This has been a big week. One of ascension. It began with Taylor releasing “Folklore”, a point at which the peak seemed quite high. Until we truly began to ascend with Barack Obama’s soaring farewell to a man he rightly anointed as one of the future founding fathers of America, John Lewis. The ascension continued with John Lewis himself, from the beyond, bringing us ever closer to the mountaintop as he implored us to follow the calling of our hearts and stand up for what we truly believe. All of these things brought us close but it was Beyoncé, and her stunningly glorious visual album “Black Is King”, that brought us to the summit. From the outset, Beyoncé tells us “the journey is a gift” and what a gift she has given.
My great friend, who understands me and my love for Beyoncé well, texted me the afternoon of its release to ask if I had seen it yet. I had not but I started watching nearly immediately after receiving the message and I have not stopped seeing it since. Within the first five minutes I found myself moved by the beauty of stunning, unspoiled beaches under the dome of a pink and purple sky. Beyoncé at the shoreline, water, the ultimate symbol of renewal, lapping at her feet as she stood serene, in a flowing white dress and caramel skin in all of her glory and power; the matriarchy rising. And it just got better from there.
“Black Is King” is eye poppingly beautiful; visually and sonically stunning. It is a call to not let this life drive us crazy and instead open the rooms of our mind to find home and come back to the truth of ourselves. A truth robbed particularly from the Black community. The truth being that they are beautiful, wanted, valued, desired; loved and cherished as they are “reflected in the worlds most heavenly things”. The film is not a vision of what was or what could have been, but rather, a vision of what is. It is the truth. The truth about Black lives, Black power, Black freedom, Black history, and future, delivered by a Black woman as a gift to her Black son who is, as she tells him, “the key to the kingdom”. It is simply put remarkable.
This visual album was supposed to accompany the soundtrack to “The Lion King”, a film released over a year ago, but, Beyoncé is after all Beyoncé, and so it was not released until yesterday and the timing (again because Beyoncé is Beyoncé) could not have been more perfect. This moment, one in which Black and brown bodies are murdered and lives are destroyed. A moment which saw George Floyd’s killer stare straight into the camera as he killed him, Beyoncé reclaimed that lens from the very first frame of the film as she stared right back and never looked away. She was unflinching, seeming to understand deeply that she is a part of something much bigger and must run her own race knowing she must “lead or be led astray”. She will not be led astray.
At the beginning of the album, Beyoncé sings that history is actually the future and that “one day you will meet yourself back where you started, but stronger”. A full circle moment enveloping the many full circle moments of which we have been a part this week. Many artists from Margaret Laurence to Lin-Manuel Miranda to Beyoncé often divine the future through the lens of the past. It is what the marginalized are forced to do because as Beyoncé sings “to live without reflection so long, do you even exist?”. If a woman like Beyoncé or a man like Lin-Manuel Miranda were to try and determine their existence based on how often they are writ by the culture at large it would seem that, no, they do not exist. And so, left with no other choice, they will and write themselves into existence, into the story.
Many activists, and giants of society, do the same thing. They write themselves into the story because no one else will. Activists and giants like John Lewis. In his eulogy, former President Obama remarked that men like John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King did not see a world which reflected them. Instead, they saw a world in which they were demeaned, debased, non-existent and, yet, John Lewis persisted until nearly hour of his death. He was, as Beyoncé put it, the root and all who follow his way now, whether it be through a vote or a peaceful protest or work with Black Lives Matter, are the tree; the offshoots of what was planted by men and women with the courage to make “good trouble”. John Lewis spent his life working toward an America that has not yet delivered on its promise and, yet, hope remains. The hope that America’s future will be better than its past or its present. A future in which John Lewis will be lauded as one of its founders and its architects.
Beyoncé is one of those offshoots and, yet, she is also a capitalist. A figure of media and a pop culture creation. But those were not worlds created by her. Those are worlds that she is a part of and has learned to navigate and claim for herself. She had the power to direct “Black Is King”. She had the power to populate it solely with Black and brown bodies and fashion that celebrates and elevates Black culture and heritage. As Beyoncé tells those listening, “I am guiding us through our own reflections; light refracted”. She tells all of us, “I had to be everything you couldn’t be for my own survival”. What other way is there to survive when no one else tells your story or when the version of your life reflected back to you is the worst possible one?
Well, if you are Beyoncé you give yourself the ultimate gift, the ultimate love, the ultimate miracle and you engage in radical acts of self-creation and, as you do so, you give others permission to do the same. She does the thing we are all, ultimately, here to do: to create ourselves and, in doing so, remember exactly who we are. And as we engage in these acts of creation and come to know ourselves, we come to truly know others too because we can’t really know anyone until we come to know ourselves. This joyful knowing and the gift it is to ourselves and future generations is never more evident than in Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy’s, singing and dancing in the film. She is self-possessed, unafraid and confident. A little Black girl with her head held high, the embodiment of her mother’s words, “you can’t wear a crown with your head down”.
And how could Blue Ivy, or any other little Black girl, or boy, watching this film not understand their own beauty and worth when they are so exalted and adored; held in the highest esteem? Well, they couldn’t and that is the biggest gift of “Black Is King”. It tells the next generation, ‘you may have been beaten down for centuries but you have always been Kings and Queens and to your proper place, your birthright will you return.’. This joy, this triumph and recognition; the hero’s journey encapsulated throughout this film is never more evident than in the song “Brown Skin Girl”. Beautiful women with glowing skin of varying hues dressed in candy coloured debutante ball gowns with “skin like pearls”. Beautiful before ‘they’ knew what beauty was.
When has Black or brown skin ever been aligned with pearls? If it ever has been it is certainly not often. We are told all the time that our skin tells our story but what about skin that has been imprinted, written upon, whipped and otherwise abused? For centuries the skin of Black people has been written on with others narratives and stories; imprinted with their misguided beliefs. Until now and it is wondrous and beautiful and necessary. Beyoncé has taken back what was stolen, what was thought to belong to another, but, really, always belonged to no one but God.
“Black Is King” sends “salutations to survivors of the world” and tells the story of people who were robbed and stolen only to be beaten, subjugated and defiled for centuries and, yet, have somehow survived. It is, both, a love letter and marching orders, like those left behind this week by John Lewis. Beyoncé is investing in herself and her vision and asking others to do the same. Her film tells the story of an entire people swimming back to themselves in order to once again meet themselves at the shore. The world tried to tell them who they were — worthless, useless, barely human — and make them forget who they are. Yet as presented by Beyoncé the subjugated people are now glorified, exalted, anointed and acknowledged as being made with the “heat of the galaxy, dusted with stars, the universe in [their] eyes”. In other words, exactly as they should be.