Is Beyoncé Appropriating African Culture?

Beyoncé Gisele Knowles-Carter is arguably one of the biggest artists of our generation. With a career spanning over two decades, 22 Grammys under her leotard, sold-out stadium tours, and her own sports line – she is definitely at the top of her game. It is important to note that as a female artist, one does not attain such longevity without reinventing themselves along the way.

The year 2016 marked a monumental point in the multi-talented star’s career as she took to the centre stage to protest for civil rights by doing what she knows best – performing. The Superbowl Half-Time Show performance with female dancers dressed as Black Panther members was met with a lot of criticism and many claimed it would permanently taint her career.

Two months later, ‘Lemonade’ came out and created an unparalleled experience. Her highly acclaimed “masterpiece” showcased black women, the black experience in modern-day America, with an impeccable arrangement of visual imagery including a special feature on the mothers of the victims of police brutality. From then onwards, Beyoncé has been tagged as a political artist for taking on these issues head-on.

Her activism, however, did not stop there. She and her husband Jay-Z traversed to the “motherland” to headline at the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg. On December 2, 2018, the First National Bank Stadium (Nascrec) witnessed the return of the ‘Queen’ as she and her dancers came out on stage draped in couture, some of which were curated by local designers – thus cementing a perfect opportunity to highlight African designers. All the same, the event marked 14 years since she last stepped foot in South Africa, and eight since she passed through the continent at all.

Also read: 10 Years of Beyoncé: A Decade ‘Causing All This Conversation’

If she loves her African fans so much – why has it taken her so long to return? And why does she exclude African countries from her tours even though she uses their history and culture in her music videos?

One argument that could be raised is the cost of having concerts in African nations. But over the years since the star last visited, the entertainment industry has boomed and so has infrastructure.

‘Black is King’

Her latest project ‘Black is King’ is set to premiere on July 31 exclusively on Disney+ – a streaming service that is not available in Africa. The project will be featured in select countries through the cable network DStv.

The entire visual album depicts African culture. Many have taken to calling out the star, and labelling it a form of exploitation.

Her attempts to “give back” to the African community may seem noble, but after further examination, some of her actions do seem questionable. In the past, she has used Yoruba mythology through her clothing, dance halls beat, and Pantsula choreography. Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s ‘On The Run II’ tour aesthetic was also inspired by the classic Senegalese film of two young lovers on the run, Touki Bouki.

All these influences originate from different regions of the multicultural continent. To engulf all of these different traditions into one is insulting, to say the least.

The Wakanda-fication of the African continent has become a growing trend and when black artists support such narratives, it becomes even more dangerous. It is important to understand the difference between appropriation and assimilation, and having the same skin colour does not give you a free pass.

Beyoncé, however, is not the only star who does this. But as someone with so much influence, she should be providing a better example. I have been a fan for as long as I can remember, but I find myself conflicted.

Whether such criticism of Beyoncé is warranted is debatable.

In 2011, the songstress saw a clip of African Pantsula dancers at a wedding ceremony in Mozambique and she flew them all the way to the US to choreograph and star in a video. Since then, the dance has been popularised and she has continued to credit them for the same. To me, this story deserves to be acknowledged and I respect her for what she did. We have seen how Beyoncé can empower the black community. As a black man myself, I can say that it was probably of the most well thought-out and inspiring performances I’ve ever seen.

But the issue here is that as someone who profits from African culture, she should do more to not only support but highlight African artists. That same energy should be reflected by her fans.

Many of us are tired of seeing black artists benefiting from the African aesthetic. African artists have proudly broken into the global market and it seems interesting that now that this has finally happened, non-African stars seem to want to take advantage of that.

To create a discussion and not assume a verdict, I would like to leave it up to readers to decide – is Beyoncé really guilty of appropriating African culture?

Nicolas Nhalungo is 21 and studies at the National Institute of Technology, Calicut. He is from Maputo, Mozambique.

Featured image credit: Travis Matthews/Disney Plus Media Relations