Can Black be King when only one version of Black must rule? Beyoncé says no, and to that I say yes!
And yet, some still tell her “no.” Along with the advent of Black Is King, an homage to our humanity’s homeland, come many critiques. Art is supposed to spark discourse — proof that it’s good for the mind and always good for marketing. Still, some criticisms only result in crystallizing historical distance between ideas and people, freezing them cold. Many social curators and critics, such as Afro-centrist, Judicaelle Irakoze, and self-proclaimed good troublemaker, Luuvie, have picked and thrown their bones at Beyoncé’s latest along with other volunteered analysis. I write today with a heart full of pride and questions. I’m puzzled by this almost reflexive reaction some people have to Black Americans’ venture near African Blackness. But first, I’mma gush though.
Bigger! Bigger than Beyoncé? Bigger than Disney’s vault of treasures — from the magpie racism of Dumbo to magnificent Maleficent? Yes, the connection to our Motherland is overarching — bridge-crossing, bridge-building! You watch those closing credits, West and South African beats abound, and you have to get up and move. You just feel bigger. I haven’t sat back this full from a musically laced meal since the late 90s. Beyoncé’s Black Is King was like a tuning fork’s vibration, rolling over us, and leaving us shaking. #Shooketh is still populating conversations from Twitter to those quick chats before that too-early Zoom meeting steals the caffeine in your coffee. I can hear it now: “Bay-beeee, she did it again!” “Oh, she did that!” I can see it. Not since Got Til’ It’s Gone have I seen a pop goddess deconstruct herself into confident, complex, unseen beauty, and center Blackness — her Blackness — African Blackness.
The magic of Black Is King isn’t bound to its depiction of us in high-def, folkloric fantasy. Its sparkle comes from its bold revelation: the unifying reality of our breadth and depth. It pulls from the spirits of histories that build in our bones and push us through the present. You feel a little lighter just knowing Black people, black women — girlfriends, siblings, and sorors alike — are walking a little taller, chin up a little higher. Mothers and fathers seeing their children with a twinkle of joy in their eyes; a brief exhale from visions of rejection and paralyzing police stops that weigh on our dreams. What a joy to slide down the hallway to the beat of “My Power”, feeling more unstoppable with every step. Black folks of all walks felt a needed healing. It’s the reprieve we needed, with months of America’s commitment to fueling a pandemic and a racist police state reminding us just how much we matter. In a world where Black equals all things wrong, Black Is King made it all right. Even if just for 86 minutes (an extra minute to fall out), it was more unfiltered minutes of right than many of our hearts get to feel. The cherry on top is the pride that washes over us when Black hands secure the bag. We know Mickey put down a heavy coin when he closed that deal with Bey, and she promptly placed it in Blue Ivy’s generational wealth and a few charities. “Win. Win-Win-Win,” is the soundtrack to her shoes.
Black culture has always made life bigger, industries bigger; and Beyoncé champions that tradition. Black American culture has always been monetized on a global level; always “for purchase but our people rarely appreciated,” cultural photographer, Gary Mobley, once said. With Bey, that’s changed on a scale we have not seen before. Just look at “Beychella”. As the first Black woman to headline one of America’s most famous festivals, owned by one of America’s most conservative businessmen, she fashioned her ferociously loyal fans into family of frats and sororities. She used her star power to spotlight the HBCU experience; a showering of “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud” and an unapologetic sprinkle of “Hate Me Cuz You Ain’t Me”. If Beyoncé is nothing else, she is audaciously in love with her Blackness. And she defines it. Since her self-titled album, Bey has laid the soundtrack to her cultural DNA. “The profundity of Southern Blackness” (her words in accepting the R&B Album of the Year Grammy for Lemonade) is her thread, and with each musical move its thunderous, ancestral power gets louder and louder. That infamous L’Oreal commercial is a memory of a memory. Her business model has always shined even brighter than her artistic intention. But Black Is King is different. It leads with art and risk. Bigger.
