Disney, Capitalism, and Beyoncé’s Black Is King

In the midst of protest and pandemic, how should we engage with Beyoncé and Disney’s Black Is King?

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Design by Shari Betty

On June 28th, 2020 Beyoncé Knowles-Carter announced the release of her visual album Black Is King to debut on Disney+ July 31st, 2020. Black Is King is an extension of The Lion King (2019) soundtrack, “The Gift”, and in collaboration with well-known artists from continental Africa. Social media has given us insight into the pressing concerns regarding this production, the most outspoken being from the continent: Does the Disney/Beyoncé collaboration exhibit features of cultural appropriation by depicting Africa through a stereotypical Americocentric lens? Will Africans on the continent have access to the visual production as Disney+ is not yet available in African countries? Although these concerns are valid and create dialogue centered on Africa, the African diaspora, culture, and accessibility, I am in awe that in the midst of global #blacklivesmatter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversations on Black Is King have not gone deeper.

For me, this production is honorable at the surface level and something interesting to view in terms of “representation matters”. However, as Black people across the globe are fighting to decolonize at all levels of society and experiencing violent repression for calling out white supremacy, neocolonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy, Black Is King will prove to be no more than an intricately put together vessel to showcase a capitalist-driven “Global Black Excellence” and further spread Disney’s dangerous worldwide cultural domination.

The Black Atlantic, Picasso, and cultural appropriation discourses

Boluwatife Akinro and Joshua Segun-Lean tackle earlier Disney/Beyoncé cultural productions in “Beyoncé and the Heart of Darkness”. They argue against the proliferation of Americocentric Wakanda/Marvel like cultural appropriation of Africa based on a U.S. centric Black perspective. The following is the most important statement in Akinro and Segun-Lean’s piece: “Disney’s hegemony in the film industry, and the profit oriented impetus behind the production, cast doubt as to whether this is really an exercise of continental empowerment.” But the importance of this statement becomes muffled within more pressing articulations of “western” Black America’s simultaneous cultural appropriation of Africa through “Afrocentric essentialism” and willful omission of continental Africa with the authors’ interrogation of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. With the article depicting Gilroy’s work as representative of Black intellectual perspectives in the U.S. and western hemisphere, it should be noted that this Black Atlantic omits not only continental Africa, but Latin America, the non-English speaking Caribbean, Central America, and the circum-Caribbean as well.

Akinro and Segun-Lean assert that through Beyoncé’s evocation of Africa with “Spirit”, she may have fallen into the “same exoticist pitfall that Picasso and his friends fell into with ‘African’ masks.” Referring to the 20th-century Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s extensive African art collection and appropriation of African cultural techniques. A Beyoncé/Picasso comparison does not acknowledge the circum-Caribbean context in which invocations of West African spirituality and culture are a part of the socio-cultural context of the past 500 years through La Regla Lucumi, Vodou, and Candomblé.

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As Beyoncé seems to be positioned as a representative of all Black people in the western hemisphere, the suggestion that “Black America’’ is within the same context as Picasso is troubling. This analogy does not take into consideration the complexities and myths within Black/African cultural appropriation discourses.

Cultural appropriation is a sensitive area for all people of African descent in the western hemisphere. To many Black people, especially those who proudly identify with and phenotypically exemplify African ancestry, the accusation is hurtful. Hurtful because appropriation is associated with power, control, commoditization of Black culture and Black bodies by European white people for centuries. Additionally, this pain comes from the trauma of chattel slavery, in which African captives and their descendants were held for generations in perpetual bondage. Nevertheless, resistance is the most integral part of Black and African asserted identity, political and cultural, throughout the western hemisphere.

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Many of us never stopped being from the continent, even as we reimagined and asserted our past, presents, and futures within the west. It is incredibly resilient that as the descendants of African captives, we are able to express pride in our heritage in the face of systemic projects to forcibly sterilize our culture through repression and forced assimilation.

