Grace Bassey is tired of the outdated way African countries are often portrayed on American screens.
So when the trailer for Beyoncé’s new visual album emerged on Twitter with imagery Bassey found stereotypical — face paint, feathers, animal skins — the Nigerian college student responded with images of highways, skyscrapers and yachts.
“There is this constant joke that Africans wake up and see animals running around,” said Bassey, 19, who studies international relations in the southwestern state of Ekiti. “People are so surprised to know that we go to the spa.”
At a time of global reckoning over race and representation, the 70-second trailer for “Black is King” — a film inspired by the superstar’s work on the 2019 Lion King remake — has sparked backlash abroad.
The project is set to the soundtrack that Beyoncé produced last year, which features artists from Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Cameroon.
“I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books,” Beyoncé wrote in an Instagram post.
The events of 2020 — the renewed focus on police killings, the death of George Floyd — make that message more relevant, she added. (The singer recently wrote an open letter to Kentucky’s attorney general urging him to charge the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.)
“I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition,” Beyoncé said on Instagram, “with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.”
A debate ensued in the comments.
“This narrative is getting boring,” one user wrote. “We don’t wake up with white chalk on our faces or live in blue huts.”
Another added: “Africa has grown beyond what you just incorporated, Beyoncé.”
Some pointed out that Disney Plus, which will begin streaming the visual album on July 31, is not yet accessible in African nations.
Others noted that Beyoncé’s last three tours reached Europe, Australia and South America but not Africa. (She has played a handful of shows on the continent, most recently at a charity event in Johannesburg in 2018.)
The contention follows years of frustration over Western media’s frequent depiction of Africa as a homogeneous entity, said Stephanie Boateng, a British Ghanaian filmmaker in Accra.
The continent has 54 countries and myriad cultures — Boateng has spent months researching 17th-century Ghana for a film project — and creators with noble intentions can miss important nuance.
“We have this beautiful vision, this piece of art,” Boateng said of Beyoncé’s trailer, “but it might show a broad representation of the continent without actually streaming over here.”
The performer’s publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, did not respond to requests for comment.
Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, defended “Black is King” on Instagram, highlighting that her daughter worked closely with creative partners from Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa.
“My point in posting this is simply that those who are criticizing the film (before they even see it) saying it’s unauthentic, upset that B doesn’t actually go to Africa or say that Bey is simply using African cultures for gain are wrong because 1. She makes less with her Afrocentric content,” she wrote. “2. She’s actually taken the time, studied African costumes and such and didn’t just throw this together.”
Among the critics was Ruth Chikuma, a 22-year-old college student in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.
She describes herself as a Beyoncé fan but says that when she saw the video, she winced.
“There is so much more to Africa than lions,” she said, “and painting our faces white.”
Chikuma said she didn’t recognize herself or her friends in the artist’s footage. She is wrapping up a finance degree and is learning stock trading. She scrolls Twitter to pass the pandemic-warped time.
“The stereotypes bother me,” she said. “Like: Is there WiFi? Do we live in huts?”
People just want to be presented as three-dimensional, said Paballo Chauke, a 29-year-old biotech employee in Capetown, South Africa, who expressed his frustrations in a lengthy Twitter thread.
“Someone with the range must unpack how our beloved queen Beyoncé is reducing blackness and Africanness to aesthetics and the western imaginations of our existence,” he wrote. “They must also speak about how it’s now profitable to do such gimmicks.” Chauke, who also calls himself a Beyoncé fan, said he watched the video and immediately thought of his interactions over the years with Americans.
They mean well, he said, but sometimes ask questions like: Do you know so-and-so in Ghana?
That’s about 5,000 miles from South Africa.
“When they show horses, let them also show Lamborghinis,” Chauke said. “When they show the savanna, let them also show skyscrapers.”
Sure, he’d wear traditional Zulu garb to a wedding. But he prefers suits.