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We Asked, You Answered: How Should Beyoncé Portray Africa In 'Black Is King'?

Last week, we asked our audience: If you were Beyoncé, what kind of Africa would you portray in Black Is King?

The 85-minute film, written, directed and produced by Beyoncé, was released on July 31 on Disney+. With imagery, costumes, dances and music pulling heavily from African culture, many people from the continent had thoughts about the film — including the authors Esther Ngumbi and Ifeanyi Nsofor, who wrote an opinion piece for us titled "We Are Africans. Here's Our View Of Beyoncé's 'Black Is King.' "

The authors acknowledged criticisms of the film – for example, some felt the animal print costumes perpetuated stereotypical representations of Africans. But ultimately, the authors loved the film. "Black Is King portrays all shades of Black and recognizes Blackness as a spectrum, acknowledging that each of its shades is royalty," they wrote.

But they wondered: What elements of African culture was the film missing? What did it get right? How does one cover a continent of 54 countries? Dozens of NPR readers emailed us to share their thoughts. Here are a selection of responses.

'A statement of aspiration'

Beyoncé creates a representation [of Africa] for herself, a creation steeped in African aesthetic politics and globalization. Moving beyond tales of woe and anger, the question, "who are you?" is answered by Beyoncé in a display of high-end Afrocentric fashion, billion-dollar wealth, close-knit family and African mythological references.

For African-Americans, possible African descendants of slavery, and even Africans who do not share experiences of bondage but who have been externally othered by colonization and/or apartheid, Black is King is a statement of aspiration. From the songs "My Power" to "Brown Skin Girl," Beyoncé reiterates that she must free herself from reductionist categories and fulfill the aspiration she shares with her ancestors who were in bondage. And Beyoncé has achieved a privileged identity that her ancestors could only dream of. - Ololade Faniyi

A call for more African American culture

I was so disappointed with the lack of Black Lives Matter imagery and the altogether absence of African American culture. Many Black people love Africa and know they descend from there, but that doesn't mean they feel like African culture is truly theirs. Some will never get to visit Africa. For others, Black identity is so heavily steeped in Black Southern roots or the Harlem Renaissance or the halls of historical Black colleges and universities or on shores of Martha's Vineyard or in the pews of churches that they just couldn't totally see themselves in Black Is King. - Anonymous (user requested anonymity out of concern about online bullying)

Beyoncé's interpretation of Africa is 'beautiful'

I don't quite understand the negative comments against an artist's interpretation of an African American's visions of Africa. The Africans speaking against Beyoncé [as quoted in NPR's piece] are not African Americans, nor do they share our cultural history and viewpoints. We are people of color from two different continents. [They] cannot understand what such images mean to us.

Americans identify with the motherland in ways that are important to us. We've been out of Africa for so long, we grasp and hold on to what we deem beautiful in ways that might remind us of home. Africa's flora, fauna and people are all beautiful and mysterious, and we feel such pride to come from a country with so much rich DNA, natural wealth and beauty. -Bobbie Cade

Celebrate Africa's queer and trans history

If I were Beyoncé, I'd make a Black Is King that centers and celebrates queer and trans Africans. I'd love to see loving same-gender relationships, trans and non-binary people thriving. And I'd like to see depictions of the numerous queer practices that have existed in Africa pre - , during and post-colonialism. For example, gender non-conforming individuals were often spiritual leaders in African communities. - Charlene Adhiambo

Beyoncé's depiction of Africa is 'how we live'

I'm Xhosa from South Africa. If someone were to ask me what my culture was, I wouldn't show myself in the suite and the skyscraper I live in. I would show them my grandfather's hut in the rural Eastern Cape, where you get woken up by the sound of cows coming out of the kraal [an Afrikaans word for an enclosure for cattle] in the morning. I would show them how the young women paint their faces in white dots during traditional events and how men paint themselves in white when they perform the coming of age ceremony that we still do today. It's a part of my culture. Zulu people, Tswana people, Nama/Khoisan people still wear animal skin in their traditional events. This is part of our culture now, in 2020, in South Africa. To say that it's not how we live is a lie. - Simnikiwe Ntyantya

Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts with Goats and Soda.

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Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.