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What Beyoncé’s Black is King Could Mean for Copyright Theory

Mary W. Gani holds a degree in law (Jos), an LLM in international commercial law (University of Kent), and a PhD in commercial law from Queen Mary, University of London, UK. She is a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. 

For a taste of her recent book, Creative Autonomy, Copyright and Popular Music in Nigeria, read Chapter 7, “Problems for Creative Autonomy in New Business Models” for free until 28th October 2020.

Beyoncé is undeniably a generation-defining artist. With 24 Grammy awards, 70 Grammy nominations and numerous other acknowledgements from music industry associations and her peers, it is clear even to critics that her art is exceptional.

As with many outstanding artists, conspiracy theories around what some consider to be her esoteric inspirations, are rife. In her most recent project, the visual album called Black is King, she draws heavily from African traditional spirituality (ATS), and African customs and ideals. She also draws from historical facts, contemporary culture, Islamic tradition, Judaism and Christianity in her use of symbolism and imagery. The result is a rich body of work that has implications for religion, culture, and as may surprise some, for copyright theory. This article will weave its way through these ideas in this order.

In religious orthodoxy, some critics of the project focus on the influence of ATS, which they believe is altogether diabolic. However, ATS and other religious traditions have historically featured positive and negative actors. Additionally, such criticism does not seem to recognise the fact that any true history of African peoples, especially one that encompasses contemporary history viz á viz the past 400 years, would necessarily involve ATS, without which it would be disingenuous.

On the other hand, fans of the project are in awe of the way Beyoncé masterfully depicts the life of African peoples before the period of the displacement of millions to the Americas, the unfortunate and brutal displacement, and the reconnections currently ongoing between Africa and its Diaspora - all through the life of Simba’s character from the “Lion King”. In a secular world and with a mainstream artist, it thus seems absurd to judge Black is King by religious standards that may not have been applied to the original “Lion King”, which also had symbols of ATS. 

Furthermore, to summarily assert that ATS is altogether only diabolical, indicates an unwillingness to accept, or a complete rejection of nuance. When observed through the lens of Christian tenets, for instance, elements in ATS appear contradictory to the Bible. However, nuance shows that “worship” of ancestors which contravenes the commandment to have no other gods but Yahweh, is quite different from “respect” for ancestors. In essence, while adherents of ATS may practice ancestral worship and devotion, there are many Black Christians who respect the struggles of their forebears and recount their lessons to children and grandchildren. This is the sort of legacy from which Black people in the diaspora were disconnected, en masse, beginning in the 17th century, and to which they now reconnect, as depicted in Black is King

Therefore, to distil Beyoncé’s Black is King through the religious orthodoxy of a 21st century lens is to disregard the human story that the work tells, and the overarching lessons embedded within the work, many of which are congruent with Christian values and are incredibly affirming.

On a cultural level, some criticise the title Black is King, as well as the use of terms like “kings” and “queens” in contemporary Black culture, despite the existence of real (and imagined) connections to African royal houses. Beyoncé explains this in an interview, saying the term “king” in the title is synonymous with being ‘rich and regal in history and purpose….' In this regard, many lyrics in the project, associate royal terminology with agency, freedom, discretion and self-determination. This deliberate word choice has cultural significance that relates to copyright theory.

In cultural terms, it is clear from the foregoing, that when Black people use royal terms in reference to each other, it is a celebration of the possibility to take ownership of one’s choices, actions and destinies in ways that were impossible during the periods of slavery in the Americas, during colonialism on the African continent, and in ways that are often still difficult today. Similarly, when an artist christens a project with a name like Black is King and addresses it to a Continent and her Diaspora, it is manifestly a call to empowerment and to embrace self-determination on personal levels as well as national levels. 

Traditionally, copyright justification theories have been built on the work of Euro-American scholars like John Locke, Kant and Hegel, whose works, in different ways, espoused the centrality of individuals and their autonomy. With the Black is King project, Beyoncé’s lyrical arguments for the autonomy of Black individuals on the basis of heritage, lineage and purpose, may very well be considered a modern theory. In this way, academic discourse on her work could potentially begin to balance out the hitherto non-diverse canon, and may contribute to the de-colonisation and modernisation of the curriculum for copyright theory.


Culled from “Beyoncé shares exclusive special message ahead of ‘Black is King’ debut | GMA”, (30 July 2020) Good Morning America, available on https://youtu.be/oqOV_dpULyA [accessed on 10 August 2020].

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