In April 2016, Beyoncé stopped the world with the drop of her visual album Lemonade.
Though the film chronicled Beyoncé’s cycle of grief and healing after her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity, Lemonade is much more than the diary of a woman scorned. It was an exorcism of generational curses and a recipe to decolonize both romantic love and self-image. Black women around the world converged on Twitter to bask in Beyoncé’s celebration of Blackness and the power of motherhood, sisterhood and spirituality, both ancient and new, to help heal inherited wounds.
In the week after Lemonade, Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas put together a list of Black male artists with the potential to meet the moment and create a Lemonade for Black men. Rappers like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and even Mrs. Carter’s husband were mentioned as possible contenders who had the stature and skill to create art for Black men at a similar level.
But in the four years since Lemonade, no one picked up the baton. Even 4:44, Jay-Z’s musical response to Lemonade where he admitted his infidelity and documented his growth as a husband, father and dedicated capitalist, didn’t come close. Since Beyoncé is in her own stratosphere, competing against only herself anyway, it seems fitting that she answer her own call.
“I feel like I’m not a king yet,” an unidentified Black American man speaks as her new visual album Black Is King opens. His voice is disconnected from his body, floating over black opening credits, echoing his disconnection from the Continent of his ancestors, stolen through the terror of American slavery. His humanity has been stripped away, generation after generation after generation—but it’s not the end of his story. “But, like, I got potential for it, you feel me?” He says. “But sometimes, I don’t know how to navigate.”
With the stunning Black Is King, Beyoncé has made another blueprint, a Lemonade for Black men.
Dedicated to her and Jay-Z’s only son Sir Carter, Black Is King is much more than a companion piece to the Disney live-action version of The Lion King released last year. As the visual vehicle for her 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, Black Is King is at once a singular Diasporic boy’s coming-of-age story and a mass call to action to Black men to decolonize masculinity.
Because of European slavery and colonization throughout Africa and its Diaspora, our ideas of what makes a man have been warped and toxified. Religious and social mores that were never ours were forced upon us under threat of death or worse. Black Is King calls upon Black men to throw off the shackles of colonized masculinity which leads to violence against women and girls, queerphobia, and destruction of self. Beyoncé offers instead an African way of being, which leads to healing for oneself and one’s global community as a duty.
In the midst of global Black Lives Matter uprisings against white supremacy, Black Is King further solidifies how the world could thrive when Black men step into kingship—one that's divorced from white supremacist ideas of hierarchy, dominance, and oppression and rooted in stewardship to community. Legacy is the reward.
Reclaiming legacy is a theme not solely inspired by The Lion King’s plot, where Simba must return to his homeland after a long absence, avenge his father Mufasa’s murder and overthrow his uncle Scar to claim the throne. For Beyoncé, reclaiming legacy in Black Is King began with her learning the story of South African singer and composer Solomon Linda back when she was preparing for her role as live-action Nala in the 2019 film.
Linda wrote the 1939 song “Mbube,” famously known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which is featured in the original The Lion King. He died penniless on October 8, 1962, long before the 1994 animated classic, and his family had to sue Disney for royalties and for Linda to get his credit.
Where The Lion King features “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Beyoncé amends the record on Black Is King, featuring “Mbube” instead. Its presence underscores and connects the global, centuries-long European extraction, exploitation and appropriation of our many cultures and people throughout the African Diaspora.
The power in Linda’s family’s win and Beyoncé’s 2020 feature is in the message: as we fight back, win and reclaim our space, humanity and dignity in the present, we are simultaneously healing both our ancestors and our future generations. Epigenetics teaches that trauma is passed down through DNA; so then, Beyoncé posits, is victory.
Black Is King begins with the whisper of that victory into the ear of a baby boy, before the world can even get ahold of him with its lies. His journey has been rough, mirroring the Biblical character Moses, who was put in a basket and floated down stream. He’s safe now, carried by Beyoncé, symbolizing both Queen Bithiah the adopted mother of Moses and his ancestor, draped in white, bathing her newfound son that was rescued from the water. African priests attend them, as well as other mothers bathing their newborns.
“Let Black be synonymous with glory,” she tells him, enlisting the poetry of her Lemonade collaborator Warsan Shire. As Beyoncé speaks, 22-year-old Nigerian dancer Stephen “Papi” Ojo emerges on the shoreline, his body painted in blue, representing the boy’s subconscious.
Each song from Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift illuminates a lesson for the boy on his journey through Black Is King. She croons to him on the opening track, “Bigger,” that her child is not alone in the world, that his purpose is not insignificant, that the promises he’s been read in ancient texts like the Bible aren’t just stories. He is powerful and divine right now, in this life. And his mother (and their ancestors) will always be there to remind him that he’s “part of something way bigger.” She says this to him on the shore of a raging, boundless ocean.