Arguments claiming cultural appropriation and an essentialized Africa do not account for the multiple and intersecting waves of Black/African migration that crisscrossed between the Atlantic throughout history, particularly in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This back and forth migration of African and African descended people to the continent from places like the United States, Brazil, Cuba, and the Anglophone Caribbean made lasting impacts on culture and identity on the African continent.

The works of Nemata Blyden and J. Lorand Matory are a part of the long list of scholarship that documents this. Particularly, Matory interrogates the Black Atlantic through the exploration of Latin American and African transoceanic dialogues that were peripheral to the trade in African captives. Matory demonstrates the manner in which lifeways, traditions, and the social boundaries of Afro Brazilian Candomblé endured due to a series of translocal and transnational dialogues between Afro Brazilians and the developed Yoruba ethnicities of Anglophone Nigeria in the 18th through 20th centuries.

Additionally in our contemporary context, Africans on the continent and in the west have to contend with their consumption of Black American, Afro-Caribbean, and Black Latin American cultures, either organically or through the proliferation of western media. Afrobeat, Highlife, and Kizomba are African genres but at the same time very transnational and developed within discourses of jazz, reggae, mambo, and samba — as well as within the politics of Pan Africanism, decolonization, and Black liberation with the diaspora.

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Black America in the U.S. is not stagnant, Black American culture and identity are not stagnant. Africa is not stagnant, African continental cultures and identities are not stagnant. Instead of trying to figure out which population is culturally appropriating what from whom, we need to collectively redirect our energies to dismantling the global commodification of Black/African culture by transnational trillion-dollar corporations. And contend with why these corporations need representatives, such as Beyoncé, to do the work of producing images of a royal diasporic Africa.

Beyoncé as the Messenger

Personally, I do not think Beyoncé is an appropriate messenger in the appeal for Pan African and diasporic cultural connection. Even with a cadre of richly melanated dancers, artists, creators and actors (many from the continent) — and “BROWN SKIN GIRL" as a featured song — the mere presence of Beyoncé brings about issues of colorism that Black people within the US and across the western hemisphere have not truly contended with at the most basic levels. In terms of the African continent and other deeply melanated spaces across the Indian and Pacific oceans, problems of skin bleaching and pigmentocracies are codified into colonial (now neocolonial) structures of worth and belonging within many of these societies.

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Beyoncé’s Black Is King will do less of the work of educating about continental Africa and the African diaspora, and instead be more impactful in opening up African markets to Disney based consumerism, consumption, and white supremacist notions of worth. As colorism is the sister to racism — rooted in colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy (as well as offshoots of it) — this representation helmed by Beyoncé may reroute centuries of transnational work done over generations by Africans and the diaspora to dismantle global systems of oppression.

Although Black Is King may scare the white supremacist conservative right — documented by a U.S. politician denouncing Beyoncé as “Italian” (false, she is Black American with a light complexion) — the truth is, the production uses revolutionary Pan African radical themes through a sanitized and capitalistic lens. Beyoncé did something similar for her 2016 Super Bowl Halftime performance, where dancers donned black berets, afros, and all-black attire in commemoration of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense — but sponsored by Pepsi Corporation and for the US National Football League (NFL).

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Black Panther Party founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, Wikimedia Commons

This commemoration is honorable but contradictory to the goals of revolutionary intercommunalism as anti-oppression and anti-capitalist solidarity building amongst subjugated global communities espoused by Dr. Huey P. Newton, BPP co-founder.

The Black Panther inspired Halftime performance was also an ode to Black Radical Feminism. The cadre of female/femme dancers represented women leaders and members within the BPP like Afeni Shakur (hip hop artist Tupac Shakur’s mother), Elaine Brown, and Kathleen Cleaver. Black Radical Feminist themes are translated transnationally within Beyoncé’s work.

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San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, https://sfbayview.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Black-Panthers-Sacramento-BPP-women-singing-Free-Huey-Rally-by-Pirkle-Jones.jpg

The use of award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech on feminism in the 2014 hit “Flawless” is an example of this. Although in support of Beyoncé’s women empowerment messaging, Adichie’s initial response “her type of feminism is not mine” is in line with Black/African feminist thought and activism developed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Black/African feminist-womanist collectives such as the Combahee River Collective (U.S.) and Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD) (Africa) were developed as unapologetically anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and critical of the west.

