Beyond African royalty

Beyoncé, 'The Lion King,' 'Coming to America,' and the complicated politics of African representation in Black American cultural production.

Still from Black Is King.

The year is 2020. The Lion King, Disney’s beloved classic—a tale about an anthropomorphized pride of royal lions—has bizarrely secured its place at the heart of a growing canon of redemptive narratives of blackness—of Africa—on screen. Beyoncé has reframed the animal tale, and turned it into a stunning visual album—Black Is King. The film premiered a month ago in the United States, and was made available on the African continent for only 24 hours on one of Africa’s most expensive satellite service providers.

The film has all the strengths and flaws of the American superstar. Like Beyoncé herself, Black Is King is at once empowering and stilting in its contradictions. Globalized Black women watching Beyoncé—wherever we happen to live—are able exercise our bodily autonomy. We are at liberty to inhabit a range of selves. Her aesthetic allows those in business suits or with weaves or long-ass acrylic nails to claim space without shame and to pay no mind to those who challenge us on grounds of “decorum.”

Yet, Black Is King sits uncomfortably. Like much of Bey’s highly curated persona, it is evident to this African woman, that I am likely not included in her imagined audience. Africa and its people are peripheral props in her version of Blackness.

In recent years, themes centering the African heritage of Black people globally have gained prominence in popular media. Yet Western media remains hegemonic and Western sensibilities continue to be privileged.  This means that even films and TV shows that purport to center Black people who are also Africans (Black Africans) are not for us. As Black American identity in particular has “gone global,” with Beyoncé as its chief ambassador, Black Africans have had to learn to make do with morsels of representation. No matter how carefully curated, and no matter how breathtakingly delivered, images of Africa continue to be deeply problematic, hewing to old, frustrating tropes.

The entwined histories of Black Americans and Black Africans are complicated. They are fraught with gnawing tensions birthed by violent estrangement. These chasms show up everywhere: in the academy, in television shows and in think pieces that have come to form part of “diaspora wars.”

These diaspora wars reveal themselves in the dissonant opinions Black Africans and Black Americans have of “African-themed” film and media produced in the West. As Black Americans seek to reclaim a lost past, Africans shift uncomfortably in their seats. Black Panther played with romanticized notions of Africa. Yet even as the cries of “Wakanda Forever” had died down in the US, Africans on the continent were debating the merits of Black fantasy. Black Is King has already inspired similar conversations.

Like Black Panther, Black Is King is fixated on themes of royalty. The titular Black Is King resounds as refrain throughout the visual album. It is apparent in how notions of severed ties and returns to the ancestral are artfully explored. Indeed, rather than creating a generic Africa, Black Is King departs from multiple points of specificity. It references religious Yoruba imagery, features the Kanaga masks, the celestial charting of the Malian Dogon, and nods to various other indigenous mythologies and cosmologies from across the continent through its fashion and narrative. (It at times is so specific to places that are far removed from one another on the continent that I wonder if a layperson on the streets of Lilongwe or Luanda might readily recognize its references without explanation. The demonization and erasure of African beliefs and knowledge systems is, after all, as much a product of colonial rule on this continent as it was of chattel slavery in the Americas.)

However noteworthy it is in its specificity, the film also makes some strange choices. In one of the most striking scenes, which closely precedes the song  “Mood 4 Eva,” the camera pans onto the grounds of an ostentatious palace as “Mbube” (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) plays.

Wimoweh…Wimoweh…Wimoweh…Wimoweh…

This scene feels familiar. The camera cuts into a bejeweled bedroom, where a sleeping Beyoncé is roused from her slumber by the sound of a violin.

This scene is familiar. It is exactly how Prince Akeem awakens in Coming To America—another beloved Black American classic. As if Mufasa’s wisdom, interspersed throughout the film in his stately, orotund voice is not enough, this moment of cinematic nostalgia punctuates the refrain: Coming to America’s Zamunda says Black Is King more emphatically than Pride Rock ever could. But one wonders why a film that seems to spoof Africans deserved such homage in one that professes to be for us all.