He may be but a drop in the ocean, but together, with his community, with his ancestors, they are something greater, a mighty force, an ever-continuing legacy. The sermon seeps into his subconscious, preparing him for what’s next.
“History is your future,” she prophesies over him, now a young boy, seated on a throne at the right hand of his father. “One day you will meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”
As his father teaches him the stories of his ancestry and roots him in his history, the young prince is plunged into the Afro Future, dancing among ancestors, floating among stars in outer space, orbiting the Earth like a shooting star.
On “Find Your Way Back,” Beyoncé illustrates for the young prince that these stories of his history are the tools he can use to come back home, even when the world takes him far away from those principles he’s been grounded in.
“Life is a set of choices,” Beyoncé tells him. “Lead or be led astray. Follow your light or lose it.” In his immaturity, his curiosity gets the better of him and leads him into a den of gambling men.
A man dressed in white, adorned with gold jewelry, with a boa constrictor around his neck challenges him: “Who are you?”
The boy is trying to figure that out for himself. He imitates this man, dresses like him, indulges in wealth, and gambles alongside the man and his followers as the young prince’s subconscious looks down on him. He’s being seduced down a dangerous path, coveting a life that’s contrary to what he’s been taught as Nigerian AfroPop singers sing “Don’t Jealous Me.”
On “Scar,” the king comes to save his son from this danger but is murdered by Scar’s gang in the process. The prince, filled with fear, guilt and shame, runs away from his home as his kingdom mourns.
“No true king ever dies,” Beyoncé shares. “Our ancestors hold us through our own bodies, guiding us through our reflections.” But on “Nile,” the prince’s subconscious sits in the desert, “deep in denial,” unable to move past his mistakes, in self-imposed exile from his community.
“When it’s all said and done, I don’t even know my own native tongue,” a Black American man speaks. “And if I can’t speak myself, I can’t think myself. And if I can’t think myself, I can’t be myself. But if I can’t be myself, I will never know me. So, Uncle Sam, tell me this, if I will never know me, how can you?”
Uncle Sam / Uncle Scar have a common goal for the prince to forget himself and for his community to be divided. It’s an indictment of America and the generations-worth of policies that have been invested in forcibly divorcing Black people from our heritage. Innovative as we are, we created new cultures and told new stories on new shores. But with colonization comes corruption.
On “Mood 4 Eva,” the prince continues his escape from responsibility, family and community into exorbitant wealth. He dreams himself into a mansion where he is flanked by servants and has a chauffeur for his Bentley, as Beyoncé and Jay-Z (each stand-ins for the young prince) brag about their material wealth and financial success. Despite the track’s name, the mood is unsustainable.
Capitalism will not save the young prince or his people across the Diaspora. The memory of his father, of the community and the duty he’s left behind haunt him in the dream. Jay-Z reminds the young prince of the king’s lessons, that both good and evil exist in a person at the same time, and “it’s not always a battle,” between the two forces, “it’s a conversation.” The prince may have made mistakes, but he is not only bad or only good. No one is. “You are the king,” he’s reminded as he awakens, but he’s still unable to accept this duty.
A grown man now, he hits the town with his friend as Nigerian artist Burna Boy’s track “Ja Ara É” plays. He still just wants to have fun and be self-consumed. This separation from community and self-indulged male adulthood is signified by his friend turning into Uncle Scar, sitting next to him during their joyride, laughing at the prince for falling into the trap.
“To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist,” Beyoncé says and his subconscious awakens. On “Already,” his subconscious dances alongside ancestor Beyoncé with a furor. The prince is awakening to the long-since buried truth: “You’re a king already / shine already. / it’s time already / in line already.”
“Be your own king / make nobody come rule your world,” Ghanaian dancehall singer Shatta Wale teaches on the track. The prince can’t leave the responsibility for his growth to anyone else anymore. But he can grow in community with other men who are committed to decolonizing themselves and each other.
The American flag is drenched in the Pan-African colors red, black and green, signifying the political and communal unity of all Indigenous people of Africa, throughout the Diaspora. A group of Black men hold edges of the flag and wave it in jubilation. Just like the art, fashion, locations, musicians and actors who make up Black Is King and The Gift, we are stronger when we see ourselves connected in global struggle and glory.
“Remember who you are,” the voice of his father commands from the other side. The prince begins to remember when he meets a young woman from his childhood who knows who she is and knows what he has the potential to be.
“I can’t say I call myself a child of god and then not see myself as a god,” a Black American woman speaks. “That wouldn’t make any sense.”
