“Legacy, oh, you’re part of something way bigger,” chants Beyonce in “Bigger” the opening track of The Lion King: The Gift and the recently released accompanying visual album Black Is King. Beyonce’s latest project has reinvigorated conversations about African spirituality and ancestral roots drawing commentary globally—from critics and fans—for its styling, direction, and iconography. The beehive applauds her breathtaking showcase of Black opulence, illustrated at every scene with stunning visuals that highlight pivotal African spiritual practices and symbols. But haters came in quick to call out Beyonce’s reverence for African ancestral representation as demonic and blasphemous.
Although I hold my own qualms with how Beyonce profits off the mass representation of African culture, I also acknowledge that her work creates space to illuminate and honor the roots of Black liberation. I was enthralled by the vibrant representations in Black Is King of ancient African ancestral guides and leaders. As a young Black woman of the African diaspora coming into my own spiritual journey, acquainting myself with my ancestors and quieting the world around me to listen to their wisdom has been a big part of understanding my place in this world. At its core, ancestral worship has allowed me to unlearn harmful narratives from religious institutions that instilled shame and fear as a means to redemption. I constantly felt judged by patriarchal religious leaders that were far removed from the intersectional, queer life I created for myself. Throughout my journey, my ancestors have become my best companions, cheerleaders, and friends. While they might playfully chide, they always come from a place of compassion and acceptance. When I let go of what religion taught me was the “right” way to worship, I was able to open myself to the divinity already inherent within me. I felt like I was finally seen.
Candice Marie Benbow, writer, theologian and creator of the #LemondeSyllabus, reminds us that “Black people have always been a spiritual people, full stop, and that spirituality is robust and to demonize it in any way, shape or form is also to demonize yourself.” Black Is King creatively combines imagery of Orishas such as Oshun, divine feminine figures such as Yemoja, water as a medium and portal such as the Nile, and several other intentional icons and style choices that reflect traditions from Zulu, Yoruba, and Mangbetu communities. While Beyonce’s team did an impressive job researching and styling this visual album, it is important to remember that their representations of African spirituality only showcased a small, curated part of our culture.
Embedded in a long history of slavery and colonization, ancestral spiritual practices served as tools of survival and protection for Black communities. Through her lyrics and narrative arc Beyonce pays homage to the pillars of African ancestral history and calls on Black communities to return to our roots. In many ways Beyonce’s message falls in line with a collective call across the African diaspora to return to land and return to self throughout the 2019 year of return.
Today, as I stumble through an uncertain world pained by immense suffering and turmoil, I turn to my ancestors. I light some sandalwood, offer up wine, and sit with them to chat. I share my thoughts, my heart, my spirit, and ask for guidance. Their patience and grace have freed me from self-judgment and guilt and made room for an unconditional love of self that grounds me in all aspects of my life. By honoring the sacrifices of those that came before us, we usher in a new wave of healing ourselves outside of oppressive systems and forces. And in healing yourself, you can heal a friend, a community, a nation.