A few days ago, Beyoncé shared the upcoming release of her new visual album, Black is King. A one-minute trailer of the film accompanied the press release introducing her new project to the world. Almost immediately after the release of the trailer, Twitter among other social media platforms went wild with commentary about the forthcoming film. While many people expressed the hallmark beyhive admiration and excitement for Beyoncé’s latest body of work, many others had serious critiques about the images in the trailer.
The most prominent of these critiques came from those who found the depiction of Africa and African people in the album trailer to be monolithic and devoid of the nuance of a multicultural continent. They expressed that Beyoncé has long utilized harmful tropes and stereotypes in the imagery she chooses when portraying anything or anyone connected to Africa. This recent criticism of Beyoncé’s awkward love affair with Africa exists at the heels of years of criticism for never having toured on the continent. Black Feminist Historian Jade Bentil summed up the frustration of many by tweeting: “The Wakandafication of the continent and Black diaspora identities is entirely uninspired. The repeated tropes/symbolic gestures that homogenise & essentialise thousands of African cultures in service of securing the terrain for Black capitalist possibilities & futures is tired.” The term Jade coined: Wakandafication, has since taken on a life of its own on Twitter; but Jade demystifies the term, explaining that it is not exclusively about the reduction of the complexities of Africa and its people to vague and monolithic images. She further explains that “It is specifically about the process through which Africa *as a product* is reimagined to serve the interests of representation, nation, and capital.”
Jade, like many others who dare to express anything other than joy, excitement, and devout loyalty to Beyoncé and the film, was met with hostility in defense of Beyoncé. The rebuttals from Beyoncé loyalists to the critique of the depiction of Africa ranged from expressing a difference in perspective and interpretations of the images to direct insults of the critics. The latter seemed to stem from a place of outrage that anyone would criticize Beyoncé at all and often concluded that such criticism could only result from “hating on her” and malicious bias. Such an antagonistic reaction from the Beyhive and its affiliates is par for the course, as they’ve cultivated an infamous reputation for protecting their Queen Bey at all costs, even if that means forgoing an opportunity for healthy discourse. It begs the question, why?
I would be remiss to overlook Beyoncé the musician’s raw talent and admirable work ethic. Equally so, it would be a disservice to overlook the countless songwriters, music producers, business executives, lawyers, costume designers, hairstylists, and makeup artists that make Beyoncé the brand, the incredible success that it is. As for Beyoncé the person, I know very little about her. I, like everyone else, other than her close family and friends, am privy to only the carefully cultivated glimpse that she allows the public to see. From this glimpse, I see someone who seems kind and warm. A mother. A wife. A savvy businesswoman. Someone who can be vulnerable, but only on her own terms. If I and the rest of the world have the same vantage point, a glimpse, just a glimpse; how do some manage to see an infallible god-like figure, and others a successful talented hardworking woman?
I believe the answer exists within the blurred lines between Beyoncé the person and Beyoncé the brand. As mentioned before, we know very little about Beyoncé the human being, and the little we do know is carefully curated to complement and amplify Beyoncé the brand. However, Beyoncé the brand exists comfortably in the sweet spot between three converging paradigms of social capital. She is objectively and almost universally perceived as attractive, she is wealthy, and her politics are not radical.
DISCLAIMER: The 3 analyses below are my take on Beyoncé the brand, NOT the human being.
- Beyoncé is a light-skinned woman who fits perfectly into almost any post-colonial brainwashed society’s ideals of beauty. Her hair is blonde more often than not. She is thin with the socially acceptable amount and placement of curves. She likes “Jackson five nostrils,” but her nose is thin and straight. In certain lighting, she can look racially ambiguous. She is in no way shape or form oblivious to this and has acknowledged her multiracial heritage several times. Whether it is cosmetic commercials that literally breakdown her racial/genetic makeup or song lyrics like “mix that negro with that creole…,” Beyoncé has acknowledged and capitalized on her lighter complexion. While this lighter complexion and proximity to whiteness makes Beyoncé palatable to white audiences, she is unapologetically black and markets herself as such. However, colorism allows her light skin to serve as social capital in the black community. Beyoncé benefits from not being too black, literally and figuratively, to white people and being the embodiment of the pretty light-skinned woman trope to Black people.
