- Beyoncé is criticised for everything from being too political to showing off her money, while her latest work, “Black Is King” has been accused of being “draped in capitalism.”
- But Beyoncé has the right to earn and spend money, and she has the right to use her voice to speak out about racial injustices in the world.
- “Black Is King” is a musical film and visual album based loosely on “The Lion King,” the Disney classic about young lion cub Simba’s journey to become the leader of the animal kingdom in the Pride Lands of Africa.
- Of course Beyoncé’s reimagining of the film would follow similar themes of wealth and royalty.
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I remember the moment clearly.
It was a late evening in my hometown in the swamplands of Florida; I was 16 years old. The rain had just settled outside. Years before, I’d bought fellow Florida nativeZora Neale Hurston’s 1928 book “How It Feels to Be Coloured Me” but left it untouched in a bookcase across from my bed.
That night, I’m not sure what changed, but I stared at the book until I finally felt my legs move, my arms reach, and my hands grasp it. “I remember the very day I became coloured,” Hurston wrote. “Slavery is the price I paid for civilisation and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it.”
Since reading those words, they have hummed in my head. For the first time, I was able to position myself as a Black woman in American society. I had grown up always knowing that I am Black, but not knowing exactly what that meant – and why, for so many, it mattered.
But that night, reading Hurston’s words, it came to me: To be Black in America is to be born into a racial caste system you can never leave. My ancestors were slaves; then they were farmers; then they were just Black.
And so I went through the rest of my adolescence knowing that, as Hurston so eloquently put it, “Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all,” I must remain myself.
I had another cultural repositioning in late July, when Beyoncé released ‘Black Is King’
Watching Beyoncé’s new visual album made me feel happy for the young Black girls who were seeing and understanding, perhaps for the first time, what it means to be Black and why it matters.
In “Bigger,” Beyoncé sings: “If you feel insignificant, you better think again” and “Life is your birthright, they hid that in the fine print.”
This is the narrative I think about when I see Beyoncé, and it overshadows the criticisms regarding her wealth, her fame, and her art. Black Americans have long deserved an icon draped in the privileges that for so long were denied us, and Beyoncé has become a signifier of what greatness we can achieve in this nation.
For starters, yes, Beyoncé has money – a lot of money. Rich people have always existed, but not many of them seem to face the level of criticism and downright outrage that follows Beyoncé’s success.
Taylor Swift, for one, is also very rich; but for some reason, when she releases music (like her recent July 24 release, the critically-acclaimed indie album “Folklore”) people don’t seem to fall all over themselves debating whether she is a raging capitalist.
And I have never been able to figure out why exactly people seem to despise Beyoncé for her wealth, or why they become angry when her art has themes that reference her success.
What exactly does such criticism present to Black women in America? Are we not, like anyone else, supposed to work hard, play hard, and achieve success? And after that success is achieved, why must we become silent and hide in the shadows?
Criticism of Beyoncé that focuses on her being a capitalist is misplaced anger – and it’s an obvious example of misogynoir
In Beyoncé’s private life, she spends her money. The idea that it’s Beyonce’s responsibility to redistribute her wealth is strange – especially because of the overwhelming evidence that she most certainly does share her wealth.
But it’s also strange because giving away the money she’s earned won’t change the structures of society that cause oppression in the first place.
Beyoncé is obviously a capitalist. Anyone who makes their money within a capitalist system, selling a commodified product, is a capitalist by definition. But Beyoncé is not the one who took your job, who took your home, who created the systemic racism and discrimination that we see in everything from education to real estate.
She defied these barriers to get where she is and now puts her time, her money, and her energy into bettering the areas of life where she does have leverage. Through her music and visuals, she has been able to reshape the definition of what it means to be Black in America, and to show the beauty of the African diaspora, taking hold of the narratives that had long been demoralized, disregarded, and demonized by western society.
Her talent has made her an icon, so deeply enmeshed in pop culture and so beloved by the Beyhive. Yet in simply living the life she has earned, I see trolls on the internet lash out at Beyoncé for “flaunting” her wealth, or suggest that by obtaining too much money she is too far gone into America’s capitalist machine.
At the same time, if she tries to use her platform for good, people use the fact of her fortune to silence her, saying that she already has the money so she should just shut up and stay out of politics. Or that anything she touches now becomes something “draped in capitalism,” a critique Noname, a Chicago-native rapper and Black woman, recently leveled at “Black Is King.”