But amidst all this celebration, kiki’ing, repeat binging, living room dance numbers, and volunteered amateur analysis (like this one), some choose to stop the music for the mic. In July’s FLARE, Judicaelle Irakoze says “People think of Africa as one country … But Africa is 54 countries and different ethnic groups, and these different ethnic groups have their own story [and] have their own ways of living. So Beyoncé talking of a whole continent as this one big family group, it doesn’t make sense.” Beyoncé said what and in the who? In the immortalized words of Porsha Williams and two-thirds of the Real Housewives of Atlanta cast:
I can’t recall Beyoncé pulling out a map during her dance break to reinforce geopolitical mistruths — Ya’ll catch that? Maybe I was too entranced by Bey’s Bantu knots and sequins to notice the injustice.
Irakoze, like other critics, is handing Bey a weight that the superstar can’t conjure or carry. Ifeanyi Nsofor, Nigeria Health Watch’s advocacy and policy director, voiced a wish for more nations’ cultures to be featured. I politely wonder if there was a magic number. Complaints rang with angst over perceived broken promises never made. Somehow, Bey is responsible for an ignorance of Africa that is rooted in colonialism’s Eurocentric, anti-Black propaganda. White colonialism laid torches to every corner of African dignity, ingenuity, and diversity; and it ruthlessly tears at the beauty of all three. Irakoze’s truth is indeed a truth, but it’s not the truth of Black Is King, its African contributors, or Beyoncé . Irakoze’s forced application of misplaced concern is not new. This conveniently silent contract must be called out along with its contribution to an old wound. Intended or not, these criticisms feed into standing stereotypes of Black Americans failing the Motherland. We’re the rudderless cousins with no core cultural connection. Beyoncé may be unmatched in pop power, but she’s still a Black American woman. Prejudiced perceptions of Black Americans as ignorant of Africa, or worse, not worthy of it, is a chink in the armor. It’s the Achilles heel for even the most reliable soldiers for liberating Black art. Beyoncé’s truth is to amplify and uplift her connection to her heritage, not blur it. Like the Black Southern colloquialisms she sprinkles across her songs, reclaiming our power shapes the identity of many Black Americans. Reach back and lift up. This is our story, a tusslin’ one. We’re called to find our way back. The problem is, when Black Americans answer the call, others feel obligated to call us out — and even put us out.
Learning who we are is like walking the base of a tree. You look up at the light through the leaves but watch your steps between the exposed roots. Sometimes the leaves and branches cover you, and sometimes the light breaks through and hits you in the eyes. You might just trip around that spanning trunk. As African peoples, we circle the same tree. No leaf is the same, and every branch has a different curve, twist and turn. That tree holds up every branch the same.
Black Is King fills my heart with pride, but its inspiration of critiques resurrects important questions from my gut. These questions have sat with me since my adolescence. Why is Beyoncé’s latest effort under such scrutiny? Why transfer the responsibility of colonial terrorism to your fellow survivor, your kinfolk? Maybe you simply don’t see them as your kinfolk — bad cousins at best? There are many understandable reasons for this silent thinking that speaks so loudly on public stages. All are worth exploration. But today, I am exploring what it takes to water our family Baobab tree in moments like Black Is King, instead of snipping at its branches.
#Throwback with me: weekend mornings between eight and twelve noon, when Saturday morning cartoons, D.A.R.E. ads and sipping on cereal milk where still a thing. (To be clear, cereal milk will always be a thing, Ninja Turtles or nah.) Networks would intersperse bits of affirmation and “edutainment” during commercial breaks. One morning, I saw a spot that showed various children dawning their cultural threads, from Japanese kimonos to German lederhosen to Swedish clogs and Mexican huipiles — and then the Black kid. He wore a backwards cap and danced to a Hip Hop beat someone who wasn’t Black must have made — very Kids, Incorporated. At that moment, it was cemented for me how surface and oversimplified the mainstream kept our “Black culture.” Even then I knew there was more to us, our tree, I also knew my branch on that tree was getting sawed off by that commercial. Heavy stuff on a Saturday, but like Lena Horne once said, “it’s not the load but how you carry it.” Being Black is something to carry on any day, and we need support and love to carry it well.
