31 July 2020 22:37
(CNN) The moment Beyoncé fans have been waiting for is finally here: The 24-time Grammy Award-winning queen of pop has released her hotly anticipated visual album "Black Is King", inspired by "The Lion King," on Disney+. The album, based on the singer's soundtrack album "The Lion King: The Gift" for the 2019 remake of the Disney film, reimagines the lessons from the movie for "today's young kings and queens in search of their own crowns," Disney+ said in a release, and is a "celebratory memoir for the world on the black experience." The vibrant cinematographic album was produced over the course of a year and features a diverse cast and crew hailing from multiple locations where it was shot, including New York, Los Angeles, South Africa, West Africa, London and Belgium. The singer, who also directed and executive produced the work, first teased the album trailer on YouTube on July 19, in a video that has already racked up more than 2.7 million views. The Lion King was always a Disney classic, and now music's most powerful lady, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, has opened up the coming-of-age tale to become a journey to discover the real Africa. Last year's 'The Lion King: The Gift', a Bey-curated soundtrack to the live action remake of the movie, now has its own virtual accompaniment, 'Black Is King'.
When Africans dispersed around the world, our ancestors looked to the moon as a symbol of familiarity and comfort; it's powerful for it to be a running motif in this visual performance. Beyoncé reminds the world of the moon's century-long significance to Africa in three short-and-sweet sentences: "A journey is a gift. In Africa, the colour green represents healing, life and growth, reminding the audience of the healing and blossoming Africa is engaging in once again. As a headline on the website Inspire Afrika put it last year: leather is the new gold. Thus throughout the film, Bey and her gang wear some of the finest leathers and animal prints, and even use the material as stage design too.
Beyoncé helps to uplift her friend and fellow Destiny's Child Kelly Rowland, who has been hugely damaged by colourism in her life. Yet their 30-year-long friendship – or should we say sisterhood – proves that the alliance between black women can be stronger than Kevlar. Seeing Black Is King as a family affair, it's a bit weird not to see Beyoncé's ride-or-die baby sis in a shot. Even their mum Miss Tina appeared in a tea party scene with Kelly and the gang during the 'MOOD 4 EVA' segment. On the one hand, Beyoncé is celebrating a continent that has been unfairly represented for decades, reminding the world of the greatness that came before us all.
On the other, her mum was moved to defend her against suggestions, made on social media when the film's trailer dropped last month, that it appropriated Africa culture. Beyoncé hasn't done a show in Africa for 10 years, detractors claimed, so why is she now seeming to represent its culture? Is Bey appropriating, glorifying, or just trying to present a creative interpretation of a culture that's been badly represented for years? With flashes of black-owned brands such as Jay-Z's Ace of Spades champers, we are reminded that Africa isn't (and never was) a broken down, 'third-world country'. Streaming on Disney+, Black Is King is the visual album for Lion King: The Gift, the soundtrack for 2019's Lion King. It is a reimagining of the beloved Disney film's story, following Simba, but with cameos and new faces, too. With lines from the film laced throughout, Beyoncé acts as the narrator and mother figure, guiding us through the story as we travel from London and Belgium to South Africa, Ghana, the Grand Canyon and beyond. This figurative reimagining already leaves space for more interpretation and creativity than last year's by-the-book CGI Lion King did. But more than anything, Black Is King is an ode to Black people, the diaspora and blackness in all its glory. If Lemonade was for Beyoncé, then Black Is King is for us. Black Is King feels like Beyoncé at her best. Black Is King seamlessly jumps through genres, including, R&B, pop, hip-hop and Afrobeats – the latter a genre she has gracefully been invited into. In some ways, the mother of three takes a back seat; she is only in the background of some scenes – like in the wedding sequence, "Keys To The Kingdom" performed by Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi – and absent from others altogether. And for the feel-good pop anthem "Brown Skin Girl", an ode to darker-skinned women, Naomi Campbell, Lupita N'yongo and former groupmate Kelly Rowland all make guest appearances. Across the film, she touches on various elements that fall under the vast umbrella of what blackness can be, including debutants and old Hollywood glamour, London estates standing like castles, durags, cowrie shells, braids a mile long, dance, pride, regality, family and joy. For many Black people from the African diaspora, our ancestry, histories and stories have been lost, stolen and forgotten because of colonisation. Especially for African Americans and Caribbeans who have lost our tongue, and had our history disrupted by the legacy of slavery, Black Is King asks, how do we find home in ourselves? Of course, we are not a monolith, and Black people globally have specific cultures, traditions, languages and lived experiences. Undoubtedly, there has been a tendency in recent popular culture to mash cultures together, homogenise and, in ways, erase – but still, it feels like Black Is King utilises community to bring a coherent vision together. Disney+ is the right home, because Black children should see this and feel seen. To quote from the film, "To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist." Beyoncé dedicates this to her only son, Sir Carter. The timing feels so needed, when Black people across the world are hurting, and fighting for our lives. But while Black may be king, this project and all its trappings position its auteur, as the voice-over says in the film, as the "divine archetype." In that context, she raised the stakes herself. A little over an hour into "Black Is King," Beyoncé, with tears in her eyes, places a baby boy, wrapped in a blanket, up a river inside a reed basket. I was moved by this scene of maternal sacrifice, for even though I knew the plot of "The Lion King," I found myself hoping that this baby would survive the currents of the rushing river. But, the waters here also invoke the Middle Passage, with each ripple break recalling the fateful journey in which New World slavery, and America itself, was born.