Beyoncé’s ‘Black is King’ is no secret, but still comes with mystery
By Ben Sisario
The playbook is familiar, though the particulars are new: Beyoncé unveils a new project. Details, though scant, are pored over for clues. Social media immediately bubbles with anticipation and debate.
On Friday, Beyoncé will release “Black Is King,” a visual album connected to Disney’s remake last year of “The Lion King,” on the Disney+ streaming platform. Announced a month ago, “Black Is King” is a typically ambitious latter-day project for Beyoncé — she wrote and directed it, and is executive producer — that adapts the “Lion King” story to a wider narrative of African history and heritage. It also represents Beyoncé’s latest move as a self-directed business figure, aligning herself with a major media partner, as she has done before with Tidal, HBO, Apple and Netflix.
“Black Is King,” which is based on songs that Beyoncé created for “The Lion King: The Gift,” a companion album to last year’s remake, carries added weight since Beyoncé herself has made a case for its topical significance.
“The events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant,” she wrote in a rare explanatory post on Instagram. “I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books.”
Beyoncé and Disney have offered few details about the project itself. It was made with an international creative team, including many Africans, and its cast has boldface names like Lupita Nyong’o, Pharrell Williams, Naomi Campbell, Jay-Z and Tina Knowles-Lawson, Beyoncé’s mother. The list of directors who worked with Beyoncé on the project includes Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jake Nava and Kwasi Fordjour.
Even basic points remain mysterious. Officially called a visual album, it appears to be a series of music videos linked through a narrative sequence, though it is not clear even how many songs or films are included. Representatives for Beyoncé and Disney declined to comment.
But a lack of information has only stirred the pot, as online commentators — having seen just two brief trailers — have debated topics like whether Beyoncé is exploiting African stereotypes, and whether the apparent presence of a white butler at a Black women’s tea party is a sign of racism.
In some ways, that reflects one of Beyoncé’s great talents — stoking public conversation with her art, while explaining very little about it.
“She is allowing her art to speak for itself,” said Treva Lindsey, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, who has commented frequently on Beyoncé’s work. “I always see Beyoncé as opening up space for robust conversations. It often says more about us as consumers and critics than it does about her.”
What is more clear, however, is Beyoncé’s media strategy, which she has been developing in plain sight over the last decade. After beginning her career as a teenager in Destiny’s Child — and doing what is expected of all rising stars, like giving interviews — by the early 2010s she had largely abandoned the standard pop-star script, and remade herself as a self-contained cultural brand. She now almost never speaks to the news media.
Part of her approach has involved leapfrogging from one platform to another to suit the needs of each project. In early 2013, HBO showed her autobiographical film “Life Is but a Dream”; later that year, she melted the internet — and upended the music business — by releasing her album “Beyoncé” on Apple’s iTunes with no notice.
“Lemonade,” her 2016 album, was first released on Tidal, the streaming service taken over by Jay-Z, her husband, in which she is a partner, and had a companion film shown on HBO, with segments directed by Mark Romanek, Jonas Akerlund, Melina Matsoukas and others. Last year, Netflix carried “Homecoming,” the film of her performance at Coachella from 2018.
In this trajectory, Disney+ is simply the next hot media platform with something to offer Beyoncé, said Dan Runcie, who writes about the business of streaming and hip-hop on his site Trapital.
“This is well within the wheelhouse of the Beyoncé empire,” Runcie said, “given how much she’s not locked herself into one particular partner, but thought of herself as a broader enterprise and kept her options open.”
With greater control, Beyoncé has changed her musical priorities. No longer chasing pop hits, she has used her albums and multimedia projects to explore challenging material, and made issues like gender and race central topics of her art, with the Black experience — and Black womanhood, in particular — becoming her overarching theme in recent years.
This has, perhaps paradoxically, made Beyoncé even more famous and influential, with her every appearance, utterance or Instagram post scrutinized for hidden meanings. That fame can bring more attention to her themes of Black lives and Black struggles — like her Black Panther-inspired dancers at her Super Bowl appearance in 2016, or images invoking the toll of Hurricane Katrina from the video of her song “Formation” — said Robin M. Boylorn, an associate professor of communications at the University of Alabama.
Boylorn also pointed to Beyoncé’s Coachella appearance, where the star performed an ode to the dances and marching bands of historically Black colleges and universities — with signifiers that may have gone over the heads of many white people in the audience, though their use by Beyoncé drew attention and led to wide media coverage.
“Her taking a space like Coachella, that is inherently white, and making it a celebration of Blackness,” Boylorn said, “speaks to her being able to shift the narrative and also literally shift the face of the conversation. That is just a remarkable use of her platform.”
What statement Beyoncé makes with “Black Is King” remains to be seen (at least for one more day). But that statement is likely to come primarily through the film and not any comment.
“She says less,” Lindsey said, “as she has more power.”