This idea of Black Americans as culture-less, or even worse, simply “party time people” is no mistake. It’s an old song many are fated to sing for a chance at supper. This dedication to Black Americans as rudderless and wayward is an everyday trope that plays out on school busses, cafeteria benches, Black student associations and employee resource groups alike. The critique of African-Americans or “Black Americans” or “Just Black” people not knowing where they are from is loaded with too much baggage to unpack on a Saturday morning. In fact, it’s a requirement in diluting our value as cultural curators and human beings. Dare I say, it’s required learning for anyone who lands on these stolen shores.
From this point on, I am going to use the term “Black Folx” to describe the intertwined children of the Middle Passage and their interwoven cultural experiences. These survivors and innovators were born of forced fusion. Peoples of Yoruba, Ibo, Bassa, Fula, Berber, Maka and more had to unite across lines of tradition, kingdoms, and pride to survive the ripping trauma and global savagery of American Slavery. We survived the thieving ships. We survived the terrorism while enslaved and endure it still while “free.” Black Folx are we. A mix of many family lines, we are the literal creole of the Motherland. The bubbling blood of Ibo, Yoruba, Ashanti, and Bantu, fashioned together on North American soil, would never again separate; made home and harnessed in the minds and bodies of their children — Black Folx — enslaved and free. “Black Folx” includes any Black person who wants to celebrate our collective family, but the acknowledgement of Black Americans’ undeniable role as stewards and creators of culture is a requirement to come to this cookout. And that shouldn’t be a tough pill to swallow. We should all continue to learn the hidden history of Black Folx, our cultural origins, contributions, and originality. Our ancestral coasts run the rivers banks of the Savannah to modern Senegal. The gardens we grew from Texas to Tulsa, from New Orleans to Nantucket, flowered with the American and world cultures we know today. The roots reach deep enough to cross an ocean and the branches reach higher with light. Our stalks stood tall and strong as our ancestors marched for laws and rights that made it legal for family like Irakoze to make her case for the colonizer crimes of Carter-Knowles.
I don’t mock Irakoze’s criticisms or other African critics who seemed to want Beyoncé to bring in more perspectives and regions of the Continent. When it’s been so quiet, much is wanted from the one who steps to the mic. I empathize with the wish to say more of Africa, to do more for Africa and how we see our origin lands. We can’t ignore the beat-up bags of anti-Blackness and internalized oppression so many African sisters and brothers — American African and immigrated — face in a world that demands allegiance to white supremacy. We swipe at each other with daggers that jab at Blackness that unifies and diversifies us. Too often these shivs are wielded by hands of all colors and nations, “African-American” ones included. We are taught to divide, not delve into our common roots and waters. We should never invalidate each other’s lived experience. That includes Black Folx culture and its advocacy for Black people and we can’t keep chopping at shoulders we all stand on. I remember being 13 years old and wishing I “had a flag” like my new West Indian and African friends. I wanted to have a nation to belong to. Even as a young one of Gullah descent, percolating with South Carolinian Sea Island blood, even knowing my elders’ culture is renowned as a preserved channel to Ibo and Yoruba traditions, I believed my West Indians friends. No culture here. I believed the louder lie we are all told that America is not ours, and certainly does not belong to the likes of me. “You don’t have a culture,” would punctuate even the most familial conversations — conversations ironically over top 20 hits and TV shows directly siphoned from Black American experiences, from Martin to A Different World. We get division training over diversity training — cringy caveats to jockey for value. “You don’t know who you are.” Ring shouts are native to West Africa, but the gospel, jazz and pop music they birthed are U.S. born. This is Black Folx.
The same brush that paints Africa as an onyx blob of flies, Feed the Children TV spots, and The Lion King, slathers Black Folx in undue shame and stereotypes of ignorance. The painter has no interest in the big picture.
This disconnect is bigger than Black Is King op-eds. These reflexive critiques gather their power from source as nebulous as it is dubious: “selective Blackness” aka anti-Blackness. Critique and correction are not acts of anti-Blackness, but the dedication to erroneous assumptions about Beyoncé ’s intent and impact on The Culture are anti-Black Folx. The perception is that Black Folx are at best confused, when in contact with African cultures. It’s an impossibility that Beyoncé, Black Americans or Black Is King’s umpteen African consultants were consciously and conspiratorially misrepresenting Africa or excluding voices with disdain. Beyoncé’s work is representative of not just that quest home, but a place at home; one that includes space to love our ancestors, our blood. Beyoncé has been laying a path back home for the last seven years of her career.
