Beyoncé and the Heart of Darkness

Few black thinkers and creatives in the United States seem able to grapple with the implications of their Americocentrism in relation to Africa.

Disney Studios promo image, credit Kwaku Alston.

John Kani, the South African actor who voiced Rafiki in the 2019 remake of Disney’s The Lion King, said in an interview regarding the film that a black South African audience would “take the story as an African story… when they see The Lion King, they’ll see the parallels.” So does this mean we are to assume that this story—of a young lion whose destiny is stolen by his wicked uncle and his journey to reclaim it—would capture Africans’ existential struggle of living in a state of development, stunted by European colonialism and its continuous manifestations? Perhaps this allegory is not so obvious in the narrative of The Lion King, but if we zoom out to the one surrounding the film, things start to become a bit clearer.

In the global marketplace for culture, from the colonial-era on through today, Africa has been a perennial source for exotic cultural products and opportunities for self-aggrandizement. As Chinua Achebe once asked in regards to Joseph Conrad’s English language classic novel Heart of Darkness: “can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?” In contrast to Conrad’s time, however, black people both on the continent and in its diaspora are now imagined as part of the audience. They are also involved in the production. In the 2019 remake of The Lion King, there is a diverse black cast including big names such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and Donald Glover. However, Disney’s hegemony in the film industry, and the profit oriented impetus behind the production, cast doubt as to whether this is really an exercise of continental empowerment.

That’s not to say certain “gifts” weren’t offered up for African audiences. Beyoncé’s thematic album, The Gift, inspired by the film, her “love letter to Africa,” accompanied the movie’s release. It was here she was able to dabble in the latest Afropop sounds and collaborate with some of the continent’s largest stars. Her invocation of African mythology was also heralded. In the song number “Mood4Eva,” she sang that she was the sister of Naruba, she was Oṣun.  Her use of Yorùbá got her praise amongst Nigerian fans. Yoruba is one of the languages used on the album. However, the tilt of many of these praises, some even running close to orgiastic revelry, begged the question of the intrinsic value of Yorùbá beyond just a sign post for self-representation.

Even critiques of the film fall short in this regard. Nancy Adimora in gal-dem zine writes:

I would understand if the movie in question was about how Ishmael from Sierra Leone, and Ashira from Mozambique, met and fell in love on Facebook, got married and decided to move to Rwanda, where they met a mysterious traveller who explained to them why Ghanaian jollof never bangs, so they decided to travel across the entire continent, searching for the perfect jollof recipe, only to discover that it was in Nigeria the whole time.

In other words, to earn the right to claim Africanness, a thing must exhibit the traits of all the kinds of Africa that exist and the Africans who exist in them. Where this and similar critiques of Africa’s representation fail is in their presupposition that a composite story of Africa or African lives is possible. Secondly, it reveals a failure to understand that a person can only represent what they see and what they see is often dependent on their position relative to the observed; which is to say, the ability to observe and represent a thing is a question of power. It has long been observed that power relations distort European representations of Africa, but it is also the case that such distortions appear in the intellectual works of the contemporary black diaspora.

The ease with which African-American intellectuals situate themselves in the center of histories of global black experience is akin to the ease with which western intellectuals have traced philosophical thought in an unbroken line from Socrates to Hegel. Yet, so few black thinkers in America seem able to grapple with the implications of their Americocentrism in relation to Africa. And again, even in critiques of such Americocentrism, the tendency to leave Africa out of the conversation is repeated. For renowned British historian, Paul Gilroy, blackness is necessarily contrapuntal and trans-hemispheric, defined by the experience of the slave trade and juxtaposed against western imperialism. Gilroy lays out a historiography of black liberation extending from the Haitian revolution to Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. In such a comprehensive account of black history it would seem impossible to neglect Africa, yet this is what occurs. Critical responses resolve to reinsert Africa into the black Atlantic as if it were an understandable omission.Would it be so strange to consider that these omissions are not merely slight mishaps, but an exercise of the power to exclude, to consider the largely unacknowledged reproduction of western hegemony in diasporic theorizing of blackness and its dominance by diaspora thinkers?

It is important to note the ways in which members of the African diaspora participate in colonial archives and exemplify the assumptions of the metropoles from which they observe the world. Brent Hayes Edwards writes in Social Text’s “Black Radicalism,” that “an important feature of the common ground of black radicalism is that it is consistently diasporic.” The suggestion here is clear and damning: Blackness achieves cultural and political dynamism only when it has left Africa, when it is in contact with the Euro-American character. If there is anything most striking about this, it is how perfectly it mirrors the colonial disposition toward Africa.

