‘Black is the colour of my true love’s skin. Coils and hair catching centuries of prayers, spread through a smoke. You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let black be synonymous with glory.’
Beyoncé says when the viewer of Black is King follows the camera over the ocean and then it zooms in on Beyoncé, standing by the beach in a white- pearl dress, like a mermaid who has risen from the depths of the sea or almost like Aphrodite rising from the ocean.
This is the opening of Beyoncé’s latest visual album and film Black is King. The audience does not know yet that they are in for a 90-minute extravaganza of Pan African, Afro-American inspired performance, fashion, beauty, dance and of course the immortal vocals of Beyoncé herself.
Just watching it, offers the viewer a firework of colours and beauty that has never before been produced by a mainstream company such as Disney and a world star like Beyoncé. But here we are, in the summer of 2020, Afro-American music finds its way back to the shores of Africa to explore aspects of African cultural tradition. Just the opening lines are weighed with deep meaning: ‘Catching centuries of prayers’ refers to how black skin colour has been looked at over the last centuries, but above all, how it has been looked down upon not only in the past but also within the present. Beyoncé invites her black brothers and sisters to come home to themselves, find and return to their beauty that was stolen from them hundreds of years ago, and is still, considering the latest Black Lives Matter movement, continuously being stolen from them.
The line ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s skin’ reminds the listener of Nina Simone’s (Nina Simone was an Afro American Jazz and Blues Singer in the US in the 20th century) beautiful ballad ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s hair’. This of course is one of Beyoncé’s first and many references that relates to Afro American artists and ripples throughout her new music film. With phrases like that, she not only creates bonds between Afro-American culture with Africa but also reminds the listener and viewer that the fight Beyoncé is vocalising has been going on for a very long time. Two other prominent voices whose words reappear throughout the film are Warsan Shire, a Somalia-British author who received the Brunel University African Poetry Prize and Yrsa Daley- Ward, who is a writer and model of West Indian and West African heritage.
The entire narrative, if you listen closely, and unwrap all the fashion and extravaganza, tells a story that is as old as time: Violently taken from home, the hero goes through struggles and hardship, to walk through darkness and come out of it, stronger than ever before, to return to one’s own destiny, to become part in ‘The Great Circle of Life.’
Of course, The Lion King, resonates strongly throughout the visual album, almost Shakespearean (as The Lion King is based on Hamlet), one is taken on a hero’s journey guided by the vocals of Beyoncé. Every line is enormously rich and deep, referring to the quest to find yourself, in this case, addressed to black, Afro-American and African people to find their place, to find their heritage through the narrative of The Lion King. Because one of the film’s deeper meanings is about hundreds of years of racism and how it hindered and still hinders, the individual black person, to thrive and to heal. ‘You are your own king’ means that Beyoncé universalises the image of the king and elevates and transforms it into a symbol of a black person’s reclamation of individuality and freedom.
But it is not only The Lion King that is a thread to follow but also biblical references, Beyoncé uses, and has used before within her lyrics and works as imagery in her music videos and she does so too in her new film. A clear one is the narrative of Moses. It is a well-known biblical story in which the mother of Moses puts her son into a wooden basket so he would not be slaughtered by the Egyptian Pharaoh, who ordered all Israelite children to be killed, including Moses. It was the Pharaoh’s own daughter, who found Moses washed up by the shores of the Nile and adopted him. Moses would become the prophet to free his people from the chains of slavery and guide them to their holy land. He was a king in his own right.
Beyoncé uses this powerful imagery in the beginning and towards the end of her film. By not referring directly to the story but only to the imagery of send-off and being rescued, she strips the narrative from detail and can employ it on her own people’s history and culture. It subtly underlines the hardship and struggle black people and African culture have been going through since colonialism and slavery. Instead of an Egyptian Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites, this imagery can be referred to the white European monarchies and the new- found USA in the 1800 hundreds, enslaving and building up an economic system that profited from slavery. Although slavery has been abolished, this economic system still affects and hurts black people and people of colour in the present day. One only has to look at the recent BLM movement.
The second imagery that echoes throughout the visual album is Beyoncé as saviour in forms of various incarnations. This is not a new way of how she represents herself. One of her most famous interpretations was her golden sparkling dress with the sun crown at the Grammy’s in 2017, where she impersonated an African fertility goddess which was very fitting, as at that point, she was pregnant with her twins. Another example is her infamous and iconic 2018 music video Apeshit where she impersonated Aphrodite, Nike, Holy Mary and ultimately represented herself as the Mona Lisa of the 21st century.
In Black is King, as mentioned before, Beyoncé walking and dancing by the beach deeply reminds everyone, who knows Greek Mythology, that Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility stepped out of the ocean and walked along the beach, radiating immortal beauty. In a white dress Beyoncé walks along the beach as if she were born from the ocean to bring beauty and love to the world. Another image that appears throughout the film, and here I must be strict, because it is simply true, are two very badly painted and simply quite distasteful oil paintings, which is my only criticism for this film. In those oil paintings Beyoncé is seen as Holy Mary with her children. They appear like bad copies of a Raphael- Madonna painting.
