What Beyonce’s “The Gift” has sign-posted for African music? – Dami Ajayi
When Beyonce released her ground-breaking collaborative The Lion King: The Gift, Dami Ajayi had this to say – “Our music has, in my estimation, continued its gradual but assured incursion into bigger spaces and climes. We haven’t hit Uhuru yet with Beyonce’s gift but we are much closer than last year.”Now there is a Grammy in the bag.Prophetic? Please read.
Since Black Panther and Wakanda, Africa seems to have become the darling of tokenistic Western patronage again. It is now woke to be African only if it can be inspected through the lens of the West. Aspects of our multitudinous cultures have crept into popular culture like fancy commodities, you know African sounding names and Dashikis, but the cynics and historians know this only too well.
Geriatric Beehives will remember Cadillac Records, a minor film along the trajectory of Beyonce’s solo pop-stardom. Co-starring with Adrien Brody in a biopic that tells a parallel story of Black music at the time when Rock and Roll made its biggest impact, Beyonce played Etta James and contributed several covers of James’ songs to the film soundtrack (poor iteration in Etta James’ estimation though). The biopic ran into a crisis of an imbalance between ambition and craft mid-way when it abandoned other themes and zoomed in on the infidelity between Brody’s character and the rather troubled young James.
Eleven years later, the story is different.
Beyonce is accomplished, at the height of her power. She is Mrs Carter, that Grammy garlanded singer, a twice-decorated mother. She has parlayed her struggles with wifehood into a classic album about womanhood, feminism and a rejection of toxic masculinity. It is understandable that she can now return to her love of mining the intersections between song and film.
This is the carefully crafted plot that The Lion King: The Gift treads. If the earlier Lion King exploited South African Solomon Linda’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Beyonce’s The Gift exploits contemporary African sounds and still manages to be a gift to her African minions in the Dramatis Personae subtext.
What can WizKid, Burnaboy, Shatta Wale, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage do when Beyonce comes calling?
When Beyonce comes calling, you call your agent and that should be all. It is with this optimism that the big players of contemporary African musicians approached this project, bringing their A-game to the table.
That optimism has birthed the pride of Stans whose bellyaching is assuaged by the fact that Beyonce noticed African music, but their headaches remain that Davido or Sarkodie or Sauti Sol or DiamondPlatinumz did not get an invite.
The seeming bias for West Africa becomes an issue on a Beyonce album, but while we focus on the subtext written in small fonts, hoping to catch a glimpse of African pride and optimism, we miss the point of it all.
WizKid sounds better on ‘Ojuelegba’ even though it is refreshing to hear him actually sing on a song without referencing the symbiosis between money and quavering buttocks.
‘Don’t Jealous Me’ doesn’t touch Yemi Alade when she is in her zone. Tiwa Savage on ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ is a vibe, but these familiar tropes don’t particularly energise. Wouldn’t you rather take Burna Boy’s African Giant instead of the token Afrobeat groovy Ja Ara E?
When you make peace with the tokenistic reality and lend your ears to the celebrant, Beyonce is at her best on this album when she relocates herself to familiar territories.
The intensely collaborative nature of the project makes one wary of comparison and whacked by the sheer energies (think rehearsals, signing dotted lines of all kinds) that must have aligned to put this work together. But in spite of busy hive, they couldn’t find a spot for Niniola on ‘Find Your Way Back’.
It is refreshing to hear the sounds of Mushin and soft prayers of Yoruba in a glossy high-power Beyonce album but this hardly explores the depths and possibilities of our contemporary music.
Three years ago, a poet said writing about Nigerian music is like fetching water with a basket and suggested this as a picturesque title for a compilation of my music reviews.
Our music has, in my estimation, continued its gradual but assured incursion into bigger spaces and climes. We haven’t hit Uhuru yet with Beyonce’s gift but we are much closer than last year.