERE THESE PRODUCTS USED?!? I mean, if your face is as fierce as Bey’s, the canvas is already bomb. But CHISOS her makeup was outstanding. Shoutout to Sir John and his team on that.
What about the hair story? Bantu knots, long braids, flowing tresses. SO GORGEOUS from scene to scene.
Is it the dancing, which literally kept me unable to sit still as I watched? The movements were mesmerizing and it made me swoon, because the way Black folks tell stories with our bodies is a thing to behold.
Is it the locations, which seemed like built film sets because they seemed out of this world and not real but are actual places on God’s green Earth? The landscape sang as she twirled through it.
Is it the visuals and cinematography, which kept my eyes dancing the whole time? I spent the 90 minutes trying to drink in as much as possible. My pupils were put to work, because it was a visual masterpiece. My corneas were like “BITCH THIS IS WHAT WE CAME FOR.” Kwasi Fordjour and the team deserve awards!
Is it the collaboration of Black creatives, from stylists to dancers to visual artists? Over 1,000 people worked on this project. How do I know? I sat there and watched through the end credits, being like THESE ARE SOME BLACK ASS NAMES. This project ATE but so many people are gonna be able to EAT because of it. Whew. It’s a Black Parade indeed and I love the cooperative economics that is being modeled here.
ALL of those things and more deserve their own pieces. In fact, a book could be written about this film. If there is an anthology for it, I would like to put in dibs now. Put me in the game, coach! Fun fact: I’ve already contributed to a Beyoncé anthology. It’s called Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
So what am I talking about? I wanna talk about what touched me the most about the messaging of Black is King, and why I think I walked away from it with such deep respect of this storytelling masterpiece.
Black is King is mythical, biblical, historical. It’s futuristic and magical but rooted in the Earth. The themes of home, water and Blackness are intrinsically linked and she walks us through it in this film that is both timeless and incredibly timely.
At a moment when we are experiencing the largest state of civil unrest that the United States has seen in 60 years, this interrogation could not be more relevant.
The film begins with Beyoncé invoking the story of Moses, whose mother puts him in a basket and sets him out on water, after Pharaoh commanded that all first born sons be killed. Jochebed figured Moses had a better chance of survival in the river, than on land. It was his greatest chance to live.
It’s the story of Black mothers who send their kids out into a world, not sure whether they will return. They make the ultimate sacrifice time and time again, in a world where home offers very little protection.
This resonates as the catalyst of this latest uprising is the death of George Floyd, a man whose last words are him calling for his mother, as the knee of a racist cop took his last breath. Maybe she was ushering him into the spiritual realm, in her final act before he became an ancestor himself. As we yell “Black lives matter” in a country that is supposed to be home, we do it to affirm ourselves that our lives mean something even as they’re taken meaninglessly. What is HOME when it doesn’t offer sanctuary?
Warsan Shire, whose work is regularly quoted in Bey’s work, has a poem called “home” which is my favorite of hers.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
So what is this home we speak of? What does it look like? How do we find it?
“You can come home to yourself.”
Beyoncé says it early on in Black is King and it is what I hold on to as the story she’s telling behind the costumes and the opulence and the scenery.
How do you do that? You do it by knowing who you are and what you are connected to. You find roots that are so deep they cannot be pulled out. You go back to the earth and understand that the circle of life depends on you understanding your own role. But what happens when the circle is broken? The back drop of The Lion King is right for this, as that story is of a prince who is forced out of home, forced to leave his lineage behind and convinced that he does not deserve the crown that is his birthright. And the reason he was given was a lie, told to him by Scar, who is the real enemy.
It is not dissimilar to the story of Africans who were forced into slavery, taken across the world and told that they are three-fifths of a human when they arrived in the place that was supposed to be their new home. The journey to break skinfolks continues today and we must return home to heal. Home isn’t necessarily a place but a spirit heartening.
Black is King is a poem, a parable and a pleading.
What can help us? What can we tap into? The healing of water. But we fear it and think of the trauma it’s caused.
“Water signifies life. Water signifies purity. Water signifies hope and the ability to be reborn.”
Water also signifies the trauma of being robbed of home. At the bottom of the ocean dwells the bodies of countless Black folks who lost their lives in the transatlantic slave trade. How could this thing that is the elixir of life bring us so much death? How can it wash us anew when it’s taken so much of our breath?
That kept coming up for me, as I watched Beyoncé honor the water throughout Black is King, knowing how much water induces fear and pain in skinfolk both on the continent of Africa and here in the US. Water either took our loved ones away or killed those we loved, or scarred us on the journey through the Middle Passage. Centuries after, we still carry the scars and the DNA memories of an ocean that has punished us time and time again. We joke about “Black folks don’t swim” knowing it’s a trauma response. Whether we are descendants of enslaved people, or African born and bred, we harbor disdain for the ocean. You’ll be hard-pressed to find buildings on the coast of West Africa that face the water. They usually face inland, turning their backs on the memories of mistakes made, families lost and ancestral anguish.
To continue the tie to water, Beyoncé isn’t subtle about being draped in yellow in this film, invoking Osun, the river goddess in Ifá. It’s a continuation from Lemonade.
