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What to know about Beyoncé’s ‘Lion King’-inspired visual album ‘Black Is King’

By Sonia Rao Washington Post

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter released “Black Is King” in the wee hours of the morning July 31, roughly one month after publicly announcing that she had shot a companion piece to her original music released alongside the live-action film “The Lion King” last year. The new visual album, streaming on Disney Plus, is “meant to celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry,” she stated in that announcement.

The singer researched and worked on the project over the course of a year collaborating with other Black artists across the globe. She joined forces with numerous directors to shoot music videos for the tracks from “The Lion King: The Gift,” and enlisted some of the Nigerian, South African, Ghanaian, Cameroonian and American artists featured in the music to appear in its visual counterpart, as well.

For those who haven’t yet caught “Black Is King,” here’s what to know about Beyoncé’s latest work.

What is “Black Is King”?

“Black Is King” is Beyoncé’s latest visual album, a tapestry of music videos for “The Lion King: The Gift,” an album accompanying last year’s live-action film. The 85-minute piece draws from the reimagined Disney classic both in its story, loosely following a young boy’s maturation and search for identity, and in the literal sense, featuring voice-overs from Mufasa, Simba and other characters in the movie.

The visual album, which was shot in locales across the world – Disney lists South Africa, Belgium and West African countries, as well as New York, Los Angeles and London – explores the meaning of legacy and celebrates cultures and customs that bring the Black diaspora together: “Black is the color of my true love’s skin,” Beyoncé says early on. “Coils and hair catching centuries of prayers spread through a smoke. You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let Black be synonymous with glory.”

Certain moments focus on the Black American experience such as the inclusion of an American flag with its stars and stripes repainted in black, red and green – colors from the Pan-African flag. At one point, a male voice-over comments on an identity struggle experienced by the American descendants of enslaved people from Africa: “When it’s all said and done, I don’t even know my own native tongue,” he says. “And if I can’t speak myself, I can’t think myself. And if I can’t think myself, I can’t be myself. But if I can’t be myself, I will never know me. So, Uncle Sam, tell me this: If I will never know me, how can you?”

How can I watch it?

“Black Is King” is streaming on Disney Plus.

Did we know this was happening?

Yes. Beyoncé uploaded a minute-long trailer for “Black Is King” alongside the June announcement, in which she wrote that “the events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant.”

“We are all in search of safety and light,” she continued. “Many of us want change. I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our real history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books.”

Beyond that message, Disney released a second trailer for the film last week. The lead-up to “Black Is King” strays from what has become the norm for Beyoncé, an artist who, since surprise-dropping her self-titled album in 2013, has tended to shroud her work in secrecy. The visual albums for “Beyoncé” and 2016’s “Lemonade” have been credited with revolutionizing how the music industry approaches releases.

Who else worked on the visual album?

While Beyoncé is the first director to appear in the credits for “Black Is King,” she is joined by several others, including Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jake Nava and Kwasi Fordjour, the last of whom she has collaborated with many times before. (Fordjour and two others, Dafe Oboro and Julian Klincewicz, are described as co-directors.)

Some of the artists featured on “The Lion King: The Gift” are only heard in the film, such as Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, others also appear in person. Nigerian singer Burna Boy performs “Ja Ara E” on camera, for instance, as Cameroonian performer Salatiel and American producer Pharrell Williams do with “Water.” Ghanaian singer Shatta Wale shows up for the “Already” video, which Beyoncé also released on YouTube. Nigerian artists Tekno, Yemi Alade and Mr. Eazi appear for “Don’t Jealous Me.”

“Black Is King” is a family affair. Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z, is featured on “Mood 4 Eva” and shows up for that portion of the visual album. Their elder daughter, Blue Ivy, appears throughout – most memorably during “Brown Skin Girl” standing alongside her mother, little sister, Rumi, and grandmother Tina Knowles-Lawson. The entire film is dedicated to Sir Carter, Rumi’s twin brother.

Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Campbell and Kelly Rowland also appear for “Brown Skin Girl.”

How has it been received so far?

There was backlash to “Black Is King” before its release, most of which characterized the depictions of the different African cultures as stereotypical. Knowles-Lawson, Beyoncé’s mother, defended her daughter on Instagram, sharing another post describing the research Beyoncé did for the project.

On the whole, however, public reactions to “Black Is King” seem to be as positive as one might have expected. Writing for the Guardian, Chanté Joseph gave the “love song to the Black diaspora” four out of five stars, saying that it was worth the wait. Jeremy Helligar stated in Variety that, while it isn’t perfect, the film “excels as a celebration of Blackness in its many forms: Black women, Black men, Black children, Black motherhood, Black fatherhood, Black pasts, Black presents and Black futures.” Jenessa Williams wrote for NME that Beyoncé’s decision to elevate other artists demonstrates “the value of hearing from Black voices not only when they are in crisis, but when they are thriving.”