She claims our home — that baobab tree we planted on these shores. Many have already written about the power of Lemonade and the juicy bite of the Self-titled before it. While the self-titled album led us through Houston-bred black joy, surfboards and afterparty anthems, Lemonade poured down self-realization. It locked in step with low country rhythms. Songs marched us to Igbo Landing with moss-laden tunes with tones brighter than Oshun yellow and that hit like Buck Leonard’s bat. Bey’s musical story is the continuous stroll home. With Black Is King, her last few efforts are revealed as a prelude to Black Is King’s crowning affirmation of African roots and realities that dig deep. This network of roots allows us to grow so tall despite the harshest storm or the longest drought. Bey has always walked a path lit by the torches of Black artists before her, but with the multifaceted Black Is King, she’s using that light to burn new paths.
But our walk along the roots must be approved by everyone but us. Black Folx, from Bey to the new black kid in Boston’s suburban schools, are ripe for scrutiny; reeled into interrogation from their Diaspora family members. “I actually have a culture,” my Cape Verdean summer crush exclaimed with laughter, before turning back around to turn up the latest jam from L.L. Cool J on JAM’N. After the fresh wave of “WTF?!” swept over me, I sat perplexed. It was in that hunched moment in the backseat of that Camry that it clicked. (Yes, I had to sit in the backseat, but that’s another story.) I switched on. I do have a culture. I am the son of enslaved survivors, Gullah storytellers, Georgia clay-clad music makers, genius innovators and sweat-drenched marchers for freedom. I admired how my crush proudly embraced her Senegalese and crioulo roots above most Eurocentric ideals. Still, she had been taught to push my head under while cooling in the pool of Black Folx’s tears, sweat and nectar. From rapping bars by Arrested Development to the right to attending resourced schools to living into hard-fought human rights that replaced her neighborhood’s redlines with picket fences, the minds and movement of Black Folx held up every step she took, right along with mine.
Are we to question every person who does not define as “Black Folx”, who participates in the inescapable reaches of “Black American” culture? Is Blackness in America only defined by the mainland-born, when Jean-Baptist-Point Du Sable settled the city that would hold up our nation’s first Black U.S. President? Are we to take it upon ourselves to divide and discern who deserves to benefit from the innovations and freedoms of the Black human rights struggle, primarily made global by “just Black” people, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin? Are we clocking every person who makes sure to let the room know they are “not just Black”, but West Indian, “not just Black” but Nigerian? No — and that is the point of Black Is King. We are one family; we are the tree. We each other up, not define each other down into one-dimensional worth like wood nymphs for Willie Lynch. Can Africans — born stateside and otherwise — attend black-founded HBCUs and twirl batons at Beychella? (Duh! See Diddi Emah, she’s dope and she gets it!)
Yes, we are one family, one tree. We all trace each other’s branches, from Jazz riffs to Jollof rice. We find our way home together, and Black Folx will not be forced to walk alone on the shoulder when we stand on those of our elders. We’ve laid too many bricks on that road and helped grow this tree. So, don’t jealous me.
When I read Irakoze accuse Beyoncé of muddying African cultures, I can hear the recorded lectures depicting Black Folx as the lost ones. And, unfortunately, I can hear it in her misplaced concern about Black Is King. These false narratives dismiss historical facts and rely on coded falsehoods seasoned in supremacy’s promise of heirarchy. We are all spoon-fed these ideological tropes together to keep us apart. In order to believe Beyoncé would misinform the world on African cultures, one has to believe (1) we are so incapable of learning, so contaminated with ignorance beyond repair that we’re dangerous to our own Diaspora; and that (2) we cannot navigate culture because we, Black Folx, are cultureless. We are backwards hats and the latest dance move. We’re physical, never intellectual. Here, Irakoze’s commitment to Beyoncé as harming our heritages jabs at the very Black resilience that demands our inherent dignity. It’s the fuel that has powered us through trials since our first chained steps on these shores in 1619.
