Not My Love Letter: Beyonce’s ‘The Lion King’ Album and Representations of Africa

Bodies collided in anticipation as Burna Boy’s new tracks played on repeat in the bustling walls of a downtown African club in Lower Manhattan. The African Giant himself was rumored to make an appearance in a few moments to promote his new album. As I inched my way closerto the front, I was struck by the sight of Black bodies moving in unison. From zanku to shaku shaku fans vibrated to Burna Boy’s contagious, rhythmic tracks. It was clear that Burna Boy’s music captured a key diasporic crossover. In this celebratory moment of visibility for African music, Burna Boy found a way to connect the coasts of Lagos to the dance floors of New York City.

Burna Boy was one of the select, well-known African artists featured on Beyonce’s album “The Lion King: The Gift”. In an interview with Good Morning America, Queen Bey coined the album as a, “love letter to Africa”. When I first watched the interview I remember instantly cringing at Beyonce’s casual grouping of all 54 diverse countries within the African continent into a mere 27 tracks. Although Beyonce intentionally included a range of African artists throughout the album, albeit leaning on West African artists, I still struggled to understand how an animated film about a scraggly group of fictitious animals represented the reality of the versatile, vibrant, varied communities of Africa I know.

As I racked my brain to think of what intention our Queen B had behind this soundtrack and her statement, I came up empty. While The Lion King is a much beloved childhood film for many of us that indeed takes place in a nondescript location in Africa, it is nonetheless a fictitious film that does not encapsulate any reality of Africa. Rather, it reinforces harmful stereotypes that the totality of Africa is characterized by empty savannas and deserts populated by delicate antelopes, humorous warthogs, and scheming hyenas. In her comment and intention with the album, Beyonce reestablishes the feeble image of Africa as a homogeneous continent that is largely rural and underdeveloped in its scope and complexity. Additionally, the title of the album itself, labeled as “The Gift”, implies that Beyonce is bestowing a favor upon all African communities. As if, through her music, she is raising the visibility of over 1.3 billion people that inhabit the continent.

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As African culture and music such as Afrobeats and dancehall break into the sphere of popular culture I am cautiously excited. Beyonce, and many other savvy business people, have taken advantage of this opportunity to keep up with the forces who are dictating popular culture, all the while determining what the rest of the work deems as “African”. While it is promising to see several African artists catapulted into mainstream media, this influx of fame begs us to ask who is dictating the image of Africa to the global community?

From the small townships to the sprawling cities to the local villages, Africa’s vibrant creativity and raw versatility has finally garnered overwhelming demand. However, in the wake of this popularity it is vital to protect our communities from American capital greed and cultural appropriation.

In a recent interview with Apple Music, Burna Boy was asked if he feels any responsibility as an artist. He quickly answered, no. Yet, on his track, “Another Story (ft. M.anifest)” Burna Boy makes the artistic choice to begin with a voiceover explaining the inception of Nigeria from capitalist colonial roots. In this way he takes on a sort of responsibility through his art to educate his listeners about his home and its history. The complex nuances of the various colonial histories of African countries is lost on artists such as Beyonce, who fall outside of the African experience. Therefore, it becomes vital that African artists themselves are the ones leading the representation of Africa on an international stage.

Even as Burna Boy’s eclectic sound moves us on the dancefloor, he is also not a representative of Africa as a whole. Rather, he is a Nigerian artist creating space through his music, recalling Fela Kuti’s beloved, iconic metered afrobeats. No one artist can represent the vast totality of Africa.

Each artist, each individual, has a story to share about Africa and no one person can encompass the great diversity of our continent. It is unrealistic to expect one body of work from an American artist, even Queen B herself, to express the nuanced experiences of our vast continent. It is not on one of us to stand as a representative for us all. Rather, this moment provides an opening for various African artists to take to the stage, the pen, the studio to share their story and provide a piece of Africa to the world.