To compare oneself to goddesses and iconic holy figures and artworks of history could be seen as quite megalomaniac but Beyoncé is doing it in a beautiful and original way. Like she does on the beach in the white dress or in other astounding Haute- Couture gowns later in the film. She always makes it her own, she manages to become an immortal figure of the 21st century herself. Because who else, when you really think about singers and artists of the 21st century, as successful as Beyoncé, could impersonate and become Aphrodite, Nike or the Holy Mother Mary other than Beyoncé.
And in a way, as mentioned earlier, with Black is King she is doing exactly that. She is the heavenly guide who leads Simba and Moses through their struggles, to find themselves, and to come home. And she is not only doing that within the narrative but with the film itself. The entire film holds Pan African culture, its flag is seen in the end of the Already sequence, especially the often overlooked Afrobeats genre including artists like Wizkid and Shatta Wale. Besides, she lends her platform to other artists such as Mr Eazi, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, Busiswa, Bankulli or Salatiel. Next to the music the film incorporates African dances like Gbese, Gwara and Zanku.
Next to that stand the Afro- American artists and personalities, some of them very familiar to the canon that is the work of Beyoncé. Throughout the film there are appearances of Jay-Z, her children Blue Ivy, Rumi and Sir, Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, academy award winner Lupita Nyong’o, actor Donald Glover, supermodel Naomi Campbell, Childish Gambino and Kelly Rowland, to name only a view. To put it simply, it is a celebratory memoir for the world on the black experience.
The film is as much about music as it is about fashion. Every look, every outfit has a deeper meaning and adds so much detail to the entire narrative. For instance, there is a reference to Beyoncé’s white gown in the Apeshit music video. Towards the end of the film, during the sequence of Otherside Beyoncé wears a white, pearl-like dress, designed by Alon Livné, which refers to the statue of The winged Victory of Samothrace:
‘Livné and his team soldered a metal “shell” to create a winged shape, then draped it by hand with organza silk that was shot through with silicone to make it mouldable. The finished product has the same dramatic folds and movement as the original sculpture, only in creamy ivory silk.’ (Vogue, Farra)
Here Beyoncé creates a clever connection through her dress and the meaning of this scene. After the struggle, she and the characters of the film have come out victorious. She is the goddess Nike come to life again. The entire scene radiates power, beauty and victory:
‘The way Beyoncé dresses is always very high-end and special, especially in the last few years,” Livné says. “For her, it isn’t just about feeling sexy or looking good—it’s about the inspiration [behind the look] and the ideas, and it’s become very high-concept, which I really like.’ (Vogue, Farra)
The entire fashion of the film has been carefully chosen by Beoncé’s long time stylist Zerina Akers, the curator and founder of the Black-founded business platform ‘Black Owned Everything’. One very important fashion piece of the film are the beautiful cowries, designed by Lafalaise Dion. They are white-beige shells turned into head pieces or interwoven into dresses and are all about African heritage and spirituality:
‘I grew up in a society where we were taught to reject, to demonise African spirituality and mystical practices. Naturally, as I grew up, I felt a fear of anything that emanated from African spirituality. The gods, the practices, created in me a psychosis. However, I kept hidden in myself an unexplained admiration for the cauri. I could not explain how this so-called „diabolical shell“ could attract me as much. I watched him from a distance, I appreciated him by forbidding me to have physical contact with him. And then, a few years ago, my curiosity as a journalist pushed me to get closer to spirituality to get away from religion. As I read, researched and meditated, I discovered AFRICAN SPIRITUALITY and the power of the Cauri. I understood where my attraction for cowries came from. I learned that the history of my people was inseparable from that of the cauri … Old currency in West Africa, object of divination, communication link between men and spirits, the cauri represents wealth, power, the protection, the woman, the creation, the femininity, the sexuality … Its curved back recalls the belly of a pregnant woman. It is a symbol of fertility. The split that separates the two parts, represents the duality. The power of this shell is immense, its mysterious origin… It is said that it comes from the Maldives. It was introduced in West Africa in the 8th century as a bargaining chip by Arab traders. It was thus adopted by my people who knew how to recognize his power. With us Dan, people from the western region of Côte d’Ivoire, cowries are part of our lives, they are our protectors, the messengers of djinans (geniuses). That’s why we use them to give strength to our masks, our dancers. For our mystical rituals, to communicate with our ancestors as well as our Gods. The cowries are so powerful because they draw their strength from the sea from which they come, we use them because our ancestors asked us to do it, the cowries speak. They communicate with pure hearts. They tell us our story, but we also predict the future. My fight for centuries, we have been told our story for us. Our gods, religions, traditions, rituals have been demonised. Our fetishes carried away. At the place, we were told how and who to pray! How to dress, what to eat. Our existence has been dictated for too many centuries. Today, knowledge is within reach, we must seize it. It is time for us black Africans to reconcile with our heritage and reclaim our culture; our spirituality, our gods and embrace it. Our history, we must write it for ourselves. Therefore, I write mine, that of my people through my creations. They are an invitation to discover my story. That of a woman in search of her story, spirituality, balance; of his Gods, of happiness! I call for a reappropriation of our culture.’ (Lafalaise Dion)
The cowries appear in the sequence of Already and make a final and epitomising appearance right at the end of the My Power sequence where Beyoncé wears a complete head and face piece of cowries and a dress interwoven with cowries. It is in this penultimate sequence where evil is vanquished by the inner power of the female musicians and Beyoncé. The restoration of the rightful king and the journey of struggles and hardship comes to its end and healing with and through the cowries can ultimately begin, followed by the final sequence of Spirit.