- Beyoncé is one of the world’s highest-paid celebrities and her net worth is estimated to be around $400 million. With wealth comes power and influence. Beyoncé uses her wealth for humanitarian work and philanthropy. No one is trying to take that away from her. But with such wealth, she is again placed on a pedestal of admiration and deemed all-powerful and almost sacred by her fans. Equally so, because of her wealth and perceived importance, Beyoncé is rarely on equal footing with other artists she collaborates with on her projects. Along the lines of her love affair with Africa, Beyoncé has collaborated with many African musicians, dancers, directors, and writers. She is undoubtedly the catalyst for breakout moments for some of these African creatives. But the vastness of the space between Beyoncé’s wealth, power, and influence and that of the artists she collaborates with, begs the question: can true creative equity exist between Beyoncé and these African artists? Would they feel comfortable suggesting revisions to their boss’ romanticized vision of Africa? Would you?
- Beyoncé is not a radical progressive. This is ok. She doesn’t need to be, because she is not a politician, and has almost no say in how this country is run. She is making her living through capitalistic means, as do many of us. I don’t expect her to want to topple the system and join the proletariat fight in eradicating the world of the bourgeoisie class. She is one of the bourgeoisie. She has a right to social commentary just like anyone else. But with a platform like hers comes the expectation of responsibility. The need for such responsibility becomes even higher when profits are made from such social commentary and “activism.” Formation and Freedom both mark a distinctive arc towards Beyoncé taking a clear and unapologetic stance about race and social justice in the U.S. Both can serve as anthems of a revolution. But the artist who sings the songs cannot bring herself to publicly call for the abolition of the police, the same way she describes herself breaking oppressive chains in her music. Beyoncé toes the line of revolutionary activism through her art without any radical and explicit actions outside of her livelihood. Again this is fine, and expected, as she is a musician who occasionally plays the role of an activist. She profits from this brand of activism and often makes donations to organizations doing the work. I don’t need or expect Beyoncé to be out on the frontlines of any social, political, or economic revolutions. However, this odd grey area she remains in, allows her fan base in marginalized communities to feel seen, while she avoids ruffling the feathers of her white fan base to the point of no return.
These three paradigms, in one way or another, have helped propel Beyoncé to her current status of assumed irreproachability, leading to the fraught conversations around her latest project. Ph.D. candidates who are experts in their chosen field of study must defend their thesis before graduating. Attorneys must argue a case beyond a reasonable doubt for a chance at a favorable judgment. Almost all forms of art, be it literary, visual, or music, are heavily scrutinized by both experts and the general public that consumes the art. Withstanding objective and constructive criticism serves to render legitimacy while facilitating healthy discussions.
Beyoncé is not a historian. She is not an expert on African culture, if such a singular thing exists. She is not the arbiter of defining Africa for the world. However, she is a black American woman. One who seems to have a distinctive understanding of the complexity of her ancestry. In her efforts to confront the traumas of the past and the ordeal of the present, Beyoncé repeatedly attempts to build a bridge between the harsh realities of the U.S. and an Africa that hundreds of years of generational memory loss and historical erasures have deprived her of.
Rather than grapple with the idea of unknown tribes, names, and clans, Beyoncé like so many others in her position creates a figurative Africa. This is the ambiguous face paint and animal hide costume riddled land we get a glimpse of in the Black is King trailer. This Africa must bear the heavy crown of perpetual royal lineage and the dreams and expectations of so many. Afrofuturism, Wakanda, etc. are not a tangible reality, but they serve as an escape and perhaps a place of healing. If this much-needed healing comes at the risk of perpetuating dangerous narratives and uninspired tropes about real countries, tribes, and cultural practices for a capital gain, then there should be enough room to engage in a discussion about it.
Dismissing legitimate concerns around Beyoncé’s work simply as dislike for the sake of dislike hinders pivotal opportunities for discourse. The intersection of identities that exist within blackness in the U.S. whether it is a nationality, gender, or sexuality are at the forefront of larger discussions about race in this country. We must cultivate spaces to talk openly and organize amongst ourselves as black people if we are to collectively dismantle the systems that oppress us. This process includes being critical of beloved members of our community. Even Beyoncé is not beyond reproach.