But here’s the thing: Beyoncé earned her wealth through entertainment, a medium that has been around for centuries. And grouping her in with capitalists as a whole, positioning her next to the likes of oil-heir billionaires, blurs who’s really to blame for the situation 99% of us find ourselves in.
To make Beyoncé a target in our rage against capitalism is rooted in misogynoir – a type of prejudice felt because one is both Black and a woman. We’ve long known that white male artists are held to a different standard and rarely face real meaningful backlash (case in point: Justin Bieber and his years of controversies).
But it’s particularly evident how misogynoir, not just misogyny or racism alone, colours public perception of Beyoncé, because we are not treating her Black male nor white female counterparts the same way.
Consider this: Does Drake, a Black male artist who sleeps on a $US400,000 mattress made of stingray skin and horsehair, face the same level and type of derision that Beyoncé does when he showcases his wealth? No. In fact, his luxury is considered to be aspirational.
And while white female artists face plenty of setbacks and discrimination of their own, there’s no arguing that Swift or Adele or Katy Perry face the types of attacks regularly leveled at Beyoncé and other Black female artists like her.
Even the specific criticisms of “Black Is King” perhaps try to go too deep beyond what it actually is: a movie based on “The Lion King.”
“The Lion King” is a movie about the monarchy, about the journey of a king – so why would Beyoncé’s recreation of that be filled with anything other than the glory that comes along with being king?
As Timmhotep Aku wrote for Teen Vogue, asking each piece of Beyoncé’s work to perfectly critique the intersection of “capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and anti-Blackness” – while also addressing colonialism, imperialism, and whatever other -ism – seems as if the community is searching for an “all-in-one” hero to save the day.
This is unrealistic, and an unfair burden to ask one music artist to shoulder.
On Twitter, there was a clash between African Americans and Africans over some aspects of ‘Black Is King’
There was disagreement on everything from whether Beyoncé was Black enough to tell the story, to why she was the centre of the film.
And in this debate, one tweet stuck out to me, as it’s something an Australian friend has told me many times before: Oftentimes, as Black Americans, we tend to project our trauma and politics onto things, from our art to our heroes, and even our expectations of blackness from those in other countries.
Of course, we know that most of us Black Americans did not descend from African kings and that not all of Africa (or all of America, for that matter) is draped in glitter and gold.
But at what point are we allowed to just take a moment, and enjoy something in peace?
It’s a fantasy; it’s a dream; it’s a story based on an animated movie about a lion who can talk. No other Black woman has been able to achieve the level of success that Beyoncé has in the entertainment industry, to work with a platform as massive as Disney to create a piece of art as Black as “Black Is King.”
And so each time I see Beyoncé perform I think of Hurston’s words: “It is quite exciting to hold the centre of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.”
Beyoncé is helping to shape the next chapter of African American history
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” nearly a century ago, recounting the ways African Americans had to rebuild their lives after slavery. These former slaves were thrown into an economic system that would come to disenfranchise them, with any attempts at building prosperity burned down to the ground. They were spat on trying to go to school, blown up for trying to go to church, and beaten for trying to vote.
Beyoncé is allowed to reap the benefits of not becoming a statistic – we all are. I see her work as part of the ongoing expansion to Black America’s origin story, an origin story that African Americans have had to create for themselves because no one knows much about what happened before we were brought to this country as slaves.
But the pain of what happened next has laid the foundation of who we are as a culture today.
In “Black Is King,” Beyoncé showcased the beauty of the African diaspora, highlighting the countries and the cultures I can only imagine my ancestors were once part of. She helped bridge the gap between Black and Brown that James Baldwin pondered in his essay “Encounter on the Seine,” in which the African American, upon meeting an African, realises that he has more in common with the white Americans who enslaved his ancestors than this man who shares his skin tone.
I watched “Black Is King” and was proud to see that somebody used their platform to combine the African worlds that seem so far away, showcasing a continent I have never seen before, with its own stories of happiness, pain, and destruction.
Together, the diaspora can further fill the gaps of what we know and don’t know about each other.
And whenever I see Beyoncé just living her life, I think of another Hurston book: “The Barracoon,” which recounts the story of a survivor from the last slave ship to dock in the United States. On one page in that book is a picture of a former slave port in Senegal, and above the door, a line written in French that says “Lord, give my people, who have suffered so much, the strength to be great.”
Beyoncé found that strength, and she – and her work – deserves to revel in all her greatness.