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Beyoncé is facing accusations of ‘stealing’ visuals for her Lion King music videos – as a fan, I’m taking them seriously

When African artists with fanbases too small to go up against powerhouses as combative as the Beyhive are criticised for sticking up for their art, or accused of ‘hating’, rather than sincerely attempting to protect their property, we should wait and listen

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 24 July 2019 18:00
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Lion King featurette with Jon Favreau, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogan and Hans Zimmer

As anticipated as the live-action remake of the The Lion King has been, there is no question that a large part of its pull comes from one person and one person only: Beyoncé.

The superstar’s role in the film and her curation of accompanying album The Lion King: The Gift has, predictably, opened up conversations about identity, Africa and the way we perceive the countless countries and cultures that make it up.

In the days since both the album and film’s release, we’ve collectively praised Beyoncé for collaborating with artists from the cultures she took inspiration from for the album. We’ve fiercely laid out the intention behind songs like “Brown Skin Girl”. But there’s something bubbling under the surface of these conversations that we’re a little more reticent to acknowledge. And it’s the uncomfortable, and famously difficult to prove matter of plagiarism.

This weekend, days after the release of her impressive music videos for “Spirit” and “Bigger” – a high-budget, gorgeous, Grand Canyon-set endeavour complete with the precision, representation and strong imagery we’re used to seeing from Beyoncé – interesting claims from several observant music fans surfaced online.

Beyoncé and Meghan Markle embrace at The Lion King premiere in London

It started off as a trickle of observations, first written in Portuguese, in Brazil, last Wednesday, hours after the video’s release: “Beyonce using Petite Noir’s ‘La Maison Noir’ as a ‘reference’ in Spirit?”

This was repeated English, in London, two days later: “Beyonce’s new video really reminds me of the stellar video for the absolute banger ‘Blamefire’ from last year from @PETITE_NOIR”. People were noticing similarities to another project. And I, a loud and proud admirer of Beyoncé, saw them too.

In 2018, Petite Noir, a Congolese-Angolan artist, who has worked with Solange Knowles, released a visual album called La Maison Noir: The Gift and the Curse, produced by Red Bull music and conceptualised and directed by Rharha Nembhard and performed by Noir (real name Yannick Ilunga), after years of working on the concept.

I’d seen and been blown away by the video when it was released. Shot against the backdrop of desert landscapes in Namibia, the four-part project, as described by Red Bull, covered the four stages of life as represented by the symbol of the Kongo cosmogram as well as the separation of each arresting section into groups of “fire, earth, air and water”. So when I, a huge fan of Beyoncé and self-described member of the Beyhive (albeit the civil, adult faction of the fandom), saw “Spirit” for the first time, La Maison Noir was the first place my mind went to.

There are, at least to me, an uncomfortable amount of similarities between the projects. Some of which have been furiously explained away through shot-by-shot comparisons and references to Beyoncé’s previous projects, others that are slightly less hard to explain.

There’s the cowrie shell suit, worn by Ilunga throughout his visual album, a glitzy equivalent also worn by Beyoncé in her own music video. References to the cosmogram feature throughout Ilunga’s video – similar, almost shot-for-shot imagery, rather inexplicably, features in Beyonce’s video. Diet Prada, a social media platform dedicated to exposing industry knockoffs, coincidentally run by two super fans of Beyonce, even reluctantly posted a video comparison of the two projects, the two standing on top of each other like near mirror images, much to the disdain of some members of the hive, and the delight of those who relish any opportunity to call Beyonce “overrated”.

Let me just say, I have no expertise in copyright law, and I find it hard to accept that an artist whose desire to support black people globally has been proven time and again would intentionally lift the entirety of a project by an African artist – one with millions of views and strong industry support – to make her own commercialised reboot.

But what I am concerned about is the quickness with which so many have dismissed the claims as an attempt to “clout chase” and nothing more, especially considering the fact that we’ve been here before.

All the Stars”, Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s song for Disney-distributed Black Panther, drew criticism and a lawsuit from Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor (who also works closely with Ilunga) in 2018, after noticing what looked like a near replica of her own artwork in the soundtrack music video.

Her lawyer at the time noted the irony of a video and movie that “promotes (and profits from) themes of black female empowerment and the end of racist and gender exploitation” while “ignoring the wishes of the artist, herself a black African woman, whose life work is founded on the political and historical preconceptions of ‘blackness’ liberation and womanhood”.

You could almost copy and paste the same argument here. Whether or not you wholeheartedly believe that credit should be given, the conversation it has sparked is worth paying attention to.

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Africa, particularly west Africa, thanks to the global embrace of Afrobeats in recent years, is having a “mainstream” cultural moment. First- and second-generation black African Brits have shaped the music of their heritage to their own image; while African American artists like Drake, Beyoncé and more are collaborating with African superstars.

It’s brilliant to see after growing up in a period in which Africa was almost solely a subject of ridicule and imperialist charity appeals. Ilunga himself coined a term for the major shift as early as 2012 – Noirwave – even remarking in a 2014 interview with Mos Def for Dazed that “soon Beyoncé, Future and all these people are going to be singing to Noirwave shuffles”.

This is a complex issue. Even with all the fanfare and the selective embrace of the sprinkling of African artists the west allows to see global success, there are countless more who aren’t being and won’t be heard unless the gatekeepers of mainstream superstardom, success and culture – the US – acknowledge the power of their privilege.

When comparatively less successful African artists, with fanbases too small to go up against powerhouses as combative as the Beyhive and as revered Beyoncé herself, are criticised for sticking up for their art, or accused of “hating”, rather than sincerely attempting to protect their property, we should at least wait and listen.

Beyoncé and I are not friends, despite what my Twitter bio says. But I, like so many other verging on delusional fans around the world, like to believe that it’s true. And as with any friendship, one-sided in this case, I’d also like to believe that it’s a relationship built on honesty. This is my attempt to honour that.

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