On July 19, 2019, Beyoncé released a new 14 –track album titled ‘Lion King: The Gift’. Her album release was in conjunction with the promotion of a remake of the 25-year-old classic movie ‘The Lion King.’ The movie itself gives a skewed western fantasy of Africa as one big game reserve where you go to find animals and sing “Hakuna Matata.” The inspiration, according to its Hollywood producers, comes from Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya (East Africa) although Kenya’s creators can hardly be found in the classic movie or its remake. The remake has since generated over $1billion in revenue since its release on July 10, 2019.
In any event, back to Beyoncé. As part of her marketing and promotions efforts for her album, the American superstar, in an interview with ABC News, explained that her album was her, “love letter to Africa.”She said, “I wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa and not just use, you know, some of the sound or my own interpretation of it. I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa.”
She added, “a lot of the drums, the chants, all of these incredible new sounds mixed with some of the producers from America, we’ve kind of created our own genre.”
Beyoncé’s best talents from Africa are 7 performing artists (some double as composers) from Nigeria the home of Afrobeats (Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, Tekno, Wizkid, Bankuli, Yemi Alade, Mr. Eazi), 1 Ghanaian (Shatta Wale), 1 Cameroonian (Salatiel) and 2 South Africans (Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly). There are also a few African music producers including Guilty Beatz from Ghana who produced 3 of the 14 tracks.
Since the debut of the album, western media has paid homage to Beyoncé for her generosity in putting a, “bunch of African artists”or “some African artists”on her album. Even Africans have said the same thing and those excluded, especially Kenyans, have cried foul; arguing that a love letter to Africa should include them.
While I believe Beyoncé’s album is in fact a good body of work, I disagree that it is a “gift” or “love letter” to Africa. On the contrary, I believe it is simply a calculated business move to expand Beyoncé the brand and Tidal into new markets. Here are my three reasons why:
- Africa and its Artists are Paying for Beyoncé’s “love letter” to Africa.
A“gift”by definition is a donation that is made with nothing expected in return. Synonyms associated with the word “gift” include a present, handout, charity, subsidy, and grant. Further, when a “love letter”is written to a love interest, it is strange to require that the love interest, the recipient, pay for the paper and the words written on the paper. It’s a gift. In Beyoncé’s situation, however, Africa has to pay for her gift and love letter. In fact, Africa is overpaying for both.
How?First, in 2014 when Jay-Z bought Tidal, Beyoncé invested in the company and became one of its equity shareholders. Tidal, since then and amidst bad publicity, has tried to expand its reach by entering new markets to establish a footing and become sustainable. A strategy employed to reach its goals has been to focus on Africa. In 2018, after a few years of challenges in entering and navigating the African music terrain, Tidal finally made inroads with a one-of-a kind deal it signed with MTN, a South African leading telecommunications conglomerate. The deal allows MTN to stream Tidal content (music, movies, and concerts) to millions in Uganda and Nigeria. Nigeria, the giant of Africa, has over 180 million people with half of the population said to be youths.
Prior to the signing of the MTN deal, Tidal, for a few years, has been acquiring and streaming African content on its platform, including music. Specifically, it has streamed content (singles and albums) from the same artists featured on Beyoncé’s Lion King album i.e. Mr. Eazi, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, Tekno, Wizkid, and Burna Boy. Tiwa Savage, at one point, was even signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management label.
Therefore, Beyoncé, through Tidal’s analytics, among other resources, has had ample time to compile, review, and interpret data to make the strategic moves, in a fiercely competitive market, for the further expansion of her brand and Tidal into new markets, and to help maintain/increase relevance and market share. It is why Kenyan artists were most likely not included in the album, although highly relevant to the Lion King movie.
Third, Beyoncé is receiving royalties from all tracks featured on the album. It doesn’t matter the amount she may or may not have contributed to the tracks that was sent to her by the African artists featured on her album. The royalties payment even extends to her team who at times it seems questionable what their specific contributions were to beats produced by and indigenous to West African Afrobeats producers.
So, to be clear, in my view, Beyoncé’s album is no “gift” or “love letter” to Africa. It is a calculated business move by a woman that is often underestimated for her business acumen, although recognized and praised for her ability to entertain.
- Beyoncé takes credit for a genre she simply did not create.
A gift or love letter does not take credit for a genre it did not create. In Beyoncé’s statement to the press, she says, as indicated above, “a lot of the drums, the chants, all of these incredible new sounds mixed with some of the producers from America, we’ve kind of created our own genre.”
Her statement is confusing, at best. What “own genre” is she referring to? Afropop/Afrofusion already exist as genres of which Beyoncé’s album fits into. An example of an Afropop/Afrofusion artist is Tiwa Savage who, again, was once signed on to Jay’Z’s Roc Nation label, is streamed on Tidal and who Beyoncé features on her Lion King album. So at a minimum, Beyoncé should be aware of these genres that exists created by Nigerians.
- Beyoncé’s use of “gift” and “love letter” seems to exploit the western negative stereotype of Africa.
The final reason why I believe Beyoncé’s album is not a gift or love letter to Africa is that it seems to exploit the western negative stereotype of Africa. You know the one where the west extracts wealth from Africa to help build its prosperity but turns around and calls or treats Africa as a poor “country” in need of a savior. Unfortunately, in the 21stcentury, this superiority complex seems to continue to plague westerners including a celebrity like Beyoncé. On its own Beyoncé’s album is good but it is undermined by her marketing strategy to place herself as Africa’s savior, all while extracting wealth, in this instance intellectual property from Africa’s creative, and claiming she is giving the continent a “gift” and/or “love letter.
Indeed, it is no wonder that such a tried and tested narrative now has the western media referring to our artists as a “bunch of African artists on Beyoncé’s album,”with no real effort to get to know these artists, except of course already recognized/rising names like Wizkid and Burna Boy.
Photocredit: Lion King Album Cover Art press photo
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Credited for several firsts in the fashion and entertainment industry, Ms. Uduak is also a Partner and Co-Founder of Ebitu Law Group, P.C. where she handles her law firm’s intellectual property law, media, business, fashion, and entertainment law practice areas. She has litigated a wide variety of cases in California courts and handled a variety of entertainment deals for clients in the USA, Africa, and Asia. Her work and contributions to the creative industry have been recognized by numerous organizations including the National Bar Association, The American University School of Law and featured in prestigious legal publications in the USA including ABA Journal and The California Lawyer Magazine. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the prestigious Academy of Arts University in San Francisco.
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