Away from his community and the values he was raised with, the prince and his masculinity have been colonized by the world. Once he reconnects with this woman from his childhood, he begins decolonizing masculinity to not be something that eradicates or dominates femininity but exists with it in harmony.
“Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us,” a Black American man speaks. “A lot of times, my manhood training came from women. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.”
Pharrell and Beyoncé narrate the prince and the princess falling in love on the song “Water.” But a non-heteronormative reading of this chapter suggests an understanding of and appreciation for the women who have helped him remember himself and become who he is destined to be in the world and in his community.
Water signifies the ability to be reborn. The prince is baptized and forgiven for his past mistakes, his desertion of duty. Through the love of women, he’s reborn, he’s reconnected to community and purpose.
His decolonization continues as he examines what he’s been taught in the colonized world.
“The world will tell you that you’re too dark, too short, whatever,” a Black American man speaks on the colorism and hypermasculinity Black men have been victimized and conditioned to accept about themselves and each other. In Black men’s socialized self-hate, Black women and girls become the victims of misogynoir—the specific misogyny that encompasses racism and sexism against Black women and girls.
“We were beauty before they knew what beauty was,” Beyoncé reminds us. As Nigerian singer Wizkid and Black American rapper SAINt JHN, Beyoncé and Blue Ivy sing “Brown Skin Girl,” the celebration of dark-skinned beauty, a dark-skinned girl walks into a Black cotillion in the American South.
The debutantes are frozen in place, in the shadows of history as the spotlight follows the girl as she walks through them. Historically, cotillions in Black communities were classist and colorist balls where teen girls from educated and rich families—and whose complexions were lighter than the color of a brown paper bag—could be presented to society. But in Beyoncé’s Afro Future, where Black Is King, history is reimagined. The debutantes and their male escorts come to life with deep brown skin. By the end, the dark-skinned girl is in the center, dancing triumphantly as Black men sing with Beyoncé and Blue Ivy that they are “the best thing in the world.”
The prince will not be an agent of misogynoir. He will decolonize himself from colorism and celebrate the beauty of Blackness in himself and in Black women and girls.
On “Keys to the Kingdom,” the prince marries his childhood love, in a ceremony symbolizing the spiritual commitment and partnership between masculinity and femininity as co-existing, interconnected entities. An African woman solidifies this interpretation as the prince and the woman ride off together on horseback. “Being equal, sharing spaces, sharing ideas, sharing values, balancing each other out, that is the way in which our ancestors did things,” the African woman says. “That is an African way.”
“We’ve been conditioned to be inside of a box,” a Black American man says. “We’ve been created with this image that Black men are supposed to be this way. And I feel like we’re kings. We have to take responsibility of stepping outside of those barriers that they’ve put us in, for the next generation.”
That African egalitarian way, Beyoncé argues, is how Black men inherit the riches of love, community and purpose promised by the titles of “king” and “kingdom.” Those riches, the African woman says, are the legacy future generations can look to, to find “hope, find strength, find healing, as well.”
To find healing for the loss of his father, his mistakes and the conditions thrust upon him by an anti-Black world, the prince returns to the deep of the river, fulfilling Beyoncé’s promise that he would meet himself where he started, but stronger. Beyoncé sings the angelic “Otherside,” as he is transported to the spirit world where he meets his father again and learns his true origins.
In this chapter, Beyoncé is a version of Jochebad, the Biblical character and Israelite who was enslaved in Egypt and the true mother of Moses. The prince is a baby again, and Jochebad cries as she places her son in a basket in the river to save his life, praying that he will be rescued.
After floating in rough waters, down waterfalls, he emerges from the water, back to full grown, back to the knowledge that being a “king” doesn’t mean separation from the enslaved, being oppressor of the enslaved, or forgetting his own enslaved ancestry. It means being one with all people, without division of worth by class or status.
With that knowledge, on the track, “Power,” he battles all the things his uncle Scar has come to symbolize: toxic masculinity, abuse of power, greed, lust, destruction, isolation. With the help of his community, his ancestors and the orishas all dancing in support, he is victorious. He reclaims his power and steps into his kingship.
“That’s what really being a king is, making sacrifices,” a Black American man speaks. “Taking care of people, that’s kingship to me.”
Fully equipped with these lessons, he becomes the father his partner, his newborn child and his community need. With his legacy reclaimed and secured, Beyoncé’ sings, “Spirit,” to denote that the ancestors are pleased.
As Lemonade called on Black women to divest from white supremacist patriarchy, Black Is King asks Black men to meet that same energy, do that same level of spirit work in the physical. Unified in global struggle, with Black liberation as our goal, we can "watch the heavens open" for us, to create the oppression-free world we deserve.
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