For several years now, the North American Orisha community has speculated about Beyoncé’s involvement in Orisha religion. If she was spotted wearing yellow nail polish, it was all the confirmation folks needed that she had, indeed, been initiated to Oshun during a trip to Cuba. And while there are several celebrities whose initiation or involvement in Orisha religion has been confirmed (either by the priests who initiated them, witnesses who were present, or the celebrity themself), we don’t know anything about Mrs. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter’s time on the mat. We do know, however, that she boldly proclaimed that Black is King on July 31, 2020. When I listened to “Black Parade” for the first time weeks before the movie’s premiere, I heard in her words a spiritual journey with which I’m intimately familiar.
From references to baby Moses flowing down the river in a wicker basket, to painting faces using what looks like efun, a native West African white chalk that is used in religious ceremony, to women walking to the shore holding baskets of flowers on their heads and others with calabashes in their hands – and that’s just the first few minutes – this visual album is a spiritual experience if there ever was one. In the album’s lyrics, Beyoncé calls on God, the ancestors and the Orisha. For me, Black is King showcases the depth of Afro-Diasporic religiosity by highlighting that following Jesus doesn’t mean one has to relinquish, ignore and demonize indigenous ancestry and ways of understanding the brilliance and vastness of Olorun’s creation.
I recognize, here, the limitations of my Yorubacentric perspective, and love that art is always open to interpretation.
The film is bookended by scenes at the water. A river carrying a wicker basket flows into the ocean and deposits the basket on the shore. In traditional Yoruba religion, there are many riverine deities, but the ocean belongs exclusively to Olokun. In Yoruba-diasporic religion, the ocean becomes the domain of Yemoja/Yemanja/Yemaya, Olokun’s daughter in the Yoruba pantheon and the deity of the River Ogun in Nigeria. An Afro-Brazilian oral history tells of Yemoja worshippers on ships leaving West Africa’s coast headed for enslavement who called out to Olokun in prayer asking that they protect the journey; that if the worshipers made it to wherever they were going safely they would show Olokun their gratitude by elevating Yemoja’s status in the pantheon.
“The coast belongs to our ancestors.” Beyoncé, Black is King
In Candomblé, Yemanja’s role transforms and she becomes the divine mother and protector of every uninitiated person. Ceremonies take place annually at the sea in honor of her. Offerings are deposited into the sea both in reverence of the sea’s divinity and as a symbolic return to Africa in remembrance of our ancestors. As Beyoncé transforms into different roles in Black is King, her character dressed in white who seems to be guiding, protecting, and blessing the king makes me wonder – is she Yemoja? Perhaps the king’s Ori? Maybe even the king’s mother or an amalgamation of ancestral mothers; by the end of the film this same character can be observed placing a baby in the basket – is the baby Moses? Is she Jochebed (Moses’ mother) making the ultimate sacrifice to save her child who will in turn lead their people out of bondage?
Beyoncé narrates the film, reminding us that, “our ancestors hold us from within our own bodies, guiding us through our reflections.” If this ain’t the most basic breakdown of our relationship to our ancestry, I don’t know how to make it any simpler. From the scientific reality that the essence of those of us walking the earth today was literally in our grandmothers’ bodies before our mothers were born, to the spiritual understanding of reincarnation that many indigenous African worldviews hold to be true, there is no way to separate us from our roots. The melding of Black American and West African aesthetics and understandings throughout Black is King is the nudge that many of us need to accept all of who we are as opposed to demonizing wholesale who we used to be.
The Lion King’s androgynous Rafiki is gendered as what I’m interpreting as a female elder in Black is King. Rafiki blesses Simba before he takes the throne and lifts his adult body off the ground. In traditional Yoruba religion, the Iyami – literally, my mother – play an indispensable role in the installation of a king. Also called Awon iya wa (all of our mothers, or our collective mothers, in reference to feminine ancestry), Eleye (owner of the birds), or Aje (there’s no direct translation, but this name signifies an intense primordial feminine power) and often misrepresented as witches as a result of colonization, I couldn’t help but recognize Iyami in Rafiki’s representation as they blessed and installed the king. A Yoruba proverb reminds us that the earth is a marketplace, and heaven is home. When Rafiki lifts Simba, he ascends into the beyond where he’s reunited with his heavenly community, egbe.
