Beyoncé Brings the World to Africa

The multicultural phenomenon that is The Lion King: The Gift

Music Film

 

Uishi kwa muda mrefu mfalme, uishi kwa uishi kwa - long live the king, live for life

Uishi kwa muda mrefu mfalme, uishi kwa uishi kwa - long live the king, live for life

 

On July 19, 2019, the long-awaited remake of the 1992 classic film “The Lion King” was released. Garnering more media frenzy than any of its live-action Disney counterparts, “The Lion King” has already crushed the box office, opening with $78.5 million Friday gross sales, including Thursday previews.

 

The film is nothing short of a grand visual achievement, marking the evolution of the Disney remake trend over the last few years. While the film has been positively received overall, websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic’s consensus reads “while it can take pride in its visual achievements, The Lion King is a by-the-numbers retelling that lacks the energy and heart that made the original so beloved – though for some fans that may just be enough,” a harsh but fair judgement. Where the movie may miss the mark on breathing new life and heart into Simba’s story, Beyoncé’s album of original music accompanying the film (not to be confused with the official movie soundtrack) entitled The Lion King: The Gift hits the bullseye.

 

In an interview with ABC, Beyoncé described the project as a love letter to Africa. The music sensation expressed her commitment to incorporating “the best talent from Africa, and not just us[ing] some of the sounds.”

 

The opening Swahili chant to Beyoncé’s single "SPIRIT," quoted above, translates to “long live the king, live for life.” The melodic echoing of the phrase ushers in the epic story that is about to be told -- not only the Sub-Saharan Hamlet that we know from childhood, but the cultural foundation of an extremely special part of the world that is the epicenter of humanity.

 

 

 

 

Bringing Africa to America

What makes this album a multicultural phenomenon is the impressively seamless fusion of African and American musicality. Beyoncé’s album is bringing Africa to American households in a more authentic way than western news outlets do. The stereotype of disease-ridden Africa sadly has been, and continues to be, reinforced by North American news outlets.

 

Branded as an underdeveloped continent still living in the dark ages, Africa is perceived as a dungeon of despair, far removed literally and physically from American life. African history and culture are rarely taught in American schools; the average American doesn’t know the difference between Botswana and Burkina Faso. The beauty of African art has yet to reach the mainstream here in the United States. The vivaciousness of the African way of life is not represented in American media. African music, even in more melancholy tunes, uses instrumentals and lyricism to pay homage to the beauty of life. With strong drums, playful flutes and hip-hypnotizing melodies, African music celebrates the living body and the experiences of life. This commitment is rooted in African tradition and is still prevalent in African music today.

 

“The Lion King” remake presented the perfect conditions to create a culturally blended experience. The timing, the story, and the people involved created an experience that spoke to a universal audience and represented both American and African culture. “The Lion King” is an African story that has a place in peoples’ hearts universally, across generations and locations. Likewise, Beyoncé is an icon to all, especially the black community. As an artist, she honors her heritage and, in recent years, with projects like Lemonade and Homecoming, has revolutionized storytelling through music.

 

 

An Homage to African Storytelling

In the production, performance, and subsequent experience Beyoncé curates in The Gift, she pays homage to an important building block of African cultures across countries: storytelling through music. While Africa is a continent filled with diverse countries and cultures, the continent is brought together by the African story. A story filled with vibrancy, calls-to-action marked by heavy heart-beat pounding drums, heavenly harmonies that soar and momentous chants that celebrate life. At its core, African music is about celebrating life through your body, moving it and shaking it to melodies you feel in your heart. Modern African music translates this celebration through hip-swaying sounds now popularly known as “afro-beats.”

 

The sounds of the album are intoxicating and ignite imagery that almost rivals that of the actual film. From triumphant ballads like “SPIRIT” and “BROWN SKIN GIRL” to upbeat shoulder-shaking tracks like “Mood 4 Eva” and “DON’T JEALOUS ME,” the album re-energizes and emphasizes the themes of the story. Beyoncé’s vocals pair beautifully with afro-beats - a musical match made in heaven. The blending of American influences on African musicality and structure is perfect. There isn’t a clear divide between the “American” songs and “African” songs. Each track is a blend of the best both music styles have to offer. Beyoncé and her collaborators have created a new genre of music.

 

 

 

 

Inclusion is Key

The Gift is masterful in its incorporation of both traditional and modern elements of African music. To do this, Beyoncé called upon some of the experts in the genre: Mr. Eazi, WizKid, Tekno, Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Tiwa Savage, Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly. The album also includes African producers Magwenzi, Bubele Boii, Northboi Oracle and others. These incredible artists have yet to have to reach American charts and are mostly unknown to American audiences. Their art is unknown to American audiences. Unlike the Black Panther soundtrack, which only included 4 songs that incorporated African artists, 90 percent of The Gift is performed, written, or produced by African artists. The music feels like a collaborative effort, between American superstars like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and their African counterparts. For the first time, we’re seeing African artists playing a leading and active role in American music. 

 

The album does, however, neglect to highlight a region that plays an integral role in “The Lion King.” Beyoncé included sounds and artists from South and West Africa but failed to integrate East African artistry into The Gift. The backdrop of “The Lion King” is inspired by East African landscapes, such as Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro which is prominent in the background as the animals head to pride rock for the iconic opening scene of the movie. And Swahili is peppered throughout the movie, from the most popular song of the original score “Hakuna Matata” to the names of key characters (rafiki means friend in Swahili). While we should celebrate that Beyoncé felt the need to build a project that was influenced by African culture, it is disappointing that she didn’t use East African artists or producers. That being said, as an East African woman who spent my adolescent years in Nairobi, I was still touched and I connected with the music on the album. Regardless of the lack of representation of East Africans, the artists featured were artists that I listened to on the radio and feverishly downloaded their newest singles on Limewire. I felt the roots of my culture were celebrated, and as Africans, this is a win for all of us.      

 

Music culture today is so exciting. We are redefining what hip hop sounds like, what rap sounds like, what R&B sounds like. The number one song in the U.S. (for the 15th week) is “Old Town Road,” a song that embodies the magic that occurs when you mix two opposite styles of music: hip hop and country. What Beyoncé did in The Gift is unique. Few albums or musical projects have found a way to integrate both American and African styles in a way that equally represents modern music in both regions. She has given us a true gift in bringing African and American styles together, to create what can best be described as a liberating, intoxicating and electrifying celebration of life.

 

 

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Animation, Africa