An examination of The Lion King: The Gift and how the American mainstream engages the new wave of African music.
All eyes are on Africa. In a post-Black Panther world, we’re seeing the rise and resurgence of blockbuster productions and Billboard entries centering the continent and its cultural exports. The latest is Disney’s The Lion King CGI reboot. The film is accompanied by a Beyoncé-produced-and-curated compilation album, The Lion King: The Gift, with appearances from JAY-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell, Childish Gambino, Tierra Whack, and Saint JHN. It also highlights African stars whom American audiences are only beginning to familiarize with, like Mr. Eazi, Burna Boy, WizKid, Moonchild Sanelly, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage, Tekno, Shatta Wale, and Busiswa.
“The soundtrack is a love letter to Africa…I wanted it to be authentic,” Beyoncé explained during an ABC News special. In the interview, Beyoncé goes on to declare, “We’ve kind of created our own genre.”
The fact is, they didn’t. What Beyoncé was unknowingly referring to — the fusion of afrobeat, R&B, hip-hop, pop, reggae, dancehall, and house — is an already existing genre. It’s afropop. And there is a growing appetite for it in the American mainstream market.
What Beyoncé’s well-intentioned, well-executed album doesn’t do so well, when it comes to representation, is honor the importance of narrative. Where The Gift has aroused another level of patriotism in Nigerians, some fans from Kenya and adjacent East African countries feel left out. The call for the right kind of representation doesn’t eclipse the good of this project but sparked a connecting conversation about representation and accuracy. After all, given the driving phrase of the film “hakuna mata,” a Swahili saying, and the locations where the original Lion King creative team studied, the film is obviously set in Kenya — where a trove of East African talent is thriving.
The Gift doesn’t feature any Kenyan artists. Though it’s packaged as the sound of Africa, part of it feels like a one-dimensional dive into the afropop/afrobeats genre from West Africa. There’s a slew of Nigerian talent on the album, and a sprinkle of composers, songwriters, and producers from Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon, and Mali. West African culture is presumed to be at the forefront of Africa’s current global narratives. The Gift reinforces that visibility while forgetting the other side.
Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack fell to a similar fate. Listeners requested that the project include more African artists and sounds after the project was revealed and it mirrored a TDE compilation album rather than a diasporic disc for one of the blackest and most successful cultural moments of the last decade. (We’d be remiss to note that even Black Panther itself missed some marks; a plot supposed to be set near Kenya featured a protagonist who spoke with a strange South African accent.)
It’s this continued confusing conglomeration of cultures that marks America’s interpretation of Africa. African acts hold their own weight in their own world. And though an introduction to wider, western audiences by a Kendrick, Drake, or Beyoncé can help, what would be even more helpful is if forces that powerful got it all right.
The collision, still, is momentous on a macro level. On a micro level, The Gift doesn’t get it all wrong, per se; it just gets one side right. It is less of a moment of innovation and more of a good, surface-level curation of the new African wave.
“There’s a lot of interesting sounds on that project. But I feel like there was a good chance to actually touch base with the creative acumen [in Kenya],” Kenyan DJ, producer, and songwriter Blinky Bill tells Okayplayer. “There’s one of the songs that Beyoncé does sing in Swahili, and I think it could have been really helpful to shine some light on this region… But, credit to them, as well, because in terms of the production, there’s a lot more unknown producers who were picked on that project. It’s opening doors for the rest of us. But even one or two voices from [East Africa] would have really energized the industry on this side.”
If the album’s driving motive was to gain the most visibility, traction, and streams, then aligning with popular West African artists would seem like the best route. “It’s business,” Blinky said. “You take Mr Eazi, Burna Boy, The Wizkid, Tiwa Savage. That’s that kind of sound that a lot more Americans are used to. It’s kind of an easy sell.”
West African sounds, particularly Nigeria’s exports, have received more Western attention now than just five years ago. Timing plays a paramount part in this global perception and acceptance. “Sometimes because there’s one sound in a big country, there’s not a lot of inquisitiveness about what else is going on in other countries,” Blinky said. “While in the smaller countries, you get a lot of input from everywhere…It’s easier for me to know what’s going on in Nigeria, for example, than for a Nigerian to know what’s going on in Kenya…For us, it’s a challenge.”
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Nigerian A&R and music consultant Abisagboola “Bankulli” Oluseun said there is more to the curation of the album that the public isn’t privy to. Having been instrumental in bridging Africa and America’s music industries, Bankulli’s efforts stretch back a decade ago when he introduced Nigerian afropop pioneer D’banj to Kanye West. He worked with Kanye and JAY-Z on Watch The Throne and went on to sing and co-write three songs on The Gift.
