Diaspora Blues isn’t Always so Blue

Interrogating the Pan-Africanism of Beyoncé’s film “Black is King”

so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.

“Diaspora Blues” by Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Questions for Ada

When Black Americans try to portray Africa, and reconnect with their roots, it’s not always a perfect process, even with good intent. Likewise, African depictions of Black Americans can reinforce backwards stereotypes of Black Americans. So when the word “Wakandification” first appeared on my Twitter feed after the release of Beyoncé’s Black is King, I had a feeling it would tackle a prickly topic that has long interested me: Black American and African relations. Or more broadly, the remains of pan-Africanism: a kind of diaspora blues that plagues lost cultural connections across the Western hemisphere and beyond.

Wakandification, as coined by Jade Bentil, is the idea that “western media essentialize an array of African cultures and neatly package them to sell to western audiences”. Further googling revealed that the conversation surrounding this word focused on two things: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, and Beyoncé’s most recent album, Black is King. While back and forth Twitter threads can be mildly amusing, and tremendously terrifying, I was more interested in the complicated questions humming below the surface of hot takes — no, not whether Beyoncé is a raging capitalist or a socialist feminist icon. Rather, what does it mean to search across the Atlantic for a lost connection through art? And do we breed knowledge or ignorance in the process?

Is it more than just skin color and musical inspiration that connect us? And, is it cultural appropriation or appreciation when Black Americans and Africans attempt to connect with one another?

The cultures stand on their own, but are tied in so many ways. The late Philippe Wamba, the son of an African and Black American couple, wrote of these twin histories in his memoir Kinship: A Family’s Journey in Africa and America:

“the twin histories of African and African American peoples are brimming with both triumphs and tears; similarly, the story of the interaction between them has not always been positive… their associations, and the collision of their true false ideas about one another, have sometimes been problematic”

And, as Professor Lisa Betty writes in her article about capitalism and Black is King, even an accusation of appropriation can be incredibly hurtful for people of African descent:

Cultural appropriation is a sensitive area for all people of African descent in the western hemisphere. To many Black people, especially those who proudly identify with and phenotypically exemplify African ancestry, the accusation is hurtful. Hurtful because appropriation is associated with power, control, commoditization of Black culture and Black bodies by European white people for centuries. Additionally, this pain comes from the trauma of chattel slavery, in which African captives and their descendants were held for generations in perpetual bondage.

And because the African Diaspora simply has too many voices for one critic to emerge as the final say in what we think, we navigate our own forms of diaspora blues in isolation. Many Black Americans may experience isolation from their own communities and cultures from being “not Black enough”, and Africans may experience identity crises from being “too Black” — possibly being referred to as “ak*ta”, or an African who has become too much like Black Americans.

It’s an uncomfortable reckoning — nearly erased at the only home I’ve ever known, but a stranger in lands my ancestors were ripped from. The cultural exchanges are evident — dance hall, Kente cloth, jazz, hip-hop, etc., but an indescribable yearning is still there.

So we ask — who owns what parts of our connected cultures? Different cultures that stand well on their own but play with one another like long lost cousins?

Perhaps this is a question best explored through Black is King, and our current understanding of pan-Africanism.

The Music of Pan-Africanism

Pan-Africanism was first coined by WEB DuBois, then picked up on by thinkers like Edward Blyden, Martin Delaney, Kwame Nkrumah and Marcus Garvey. Pan-Africanism was a general belief in commonality and future between Black people across the globe. It sometimes called upon Black Americans to “return to Africa”, to be reunited in the motherland (Ghana now offers African-Americans paths to citizenship), and included art festivals in Algiers and Lagos that included Black artists from across the world. Though pan-Africanism typically found its footing among more elite, educated circles, it also included highly publicized protests against matters negatively impacting Black people across the globe. Most notable, however, was the music of pan-Africanism. Some examples including Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe, Nas and Damian Marley’s ‘Distant Relatives” album (they’ve got a fantastic interview about pan-Africanism here) and now, Beyoncé’s Black is King.