Osun is also the orisha of fertility, rebirth, and love. In this film, she tells us “I am the Nala, sister of Naruba, Osun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.” EH HEH, ORIKI OF LIFE. I see you! It’s like she’s asking “How do we heal from the past, without water to cleanse us?”
Beyoncé’s use of Yoruba language and symbolism from the Ifá religion was unapologetic. Throughout the film, she pulls from the tradition of Ifá, using imagery, paying homage to edge of water rituals, face adornments. Towards the end, we hear “Oluwa, so kale” (God, come down) sang as a prayer and form of worship. The demonizing of things misunderstood is part of the reasons why white supremacy has flourished. Black folks have been taught to question the place we come from and the practices we might have had. Bey, a woman of Christian faith, embracing this traditional religion openly in her art feels like a reclaiming by looking back and seeing where we might have been before Christianity became a global force. Her using Ifá imagery is a home coming, of sorts.
It’s a lot. I kept being like THE LAYERRRRSSS. Slay us! Scattah us! Peppeh us!
And Blackness. She says it’s king but it isn’t about ruling others. It’s about tapping into the royalty that we possess, given to us through all this beautiful melanin. It’s about community, deep pride for it and an obligation to take care of each other. We must affirm each other, especially when the world wants to beat us down. We must celebrate even when folks don’t want to give us permission, because our joy is a form of revolution. We must double down on dopeness during the darkest days as a form of diasporic demonstration.
“Let Black be synonymous with glory.”
Yes, this form of Blackness is through the lens of royalty and opulence. Yes, Blackness is not monolith and it is on a spectrum but why can’t we view it through the lens of extravagance as a form of resilience as the world tries to dip us in struggle rivers? The gold chains. The sequins. The diamonds. The bright colors. The lush estates. The velvets. The thrones. The extraness. It’s counter to what we are constantly fed cuz we don’t need to be defined by conflict. And this project is inspired by Lion King, which is a story of a child of royalty displaced from home. It makes sense for this film to be through those optics.
To be Black in an anti-Black world is to be an asterisk they cannot get rid of. And that is to be celebrated without apology. This film is a bridge.
Black is King shows deep reverence and appreciation for the Motherland. I watched it and was continually moved by the intentionality. She isn’t a voyeur, but instead is a student, who tries to honor the land. From the life size Ludo game floor they had in one of the scenes, to interludes in Xhosa and Zulu to shooting at National Theater in Surulere (Lagos) to the countless other references that were nods to how seriously she took this. She wasn’t wearing costumes, but paying homage. She doesn’t bring mud in the house but wipes her feet at the door and bows to the elders. It’s an adoration, elevation and a love story to the diversity of Africa, the cradle of civilization. This Naija girl whose first name has “Oluwa” in it, feels seen.
The best art welcomes debates, and asks for conversations. Often, they’re controversial. I ended up in a three hour discussion with friends about this film. On top of all that, the best art is the one that moves us. When the beat dropped on “Don’t Your Jealous Me,” I jumped out of my seat to gwara gwara with Yemi Alade. At one point during “Brown Skin Girl” tears fell from my eyes. I think it was when I saw Blue Ivy, a girl who at 8 years old, has been on the end of more vitriol than others will get in 3 lifetimes, over how she looks, as the professional Black girl that she is. Imagine us all having a song we could listen to when we were 8, telling us our skin is amazing just as it is.
And listening to the concluding “Spirit” made my heart swell. I was moved. Over and over again.
There comes a point in an artist’s life when they create work that is bigger than themselves. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter has had a career that is full of those. She’s brought unforgettable music moments to us over and over again, and keeps finding ways to top what she last did.
Black is King is a love story, an ode and a bridge to the diaspora. It is a conviction and an affirmation. It’s a query and demand. It is boisterous and humble. It is the best thing she has done professionally.
Black is King is Beyoncé’s transcendence into The Greats, beyond argument and beyond doubt. If Beyoncé decides today that she is done with music, and making art and running shit, and she won’t release anything else, she can do so knowing that she has cemented herself as one of the greatest entertainers that has ever graced this Earth. How does it feel to know that you have made your ancestors, descendants and God this proud? How does it feel to know that you have done that thing only .00005% of those who walk this land will do, which is to make sure when you leave this plane, your name will never forgotten? How must it feel to carry the weight of the crown of fulfilling your purpose, without letting the pressure crush you?
However it must feel, she is the right one to bear it, because she makes it look deceptively weightless.
I don’t know how to not fall deeper in respect for a woman who insists on showing what growth looks like every time she creates. I’m not sure how to not praise her when Bey insists on constantly conquering her own self as an artist. And I don’t want to fight the urge to salute her endlessly when she proves over and over again that she has no ceilings.
Black is King is art. It’s love. It’s joy. I’m so gahtdamb inspired. Beyoncé ọmọ (child of) Tina ati Matthew. Aya (wife of) Shawn. Mama Blue Ivy, Rumi, Sir. You’ve done well.
Black is King is a masterpiece.