Irakoze’s reasoning and critiques like it skip past context to accusation. Irakoze says “Africa is 54 countries…Beyoncé talking of a whole continent as this one big family group, it doesn’t make sense.” This is already incorrect. Her commitment to Bey being wrong runs past the fact that Beyoncé, never did that. It also misses the message: We are King. Simply put “we rule!” It also ignores the involvement of many proud Cameroonian, Ghanaian and South Africans who proudly speak and sing in their tongues, representing their African experiences, distinct and beautiful. Irakoze continues, “In The Gift, Beyoncé worked with artists from South Africa and then carried it on and called it a gift to the African continent,” Irakoze says. “Which was wrong.” The Gift has songs with Cameroonian artist Salatiel and Shatta Wale of Ghana, however it featured predominantly South African and Nigerian artists. Her critiques seem highly selective. Black Is King was about positive, Black-affirming ideologies for the community, not an itemization of cultures for general education. These points feel shrinking, more focused on gripes than growth of understanding. Why wouldn’t celebrating parts of African identity be considered a celebration of Africa’s collective greatness? No hierarchy was being made except in the heads of the critics. Sometimes we have to remove the noise in our own heads, the clouded gaze from our eyes — no matter who placed it there.
Many of the ethnic and tribal groups of modern African nations defined themselves by their cultural heritages of Ibo, Yoruba, and Ashanti, way before “African” was even an adjective. I’d invite all of us to look at white supremacy’s power in naming this world. Reportedly, centuries ago, Romans looked across the Mediterranean and called the view “Afri-terra”. They decided that vast land, origin of life and civilization, was theirs to name. That Euro-centered privilege of naming persists today, no matter how brilliant African peoples shine. So when we say Black Is King is not “authentically African”, exactly who are we questioning? Especially, when the lingual root of “African” is not “authentically African” without the European gaze. How beneficial is it to us to cast that selective sight on other brothers and sisters? What elusive standard is ghosting around these statements?
The gifting of ignorance onto Beyoncé is indicative of how branches of our family tree get nipped by others. This purist-style pruning is coated in division, one based in misinformation at best and entangled with modernist Willie Lynch theory at worst. At the very least, hard rules around culture is counter to the nature of a highly-complex geopolitical world. It’s counter the diverse mix of cultures that birthed American Black Folx like Beyoncé . Therefore, cultural control appears futile, and some definitions of appropriation feel foreign. Stumbles, like misplaced Kente cloth or tribal designs that miss the mark at Afropunk, are not on par with the colonizing destruction that dismantles and destroys our connection to identity. Honestly, this is Beyoncé, not Birth of A Nation. Let’s not equate her effort’s inevitable failure to include of all aspects and peoples of Africa to one’s liking with a cultural plague on our people. To conflate the horrific acts of colonialism with Black Americans’ aim to discover their roots does not water the tree. Family can correct without shaming, gaslighting or isolating. Otherwise, growth is lost. No sun, just shade.
Black Is King is in the very Black American tradition of fighting for Black Pride in our African roots, even when that means fighting ourselves. A voice in the film beautifully relays a truth so many Black Folx know, and some even use against us:
“When it’s all said and done, I don’t even know my own native tongue. And if I can’t speak myself, I can’t think myself. And if I can’t think myself, I can’t be myself, I can’t know me.”
Here, the art speaks to Black people’s daily march for the blood ties slavery took away. We rally daily against the racist propaganda made policy. Still we speak truth to power and challenge any stalemate in our war for self: “So Uncle Sam, tell me this, if I will never know me, how can you?” This was purposely and perfectly placed to speak to Black Folx quest for self, while showing others it’s not our quest alone.
Many of the Pan African freedom movements were answering this call home, from teaching pro-Black history to investing in liberation funds for African nations. These battle cries sounded from Africa’s children in the West, notably starting with Jamaican leader, Marcus Garvey. It carried through the generations to others like Black American civic leader, Lillian Miles, and freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hammer. So many of Africa’s Western children answered a call to find our way to global Black liberation, even when the map was snatched. Still, there is always a map. Not the one that makes Greenland bigger than the Continent. It’s not even the map highlighting Africa’s fifty-four countries, drawn by Europeans in our ancestors’ blood. It is a spiritual one, and it guides with the right intention.