However, whether just a musical collaboration or full-blown political endorsement of the movement, pan-Africanism can fall into the pitfall of being too idealistic or utopian, as it rarely produces any documented, substantial changes in predominantly Black countries. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to capture every single culture within the continent, so any attempt to label anything as pan-African will usually fail to be inclusive of everyone. So when Beyoncé dropped the trailer for Black is King many people wondered if she would get it “right” when so much could go wrong.

Early Criticism of Black is King

Initial criticism of Black is King focused on Beyoncé’s portayal of “African” culture (whatever “African” might mean — in this case, I suspect whatever African culture is being portrayed in that moment), her failure to tour in African countries (which is fair) and a concern that she would show modern Africa, with its bustling cities, suburbs, diverse cultures and joy. One particular Twitter thread warned that Beyoncé would not center African narratives in Black is King.

As I mentioned before, some critiques of her are quite fair, but across social media, there seemed to be confusion about the purpose of the album. Her purpose was not to explore Africa, even if the album was arguably appreciative of much of its beauty — Black is King was primarily a visual album for the Lion King, which focuses on royalty and reconnecting with lost ancestors. Secondly, as, she explained in her Good Morning America interview, she wanted to shift the global perception of Blackness, which to her: “…has always meant inspiration, and love, and strength and beauty to me.” She also says that:

“With this visual album, I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.”

Her work not only featured famous African artists, but put them at the front and center: her music videos included Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Busiswa Gqulu, and the recurring Papi Ojo, who appeared in several of the videos and helped choreograph most of the dances. And if you’re not familiar with any of these names, you certainly will be after watching her film — they weren’t watered down or white-washed for anyone, including Beyoncé. Another critical point — Black is King was never meant to be an “African aesthetic” for a quick buck, as one popular artist critiqued her for, nor was it a documentary about present day life in Africa — it was a celebration of Blackness, an appreciation of several traditional African cultures, and beyond its immediate artwork, a contribution to a deeper conversation about celebrating the beauty of Blackness, regardless of its zip code or continent. And a third criticism, which unfortunately cannot be fully addressed, is if she will tour in Africa at any point. I suspect that the answer is yes, but we will not know until the pandemic has subsided. But the potential is promising, as Black is King was offered on several African networks. Whether this will extend to an in-person tour remains to be seen.

Her work not only featured famous African artists, but put them at the front and center: her music videos included Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Busiswa Gqulu, and the recurring Papi Ojo, who appeared in several of the videos and helped choreograph most of the dances.

Until then, we’re stuck in a difficult dialogue that spans the Atlantic — how do we reconnect with our roots and reach across the Atlantic without taking what doesn’t belong to us? I think I quite like Beyoncé’s answer: ask the artists and people themselves how they want to be seen — then give them the money and stage to make it happen. For the rest of us without the ability to travel or fund such passion projects, these difficult questions are addressed in classrooms and on Twitter threads. Truthfully, though, cultural appropriation and appreciation is a lot more complicated in the Diaspora.

Portraying the “Other”

During one of my advanced writing workshops in college, a young East African* woman passed out her collection of fictional essays about the immigrant experience in the U.S. One of her characters, a loud, boisterous, taxi driver from Nigeria, repeatedly referred to Black Americans as “thugs”. Recognizing this was just a character, I flagged this as a potentially tricky area to navigate, especially if she were to pursue publication — I suggested that she keep the part in her essay, but be very cautious about separating the opinions of the author from the character, as it was unclear if it was only the character’s beliefs. All of that was a way to say you’re treading into stereotypical territory here, careful, without coming across as too hostile or ignorant of what she was trying to explore.

Because these workshops did not allow authors to respond right away, there were several other critiques about her work before she had a chance to respond. None of them mentioned her representation of Black Americans (I suspect my mostly white classmates understood this was not their conversation to have), or slightly problematic portrayal of a Nigerian man as arrogant and ignorant. As soon as it was her turn to speak, she let me know her work (and thus, her characters) was “not for everyone”, and that she had no intention of making changes.

I had no desire to air this laundry out in a predominantly white classroom. And, not being Nigerian myself, felt that I did not have the grounds to push the argument further, even if the portrayal seemed stereotypical to me. So I said nothing else.

