Before I proceed, I would like to reassure the members of the Bey-hive that this is not an attack on their queen lest I be stung. Almost every project Beyonce release confirms that she is music royalty in the eyes of millions of fans, admirers, and onlookers. Black Is King is no different. A unique take on the Lion King concept, it’s a visual and musical feast to behold, featuring some of the African continent’s biggest stars. However, like many works of art, it was not without critics, and ironically, many of its critics came from the continent Beyonce was paying homage, Africa. The criticism? Misrepresentation.
The issue of representation in film and music shall continue to be a thorny one because representation or misrepresentation begets authenticity or inauthenticity. Without authenticity, an audience, especially one whose culture is being depicted cannot connect with a work of art. I for one couldn’t connect with Black Is King. Although it was aesthetically pleasing, it failed to strike a chord with me. It seemed to continue the tradition of highlighting Africa as homogenous. I felt a hint of disappointment because I expected a better representation of Africa but then I remembered a statement made by a colleague in one of our numerous heated discussions. “Why do Africans need to be validated by international platforms,” he asked. I didn’t think much of it then but over the past few weeks, I have been ruminating over it. “Validation” may not be a word that I would use but most of Africa does indeed look to Western creative industries as cultural leaders. However, in looking outside ourselves for cultural leadership, we could be perpetuating a problem that has plagued us for years.
In a previous article, I wrote that the portrayal of Africa has improved somewhat over the last decade but still has some way to go. While the continent has historically been depicted by Western media as a backward backwater, in more recent times it has been seen as a utopia. However, both the former and latter perceptions over-emphasise an exoticism which is oftentimes not grounded in reality. The cultural diversity or heterogeneity and day to day realities of each country on this continent are now becoming sacrificed at the altar of black excellence. It seems quite paradoxical but stay with me. Black excellence is a response to the historical subjugation of black people. At its forefront are Black Americans who are assuming cultural leadership more and more with each passing generation. Their Africa represents their aspirations, is an affirmation of their worth as black people, and is in sharp contrast to their reality where racial discrimination is the norm hence Wakanda and Zamunda (both fictional African countries in Black Panther and Coming to America respectively). But as stated in an article entitled, Beyonce and the Heart of Darkness published in Africa Is A Country by Boluwatife Akinro, “The authority of seeing and declaring the value that Africa has is a privilege that those outside the continent still claim for themselves…” There is some warranted pride that accompanies earning recognition in countries that are an ocean away but most of these images, are not created with an African audience in mind. The answer to one Twitter user who asked if we can now call Beyonce, Mama Africa is an emphatic no. In looking to Western nations for cultural leadership, we are also doing a disservice to African creatives and ultimately the African creative industries.
The aforementioned discussion that my colleague and I had was about ShaSha, a Zimbabwean amapiano songstress, currently based in South Africa who struck musical gold and won the BET People’s Choice Award this year. I, like many of my fellow countrymen and women, was euphoric about the win. Let the world see that Zimbabweans can shine too! There were a few colleagues and friends who were unimpressed by the hype as they wondered if she would have gained such renown if she had stayed in her own country. The truth is most probably not. The standard is that it is harder to make it in Zimbabwe than outside Zimbabwe is not unique to the music industry. The film, Cook Off became so widely celebrated in Zimbabwe only after gaining a spot on the international streaming platform, Netflix. Many Zimbabweans did not know ShaSha nor Cook Off prior to these achievements. Why do most Zimbabwean audiences appreciate success abroad more than they appreciate success at home? Don’t get me wrong, this recognition is indeed worth celebrating but it sometimes perpetuates the notion that African creativity has value when it is supported by an external source or “validated’” by an external platform.
What we need to understand is that we are endowed with a value that is not determined by the perception of others. It is innate. This value is enough to make us worthy of being cultural leaders in our own right. In the age of globalization and digitalization, more Africans are coming to this realization. The criticism of Black Is King is an indication of a desire to see our authentic selves but we must be willing to depict it for ourselves. More African creatives and entertainers can and are starting to carry the mantle of cultural leadership and producing work that resonates with African audiences.