Black Is King | Why we failed Beyoncé

By Isabella Wimmer

In a world where social inequalities and asymmetrical power structures come to the forefront of our awareness as a society, Beyoncé chooses the right moment for the release of her new album Black Is King.

The visual album, a concept pioneered by Beyoncé in her 2013 self-titled surprise album, was released on Disney Plus late in July. While it was received with high critical acclaim by her peers (singers Lizzo and Adele hosted viewing parties) and viewers (rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes), in my opinion, the visual album underperformed. 

Critics and fans predicted the visual album to be a big hit

In the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and its ongoing education about solidarity so prevalent in media, it is surprising to see this album being knocked from the Number One spot on the World Music charts by Taylor Swift’s folklore after just one week. Even though the timing was not calculated on Beyoncé’s part, as she had been working on this project for the past two years, it could not have been more contemporary.

In addition to this, The Lion King: The Gift is an accompanying album and retelling of the 2019 remake of the Lion King movie, for which she lent her voice to the character of Nala. The movie was an unsurprisingly huge box-office success, with a world premiere held in London and attended by royalty (i.e. Beyoncé and the Windsors).

However, the success of the movie was an unfortunate event for Beyoncé’s non-promotional album drop strategy. It ended up overshadowing ‘The Gift’ completely. In the previous year, since the album’s release without its visual component, ‘The Gift’ debuted at number 3 on the Billboard Album Chart, an all-time low for Beyoncé.

Partial to the blame is Disney. They only promoted the original soundtrack ‘Spirit’, for which a picturesque music video was shot. ‘Spirit’ ended up earning Beyoncé a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Solo Performance, as well as Best Pop Vocal Album for ‘the Gift’. 

However, in the world of Beyoncé, who is a 23-time Grammy winner, not winning raises some red flags. 

Was the album simply not good enough? 

As a very proud and passionate member of the Beyhive myself, I argue that the album was too good for the common consumer. Most people listen to music at random and without much thought to the cultural implications of the piece. Frustratingly, the more politically polarising and social commentary-rich her art becomes, the less commercially successful. 

In this case, Black Is King comes with a message that serves as a reminder to Black people all over the world; their heritage has always been rich and regal before colonizers tried so hard to undermine and replace it. Beyoncé calls out the bullshit and gives birth to a work of art that celebrates a plethora of African heritages in all its diversity and beauty.

In its entirety, Beyoncé manages to bridge the gap between music, film, and poetry

The visual aspects of the album are an overwhelmingly modern reinterpretation of Simba’s story, following a young Black boys journey to self-fulfilment. At first, we see him being born with a Bigger destiny, which he will, later on, have to ‘Find [his] Way Back’ to. When he is led astray from his destiny and metaphorically dethroned during the visuals of ‘Don’t Jealous Me’, he also loses his spiritual connections to his ancestry as portrayed in ‘Nile’.

This loss initiates a phase of trance, in which he dreams of a world where Black is King is the starting position of the world, as mirrored in the self-empowering ‘Mood 4 Eva’. Simba comes to realise, though, that this dream is only a farce his oppressors want him to believe to stay complacent, as sung in ‘Ja Ara E’.  

Unsurprisingly, the wakeup call Simba needs is delivered by the role of women in his life. It is them who rebirth him in ‘Water’, which serves as a symbol for the strength of a united people drinking from the same source. Following this, Simba gets married to his ‘Brown Skin Girl’ and starts a family of his own, since they are the ‘Key to the Kingdom’. 

At this moment in the story, Beyonce reappears as the spiritual guide on the ‘Otherside’. Metaphorically speaking, this is where Simba reconnects with his spiritual ancestry and starts to believe in ‘[His] Power’ as King.

The visual and musical denouement of the plot is underscored with Beyoncé praising the ancestors in an acapella version of ‘Spirit’. Finally, ’Black Paradeis the anthem for the ‘Black is King’ message that graces the credits, including a variety of African artists, producers, dancers and designers. 

Combined with the BLM movement of 2020, Beyoncé has created a powerful momentum. However, it seems as though neither Black is King nor The Lion King: The Gift have seeped through to mainstream culture, due to the lack of representation on radio and streaming platforms for music and TV. 

Why don’t people believe the hype that is Beyoncé?

It seems as though people either criticise her for always combining her music with visuals, arguing that music needs to be heard and not seen, or people try to call her out for capitalising on African culture and homogenising Africanness.

Her latest releases are the least sold and include artists from different countries in Africa, promoting the cultural richness of a diverse continent that has suffered common atrocities under Western interference. The ultimate reason Beyoncé is well worth the hype is that she strives for cultural resets, instead of commercial success within her art.

Either way, people find a way to delegitimise Beyoncé’s intent to create a world in which her son can grow to his full potential. What critics of Beyoncé forget is that in staying away from the hype, they are missing out on this decade’s most culturally transformative works of art. 

In my opinion, supporting Black Is King would have been another step of solidarity that 2020 has taught us to stand for, regardless of whether that is for Beyoncé or not. Let’s be honest here, Beyoncé doesn’t need more awards, money, fame, and praise. She is content with the achievements she has had so far in those areas. From now on, her music has a bigger purpose than what the common consumer is willing to listen to. 

If I had any intention with this article, it is for a call for action to rise up to her. It is up to consumers and award shows to recognize music with a bigger intent and create a market for this kind of art to thrive. Once we manage to do so and allow for everyone to lift all people up, then Humanity is King.

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