I value this moment, however, reminded me that mutual understanding isn’t assured just because of skin color. It’s a constant process of un-writing the “dark continent”, and producing literature and art on all fronts that dismantle these harmful stereotypes. Sometimes this means confronting them head on. This also means we will fail to imagine our slight other. And while we may understand that critiques of representation are valid, we are not always going to come to a consensus.

But I am cautious of gatekeeping critiques of one’s own representation — especially being gaslit and told to “appreciate what they get”. One YouTube comment mentioned that Africans and Black Americans should learn about one another and not rely on the images presented by media to make judgements of one another. As I stated earlier, this stereotyping is unfortunately mutual. Criticism that Black Americans romanticize the continent is fair (don’t get me started on hoteps, that’s yet again, another story for another time), and that Africans can minimize the Black experience in the U.S. is unfortunately a reality. Furthermore, it’s not my business to tell Africans how to interpret representations of their respective cultures, especially since woke Twitter doesn’t always have its finger on the pulse of everyone’s feelings, especially not an entire continent’s, for sure. It certainly misses the mark when it comes to representing Black culture, too.

I suspect that Black is King will mean a lot to people for many different reasons. Abundant references spanned the continent: depictions of Egyptian burials in “Nile”, the Senegalese movie “Touki Bouki” in “Already”, the Yoruba goddess Oshun, Maasai traditions, and of course, to her roots, a gospel-inspired chorus on “Spirit”, debutante balls in “Brown Skinned Girl”, etc. etc. As described in the co-authored July 31st New York Times recap:

“[Beyoncé] shares the screen with African and Black American faces: dancers, tribal elders, city hustlers, judges in wigs and robes, hoop-skirted debutantes and their beaus. And she willingly lets herself be upstaged by African collaborators whose faces her American fans may not yet have seen, like Busiswa from South Africa, Salatiel from Cameroon and Yemi Alade, Tekno and Mr Eazi from Nigeria. It puts her pan-African solidarity incontrovertibly onscreen.”

There’s even a scene in “Already” where the dancers from across the black globe dance under a pan-African flag. And not to mention “Otherside” with its allusions to Moses and the Middle Passage — stories of high value to Black Americans. Essentially, there is no conflict or competition between the cultures Beyoncé engages with: she’s simply giving Black beauty and wealth a stage.

As I watched this with my sisters, I remember remarking that this was the first time we saw multiple African city skylines, Africans dressed in wealth and jewels, suburbs, and where the final production was not subjected to a sepia-colored filter, otherwise known as a “poverty” filter. The video for “Brown Skin Girl” was so fulfilling and joyful, and ending the film with “Black Parade” (released on Juneteenth) was a perfect ending, and acknowledgement of Beyoncé’s exploration of her roots but ultimate home back in the States — a troubled land where Black Americans have made their own culture for themselves out of nothing.

I don’t expect everyone to understand the longing that comes from a forced diaspora, and the collective trauma and grief that comes from your origin being described simply as a “slave”, rather than as enslaved people. I humbly approach this entire discussion from my own limited understanding — a longing to return to a home I’ve never set foot on without claiming what’s not mine. To me, Black is King isn’t Diaspora Blues, it’s Diaspora Jazz — filled with life and soaring to new places we didn’t know she could take us.

There is an uncomfortable but necessary reckoning approaching — there will never be a definitive agreed upon movie, documentary, or discussion that will truly capture everyone’s feelings towards this complicated identity — and there’s no kind of cultural supremacy here I’m trying to prove, or even engage with. All I know is that Beyoncé’s album was a salve to my blues.

But until I can I go to YouTube or Spotify and have African artists recommended to me without the filter of Disney or another artist, this lost connection will remain in the middle passages of Twitter feuds and think pieces.

This was written from the perspective of a Black American woman. If you want to find African perspectives, I’ve compiled a Twitter thread here. And suggest starting with this article here.

Writer and Poet, Grad Student, Dreamer. You’re doing great sweetie. Website: mayajameswrites.wordpress.com Twitter: @mayawritesgood

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