Once we see beyond the prism of pan-Africanism to the power imbalances within Africa-diaspora relations, what ramifications might this have on future exchanges? To start, we could no longer consider it innocuous that the most popular Hollywood depictions of Africa among Black American audiences—Coming to America, Black Panther and The Lion King—all follow themes of royalty. The Africans in Coming to America and Black Panther are cast as if from a past of unimpeachable glory and might; the Africa of pyramids and Kente cloth inlaid with gold. It is easy to understand why Black Americans identify with these stories. They derive power from a particularly Afrocentric essentialism, which uses and exaggerates certain elements of pre-colonial Africa as an oppositional tactic to western narrative of blackness as primitive and unaccomplished. But Achebe was well-aware of the pitfalls of this tendency:

I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety. Flowing from that, I do not believe that black people should invent a great fictitious past in order to justify their human existence and dignity today.

Would a Zamunda without its prosperity or a Wakanda without the technological advancements of vibranium be of much interest to African-American audiences? It would seem that none of the Africas the rest of the world imagines are any of the ones Africans live and think and work and love and die in.

To understand foreign recognition of African excellence as an attempt to take “Africa to the world” is to internalize hegemonic knowledge of Africa and a social order in which the African is always peripheral to the central events and concerns of humanity. It helps to remember that ideology, as Stuart Hall writes, functions by nature on the level of the subconscious, and western hegemony still largely acts as the filter for taste and value. Even Achebe permits that “Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it.” So when Beyoncé writes as part of her love letter to Africa a song entitled “Spirit” and dons Owó Eyọ, one wonders if she has not also fallen into the same exoticist pitfall that Picasso and his friends fell into with “African” masks.

The exotic dress and dance, the vast deserts and mountainous landscape, and other such features in Beyoncé’s work present an Africa primed for a tourist’s escapade. Yet we Africans consume these representations and take ownership of them even though it could be argued that continental Africans are never the intended audience. If we were to accept that African-American cultural production suffers from the same failures of imagination as African-American knowledge production, we would see The Gift and our responses to it not as a singular case but indicative of pervasive complexes. We would pay closer attention to what we mean when we say that Afrobeats has become “global,” and what we mean when we argue over what region of Africa should have been represented above the other in American cultural products. We would see a recurrent reliance on essentialist tropes. We would have to admit that in our consumption of African-American culture is a sinister aspirationism, a desire to see blackness reflected back to us without the handicap of Africa. Beyoncé’s “love letter to Africa” is especially pernicious because it presents an Africa which can be transmitted through the peculiarities of a popular musical genre we all own and love. However, Beyoncé’s position as a popular American artist gives this presentation a political currency none of her African collaborators (or fans) have.

The authority of seeing and declaring the value that Africa has is a privilege that those outside the continent still claim for themselves, contested always from a position of weakness. We sense in Africanness an incompatibility with what is “modern” or “contemporary,” and despite belonging to the second largest continent, the African must earn her way into the global. There remains something irredeemably parochial about Africanness, something too insular to have wider relevance or application.

Achebe writes that he would have completed his critique of Conrad writing about “the world of good it would do if the West stopped conceptualizing Africa through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people—not angels, but not rudimentary souls either—just people.” His plan, however, is withdrawn when, he notes:

I thought more about the stereotype image… about the willful tenacity with which the West holds it to its heart; when I thought of the West’s television and cinema and newspapers, about books read in its schools and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa, I realized that no easy optimism was possible.

Achebe had come to the conclusion that mere representation fails as a liberatory politic.

The work of reinstating African dignity, of “setting the record straight” was not one Achebe stumbled into by chance. No, Achebe reminds us that it is necessary to have an agenda, because those for whom Africa remains ripe for plunder are unremitting in their pursuit. We cannot be lulled so easily into assuming noble intentions or casual naiveté on the part of any who declares interest in Africa or Africans. We must nurture a calculated cynicism to keep us aware that, as Achebe says, the “extraordinary failure to comprehend [that black people want to be treated like people] has to be something more than inability. It has to be a refusal, an act of will, a political strategy, a conspiracy.” And so, there are vested interests against which we must defend, and it is necessary to know to whom those interests belong, whatever forms they may take, even in “the gifts of a Conrad,” in pop culture sensations, in the guise of economic, political, or cultural self-empowerment.

Further Reading

Global Genre Accumulation

If there’s an underground dance scene or marginalized community nearby, Diplo or some DJ like him has or probably will “discover,” re-frame, and sell it to audiences in another part of the world.