“A lot of artists were invited to work on [The Gift.] Not all of them made the cut,” Bankulli said. “The A&R’s know what they’re looking for. They recorded way more songs. They had a direction.”
Bankulli said the project shouldn’t be grounds for nationalism but instead speak to a long-term effort to amplify all of the continent’s artists.“Afrobeats is the fastest rising music genre in Africa. Look at the numbers. How far is East African music in terms of global attention? It’s more on the West African side,” Bankulli said. “The critique is understood, but there’s so much good to see in this…This project has taken afrobeats to another front…The album is the kind of curation so that Americans who mostly follow Beyoncé can have a taste of the same soup. They can’t make the soundtrack just an East African sound. The rest of the world won’t digest it.”
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Ghanian record producer Guilty Beatz, who also worked on several songs on The Gift, said this project could be a stepping stone for mainstream American audiences to engage with the full soundscape of Africa. Despite its lack of East African artists, Guilty says the album still functioned as a form of representation. “Mainstream audiences are getting fuller experience of the sounds from Africa and this project from Beyoncé has opened that door for us producers, artists, and creatives across Africa and the diaspora,” Guilty Beatz said. “Having Moonchild [Sanelly] and Busiswa on this project may see Americans want to learn more about the sound from South Africa such as gqom or afrohouse, that’s a great thing…This is more than music; this is our culture being a part of something historic.”
History being made also means grounds for misrepresentation. As Westerners with nascent knowledge of this musical movement become gatekeepers, what should be understood is the assertion that appreciation is not a substitute for authority. A recent example surfaced when Major Lazer labled their 2018 album Afrobeats Mix (DJ Mix) when the first few songs were actually gqom. And not to mention the continued conflation of afrobeats with afrobeat. (Afrobeat, no “s”, was helmed by Nigerian legend Fela Kuti — his fusion of traditional West African sounds like highlife and juju with American jazz and funk that set precedent.)
Afrobeats is inaccurately used as an umbrella term for every new genre coming out of the continent. Some of the sound’s practitioners and enthusiasts aren’t even fond of the term. In an interview with Hot 97, Afro B, the Ivorian UK artist whose infectious 2018 tune “Joanna (Drogba)” is just now making waves in the US, said the term “afro-wave” is more suitable. Burna Boy, the current crossover poster child for this movement, has noted his preference for the term “afro-fusion.”
Blinky thinks there should be a concerted effort in recognizing and labeling African genres. “There’s so many diverse types of sounds and artists and producers on the continent that it would be a missed opportunity if all that came from here was boxed into that pop type sound,” he said. “Where’s the space for the mavericks and experimenters and guys who are not making music that’s gonna be in this huge conversation that involves us?”
The concern points to a valid point about the complexities of representation, which can be as kaleidoscopic as culture itself. In a 1969 editorial in Television Quarterly, scholar Cedric C. Clark — now known as Syed M. Khatib — attempted to outline this, penning “Evolutionary Stages of Minorities in the Mass Media.” Here, he examines four stages of representation: non-recognition, ridicule, regulation, and respect. With modern African music and the continent’s other cultural productions, Westerners seem to be teetering just past the respect stage, from the highly romanticized, exaggerated portraits of Africa — Coming to America — that only allow for audiences to respect the continent through fictionalized ideas of what it’s presently viewed as, or what it could be in a fictionalized utopian world à la Black Panther. There should be another stage added centering accuracy, that presents a space where we allow ourselves the same kind of nuance we demand when white entities blunder our stories.
The Gift brings African artists more attention, but there are still precautionary measures to take for Africans seeking American acknowledgment and crossover success. “What I really wish doesn’t happen right now in this phase that we’re in, where a lot more people are discovering African music, is that thing of taking a sound and then using it, and then dumping it,” Blinky said. “We just need to be able to have Africans on the forefront of pushing African music.”
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The American music industry has a long, elaborate tradition of both amplification and appropriation of international sounds and movements. African pop music is not yet in a position where the respect it garners matches the magnitude of its influence. There is a dedication to the delicate and sometimes desperate dance toward Western validation. Settling is the caveat for crossover success. It’s not that marginalized groups prefer to accept a little over nothing at all; it’s that we’re used to it.
Documentation of history is essentially a battle between narratives. This trickles down into the arts. But the challenge shouldn’t feel like a figurative game of cultural checkers where one African country topples the other for representation points. This movement towards storied, nuanced, accurate, forms of representation should feel holistic without eclipsing the intricacies.