I observed the subtle but powerful presence of Oya – the Orisha of transformation often represented by buffalo, wind, storms, and lightning – towards the end of the film. One of Oya’s names, Iyansan – an elision of Iya omo mesan (mother of nine children) – is derived from her relationship to Egungun, or collective ancestry. Oral history teaches that at one time Oya was unable to have children. Upon consulting divination she learned that she inadvertently violated a taboo, the consequence of which was infertility. To rectify the situation sacrifice was prescribed. Her offering included a red cloth that would become part of the clothing the ancestors wear when they come back to visit. Additionally, another of Oya’s names is Onilabalaba – owner of the butterfly – refers to both her transformative nature as butterflies are the result of extreme change, and indigenous understandings that butterflies carry our spirits back to heaven when we die. Her name Onilababa is also a pun, and can simultaneously be interpreted as Onilagbalagba – owner of the ancestors.
“Child of dust, return to the river. Your roots and your story will be reborn.” Beyoncé, Black is King
As the song “Otherside” plays in this scene, we see buffalo – Oya’s sacred animal – run off into the distance as a windstorm is approaching. It’s a full-circle moment in Black is King where questions from the first five minutes of the film are finally answered. Beyoncé sings of ancestors in the clouds on the other side. It’s a song of transformation from one life to another. Whether it’s the transition from life on earth to life in the beyond, or the process of initiation as is being alluded to by calling to children of the dust to go to the river to be reborn (one of the most important moments in initiation in Yoruba religion; also, baptism) and I see Oya all up in, through and around its visual representation.
I didn’t know what to expect of Black is King. I usually don’t watch anything without reading spoilers first, but I avoided all reactions and previews as I waited two whole days after its release to have this experience. Now that I’m on the other side, I don’t think there’s a work of art that has spoken so clearly to me and my experience as a Black woman navigating my relationship with God and the divine as has this. Black is King is a 21st century Hush Harbor where Black women can construct what it means to have religious beliefs that are affirming of who we are, who we were, and who we will be. It supports the importance of decolonizing our interpretation of the Bible and what we’ve come to understand about God from an oppressive white supremist lens. It extends a hand as we pull ourselves out from a religious sunken place. It begs us to remember who we are as we’re becoming who we were meant to be. Although the film is dedicated to Sir (Beyoncé’s son), includes several references to male divine spirits, and centers patriarchy, my identification of the feminine divine moving throughout the work allows me to experience it as a sister circle space.
Watching Black is King made me wonder about the impact this film’s imagery will have on generations of Black women to come in ways that films like Daughters of the Dust impacted us. I appreciate how the artistry provides so many entry points for questions, reflection and critique. In Brazil, Cuba, and Trinidad & Tobago (throughout the African diaspora, really) Orisha is no secret. And while there have been initiates to Orisha in the United States for about 60 years, I can’t think of any English language, Black American, mainstream artistic expression that so openly alludes to the complexity of Black American religion. It’s not all indigenous African, but it’s also clearly not all from the Bible* either. The Motherland drip is real.
*I recognize wholeheartedly that Black American religion includes Islam, Judaism, and other religious traditions. My experiences being raised in the church and having served as an Orisha priestess help me clearly identify remnants of West African religious tradition that survived in the Black church. I don’t have such experience in other Black American religious communities to be able to make those connections. My centering of Christianity in this analysis is not an attempt to ignore the richness of all the religions that make up the Black American religious experience.
3 thoughts on “Yes, Black is King.”
Thank you for posting this. When I started learning about Candomblé in its cultural influence of folclórico and capoeira over the years, it felt like I needed to learn more about it and I felt it pulling me in. I always enjoy reading through your blogs and journey for guidance especially trying to find anything about Candomblé in the US or someone to talk to. I was wondering how this film was and now I can’t wait to see it. I sent an email to you some time ago and hope to hear from you. I am learning so much about connection to ancestry and when I started my ancestral altar it made me feel closer to my eguns especially reconnect with my mom since she passed at such a young age and a critical age for me of 16. I thank you for your words of wisdom and your pint of view on the film as well as your blog. Axé Iya,
Axe Tiffany! Thank you so much! I’m sorry I never received your email, but am glad to see that you have been able to reconnect with your mom at your altar. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Black is King after you get a chance to watch.