Black Is King is steeped in beats of affirmation of our inner Black queens, kings, kweens, and non-binary beings — the kind of royal worth you get from knowing your truth, not deploying troops. Yet the record scratches again: “No,” says Irakoze, “not every Black person was a king, not every Black person had the potential to be a king…some ethnic groups are still living with generational pain and trauma that their ancestors endured during these monarchical times. My grandfather was a slave in the kingdom before colonialism … so what is Black Is King?” It’s Love. Irakoze points are not hollow, but are they correctly applied here? Beyoncé’s placement in Black Is King is not as a guest but as an advocate, shaking the leaves and running the roots at the base of our baobab tree. She’s recognizing the royalty that replaces self-hate with self-love, not where captivity replaces freedom. Irakoze’s truths matter, but it deserves its rightful context, not associations with blame. Racist myths and incomplete tales are made reality when it comes to the Motherland. They have defined who we are around the world, especially in the United States. We must remember these fables will never be as wise as Akan stories of Anansi or as real as the words of our African families’ lived experiences.
In recognizing our shared ancestral wisdom, from leaf tip to tough roots, the realization comes down like rain: We are all in this together. Bigger than my appreciation for Beyoncé or her latest work, is the passion harmony. I want a harmony in and between our bodies and minds that only love of self can bring. I believe I share this passionate song with Irakoze, critics, fans and stans alike. When we divide on any side, especially from our higher horses, we lower the bonds that link us. Black Is King is about standing against winds that only blow to push you down. Just like critiques should honor the context of the works they analyze, we only honor Africa’s complexity through continuous, committed learning. That grows us all. The just Black guy in me can’t help but question how elevating mystic visuals from our cultures detracts from the work of doing better by Africa. Lift our lives up to the light and we can finally see the work that must be done; but I’m not sure that was even Black King’s only aim, if at all. All our hands are needed to lift up African Blackness. Beyoncé’s Black Is King is no different. With the backing of Beyoncé, new voices will get more shine as we lift The Culture higher.
Thought leader, Luuvie, models an encouraging appreciation for when Black Americans use their platform to wrap their microphone in the rich tapestries of Africa. Luuvie’s thoughtful love letter to Black Is King shows us how to receive each other’s Blackness with curiosity and compassion. She says of Beyoncé’s offering: “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.” Agree, and I’ll give you one more: We are already in the house. We all are. We don’t bring more mud in the house, certainly not the mud of skin bleaching, and white adjacency that creeps into the floors and roofing. Bad cousins we are not. Loud, but not bad. Our roots that travel back home from the West will always keep Big Mama’s door open. We are in the house. Ring shouts and mbira tones blossomed into the gospel’s emoting tones and the revolution of Jazz. We created the modern pop, inventions and progressive policies that fuel all claims to America’s Soul.
It is no mistake that a Mississippi church choir’s march down the aisle moves with the Bomba sway of the Paseo and the rock of the Piquetes. We’re bound by how we move now and next.
We are branches of the tree that houses the gifts, the gems, the pain, and the life that doesn’t know an end. We must celebrate that. That means celebrating our birthright to return home to the shores of the Continent and to the core of ourselves. We must hold each other’s hearts close, not just with platitudes but in the struggles for our collective humanity. We must educate and share safely with each other, removing the white gaze that takes our eyes and clips our words. We will cast out the caste, whether it landed in our hands from America’s greatest shame or from classmates who think they decide what your Black must be. In this safe heart space, Kamala is as Black as Shirley Chisolm, and Anika Noni Rose is sister to Carmen DeLavallade and Barbara Jordan. Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant book, Caste, calls light to a darkness we should avoid:
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power — which groups have it and which do not.”
This is about power — power together. We can ditch the passive usher and take our own seats. We’ve always created our own spaces. When Black Is King, we are free from false pedestals and “pick me” praise. We are not perfect. We are great. We are not itemized. We are iconic. I can feel the praise break now. Whoa, Spirit! Fill us up and take us way up high. The only thing taller than our great tree is the sky.