Mama Africa dismantling white supremacy

Beyoncé may not be ready to do the revolutionary work of luminaries such as Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba, South African singer, Pan Africanist and anti-apartheid activist. True revolutionary work is costly.

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Rob MieremetNationaal Archief Grand Gala du Disque Populaire in Congrescentrum. Miriam Makeba, March 1969

Beginning her career in the 1950s as a vocalist in the South African jazz group the Manhattan Brothers, Makeba was “blacklisted” (actual implications of white supremacist cancel culture) not only for her fund-raising efforts for African liberation struggles in the late 1950s and early 1960s but her marriage to Trinidian-born Pan-Africanist Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) in 1968. In an interview in Finland in 1969, Makeba explained the importance of activism for artists, Pan-African connections, dismantling white supremacy, and decolonization, she states:

“We, as artists, should never close our eyes to what is happening around us. Therefore, coming from South Africa naturally my life was affected by my environment there… There is really no difference in the struggles between the people (of the African diaspora), because we are all Africans. We were just put in different countries by white people, who took the people from Africa and spread them out. And it is true that our problems are the same. Now, saying that they are a minority, this really means nothing because the white man — where he is — whether he is in the majority or minority, he rules. …It just proves to everyone that we just have to keep fighting — we just have to fight that much more. Because it doesn’t matter if (white people are) in the majority or the minority, (they are) always on top.”

Makeba was barred from working internationally as an artist, outside continental Africa and certain parts of Europe, for almost 20 years. These sacrifices demonstrate the role of artists who work to dismantle white supremacy and uplift Africa and the African diaspora.

#BlackLivesMatter vs. The Walt Disney Company

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Protesters demonstrate against police brutality, in Nairobi, Kenya June 8, 2020. Photo: Khalil Senosi — https://www.leftvoice.org/africa-declares-black-lives-matter

My indictment of Black Is King does not negate the importance of Black cultures in articulating local and global realities of state-sanctioned violence against the most marginalized in western-based societies — particularly addressing violence in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia. Additionally, Black Lives Matter protests in the global south, such as #lasvidasnegrasimportan and #vidasnegrasimportam, have demonstrated the scope of the 500 years of oppression and subjugation people of African descent face in the western hemisphere. Most importantly, Black Lives Matter protests in continental Africa have intersected with national and local protests against state-sanctioned violence and neocolonialism.

In good faith, the Black Is King project aims to create a platform to foment Pan African celebration, connection, and protest through art. Black cultures articulated globally bring Black people together through moments of oppression and remind us of our humanity. Black cultures remind us that our bodies belong to us — that we are more than melanin coated flesh and bone dying at the intersections of state-sanctioned violence, neocolonial violence, gender violence, and capitalistic violence.

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Disney+ is not yet officially in continental Africa, and the continent was not a part of the company’s “global” release plan. In addition to VPN access within South Africa, M-Net — a South African media company that brings many American productions to Africa and Africanize versions (“Big Brother Africa") to viewers on the continent — recently announced they will be screening Black is King across the African continent on Saturday, August 1st. Beyoncé’s Black Is King will serve as an entry point to fully open the door of Disney’s prospective cultural hegemony in Africa, whether it is by Disney or any media company that acquires rights.

I understand the importance of Black/African music and art forms to articulate pride and global connections. But my rule has always been, when capitalism catches on I stop listening and watching. Walt Disney corporation’s true stance on Black Lives Matter has been articulated through the opening up of Disney theme parks in pandemic hot spots — such as Florida — where Black lives have been placed in jeopardy as “essential workers” and face unaddressed systemic medical apartheid. So in terms of this Disney/Beyoncé collaboration, “representation” won’t save Black people on the continent or elsewhere from neocolonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

This article will be reprinted with The People’s Colony (The Leading African News on Social Media)

Written by

Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History and Course Instructor at Fordham University.

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