“The Gift” is a pop album. It is full of Africa’s most commercial, crossover sounds, a new thing for a continent that hasn’t been able to export entire genres as opposed to singular standout artists. And this isn’t a blindspot. Beyonce, a pop star whose meticulousness and intentionality is the stuff of legend, chose to make it so.
Critiques that the album should represent different parts of African music in equal measure is equally absurd and more of the Eastern region,where the film is primarily set must contend with the reality that even local tastemakers across the continent have bought into Afrobeats as the African Sound of the moment and have been complicit in its spread. To then expect that Beyonce should sidestep all of that and do the work of promoting less popular genres seems unfair at best and disingenuous at worst.
For decades different parts of Africa have been elevated for varied reasons. Each area boasting its own unique natural and historical treasures, it’s unique skills and gifts, food and fun. Today, the musicians and entertainers of the west are building the same dominance in their field as the long distance runners of the east, and even with this dominance, sounds from the south and dances from the east have still found their way to the forefront of African popular music. It should be ok that our medals come from different places. That is the strength of our continent, and further, our diaspora.
The bottom line is that Nigerian artists have worked hard and against all odds to create a thriving industry and advance their sound. They faced years of growth with little support, and are now finally beginning to harvest the fruits of seeds sown even by artists who may never be rightly recognized. To see their efforts be rewarded with global acknowledgement should be a call for a much-deserved ovation and an inspiration for artists across the continent to keep building and to step up their own game.
This album has also brought the “afrobeats” moniker branded on almost every sound originating from the continent under an added wave of scrutiny, but the idea that we should rebel against the “afrobeats” umbrella is potentially short sighted. While it might be irritating to have every commercial sound from such a large and diverse place defined by one seemingly simplistic phrase, the beauty is that we have it to ourselves, we define it ourselves and we evolve it ourselves.
One needn’t look far to see the despicable ways that genre specificity has been wielded by Western gatekeepers. From alienating black artists to the “Rhythm and Blues” charts for decades to recently excluding the longest-running Number 1 song in American history “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X from the country charts.
What we ignore is that genre specificity cannot be extricated from its limitations. So given the choice, why would we want the weird announcement when that is commonplace when an artist experiments with different sound? Why choose that when our artists have the privilege of changing and playing around with their sound and still getting a big welcoming shelter under the Afrobeats umbrella – from the Alte to the Fuji to the rappers and singers. That seems to be more reflective of the Africa we seek to build than the acceptance of the labels and structures created for the music industry outside our continent.
African music has never needed validation. In fact, one could argue that afrobeats found more success when it stopped begging for an external gaze, when it began to rely more on the diaspora to be it’s end market, and ultimately its champion. But just because you don’t need something, doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have. So we can be grateful to Beyonce for “The Lion King: The Gift” knowing full well that we gave her a gift first.
Mita is a Calgary-based wordsmith with a passion for music. When she’s not busy being communications professional, you can find her collapsed on her sofa or working to create spaces where people of the Diaspora can have fun and connect. Her pen in mightier than a sword.