Released in 1988, Coming to America grossly under-complicated Africa. The film was about an “African Prince,” from a fictionalized land called Zamunda. Eddie Murphy played the lead role as Prince Akeem, and he was chaperoned by Semmi, who was played by Arsenio Hall. Prince Akeem travels to America to “sow his wild royal oats” one last time before he is married off to an African woman. He lands in New York and (obviously) goes straight to Queens to find a paramour.

Predictably, the film thrived on reductionist typecasting. It was a parody of Africa even as it pretended to pay homage to the continent as “motherland.” Throughout the film, Semmi hurls absurd insults. “You sweat from a baboon’s balls” he says at one point. Later in the film, he exclaims that something is, “hippopotamus shit.” These phrases are laughable, and not because they’re funny. In the gratuitous referencing of wild animals—as though that is the only way into Africa—it is evident that Africans are the butt of the joke.

Zamunda—like Wakanda—relies on notions of royalty, material power and dominance. Its aspirational framework raises questions. What is the fixation on royalty in our myth and truth-making? What does it mean for all the Black people who have ever lived—not as royals but as regular folk? The questions raised by these hyperbolized fictional imaginaries are not directed at Black Americans alone. They are seductive for many within African audiences on the continent as well. Still, these representations are easily shrugged off by those whose umbilical cords are buried in African soil. For those whose ancestors were stolen and sold in slavery, the appeal of royalty remains resonant.

Last year during Ghana’s Year of Return, African-American actress Lisa Raye announced her “crowning” as “Queen Mother of Ghana.” There is of course no such thing. Ghana is a modern state—the product of colonization. The Ashanti, Fanti, and other nations have various royal leaders—but the state certainly does not. Raye was seemingly unaware of this fact. Duped by enterprising Ghanaians who had sold her a fabricated Queen motherhood, Raye went on a mini media tour, flying her newly dubbed title high without a hint of irony. Ghanaians everywhere were flabbergasted.

The ideas of Africa in Coming to America and Black is King uncritically cast royal Africa as a place that can be returned-to, a place untethered to the world’s political economies. The imagined Africa that allows Lisa Raye to be Queen Mother, or lets Eddie Murphy’s Akeem have an unlimited budget, pretends that slavery and colonization did not have a structural and systemic effect on the continent and its people. The Africa to which they return is lodged in a permanent state of primordial waiting. It is an Africa that was not wounded by their departures. There is no space for mourning and loss in these renderings of Africa and there certainly aren’t any ways for African cities to be what they are—complicated and uneven and distinctly un-royal.

Must Black be king? What if Black is pauper, apprentice, farmer, radical scholar? What if Black is non-binary? What if it does not fit neatly into this gendered notion of kinghood? What if Africans are not royals, but instead are mothers in markets, grandmothers on the outskirts, children at the rugged intersections of indigeneity and modernity with neither territory nor subjects?

There are flickers of hope. Beyoncé knows that Africa is not a country, and that it lives beyond her imagination. She knows this because the scenes of urban West Africa are too vivid to be ignored. She knows this because her list of credits to African creatives is long. And yet she still insists in this latest work, on pursuing an under-interrogated preoccupation with nobility. Putting what she knows of Africans in conversation with what she wishes to express on film is an important next step. If there is a global Black person who can open up opportunities for usurping the metaphor of monarchy in order to expand the possibilities of what a worthy Blackness and Africanness is and looks like, it is Beyoncé. She has the wealth and the reach to shift debates and this is at once a burden and threat.

To be clear, I am not arguing that we will only find the sweet spot when we turn the camera lens away from what is rural and marginal. Quite the opposite. I am drawn to reframing the disregarded parts of Africa. I am interested in engaging what is down in the dirt and dignified without romanticizing poverty and suffering. This is a different kind of ideation. It is these deeply complicated liminal spaces that are worthy of examination, of visual treatment and of Beyoncé-level production. This is where most of us on this continent live.

If we look beyond the confines of royalty, we just might find one another.

Further Reading

America’s Africa

Black Panther arrives as black America diversifies, but the US becomes more isolationist. It’s not beyond many African Americans to reflect nativist tendencies.