Beyoncé and the Heart of Darkness


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-aggrandisement. 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…

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