Another black designer whose work is worn by Beyoncé in the film is Jerome Lamaar. In the Already sequence, Beyoncé wears his jewel-one-piece outfit, that is the same colour as the turquoise tribal paint of the African dancers. Jerome Lamaar also worked previously this year with Beyoncé. He worked with her on visuals for the latest Adidas x Ivy Park campaign.
One of the most beautiful and mesmerising moments within the film, and a very special moment for black women and women of colour, is the Brown Skin Girl sequence. Dressed in beautiful gowns and dresses, often with pearl necklaces and chains, an old symbol of beauty and Aphrodite and all the colours and fabrics you can imagine appear. It is a celebration of black skin and the beauty of black women at every age. The viewer sees no one less than Naomi Campbell, Kelly Rowland or Lupita Nyong’o, and three generations of Carter- women appear in one scene: Tina Knowles, Beyoné and her daughters Blue Ivy and Rumi. The song opens with Beyoncé’s words: ‘We have always been wonderful. I see us reflected in the world’s most heavenly things. Black is King. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.’
Within these lines, she subtly refers once again to a dark part of history. As mentioned earlier in the statement by Lafalaise Dion, Beyoncé’s words echo on white western culture’s demonisation on blackness, where, over hundreds of years, and still today, black skin, is being looked down upon and within the Western culture not seen as beautiful or seen as second best to white skin.
Especially with this song, the black women who appear in it and its imagery, Beyoncé wants to break up and ultimately destroy this image of the Western world and create a new and wonderful space, like the one in the film, where the black women assemble in a peaceful place and celebrate their beauty together.
The penultimate song and the big finale of the one and half hour-long film concludes with the song Spirit, which also appears in the 2019 remake of Disney’s The Lion King. This sequence is as angelic as it can be. Beyoncé glows in a white background of a church choir, dressed in gold and begins to sing: ‘Yeah, yeah, and the wind is talkin’ yeah, yeah, for the very first time. With a melody that pulls you towards it. Paintin pictures of paradise. Sayin’ rise up to the light in the sky yeah watch the light lift your heart up, burn your flame through the night!’
And the light does lift your heart up, or to be precise, these angelic vocals of Beyoncé and her choir. This final song brings together all the beauty, extravaganza, the celebration of black power, the quest for individuality, expression of freedom, healing and looking with hope into the future. The promised prince, the biblical reference, Moses, almost a Jesus- like image, is concluded when Beyoncé’s own son is being lifted inside the tribal tent by an elder and announced King.
This is followed by the final song Black parade, which Beyoncé released in the midst of the 2020 BLM movement and her final words: ‘Dedicated to my son Sir Cater and to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom.’
In Beyoncé’s 23-year long career, this was probably her most hopeful message during years that have been very dark, especially for Afro-American US citizens. With this film, Beyoncé manages to bring across a historical narrative of black people through symbolism and hidden details. At the same time, she creates beauty and hope. With every song, Beyoncé transforms into a different version of herself, creating immortal and iconic looks. She creates characters who stand for history, tradition and the present times. Within her own words she says:
‘Black Is King’ is a labour of love. It is my passion project that I have been filming, researching and editing day and night for the past year. I’ve given it my all and now it’s yours… The events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant, as people across the world embark on a historic journey. We are all in search of safety and light. Many of us want change. I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul… With this visual album, I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.’ (Beyoncé Knowles- Carter)
And a legacy Beyoncé has built. This film, its music and what it stands for propels her even further than anyone could have believed possible. Over the course of 20 years, she started out as a child of destiny, turned into a Queen who runs the world and now, she not only imitates divine women of the past, but with the work she has created within the last years, she has turned into an immortal goddess.
Thank you B, we feel your Spirit ❤ !
Black is King is available on Disney+
This is the list of resources, articles and images I have researched for this article. There are many more aspects and moments of the film I have not mentioned or only touched upon. If you go through this list, you will discover many more details of Black is King.
Süddeutsche Zeitung https://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/beyonce-black-is-king-film