To close out America’s so-called birthday month, megastar Beyonce debuted a new visual album entitled Black is King exclusively on Disney+ on July 31. The album is a supplement to the beloved children’s movie The Lion King, as a re-imagining of the animated/live-action film in human form, complete with song and dance. As with nearly all of Beyonce’s work, it was anticipated with fervor in the weeks leading up to it and applause in the time after its release.
And similarly as expected, not everyone was thrilled to see this work released. Rapper-activist Noname, who has created a reputation for her radical ant-racist, anti-capitalist analyses, took to Twitter the day of the BIK premiere to say the following:
A simple yet direct commentary, it expectedly awakened the BeyHive, who proceeded to drag Noname for her words. In the ensuing days since, Noname has faced thefull gamut of haters and harassers online.
And here, in the mess of this debate, we can begin to see with clarity the two sides really wrestling here: stan culture and hot take culture.
First, stan culture. Before you proceed, I fully recommend you read this brilliantly-written explanation of what stan culture is. Essentially, stanning is when fandom goes too far, to the point where fans feel intense personal connection to a media object or person, causing them to lose the ability to engage with any level of criticism or disagreement to how they feel about said object. You see it with your biggest pop megastars: Ariana Grande, BTS, Rihanna, and of course, Beyonce. Noname is not the exception for the dark side of stan culture, but rather the rule. She did not deserve the vitriol hurled her way for what was arguably a mild take that wasn’t untrue.
Most troubling about this particular instance of a fandom coming back to bite is the desire to somehow “humble” Noname. In recent months, she has caught media attention because of her brief spat with J. Cole (wherein she was in the right, in my opinion), and additionally has trended on her own for comments many see as controversial. So the quickness with which people piled on her for this critique that, at the time, wasn’t really leveled at Beyonce, was troubling.
Through thick and thin, it seems that Noname is consistently gaining more followers on social media, and as such has a bigger platform on which to speak. Witnessing her rise from the sidelines, people’s heads tilted, and abruptly Noname became a fire to be extinguished. This backlash made apparent that many people only like you until you’ve “made it”; once people begin hearing you on a larger scale, suddenly people switch their opinion of you and accuse you of arrogance. Many of the arguments against Noname miss the mark in more ways than one.
Yet, I do believe Noname’s original comments deserve a deeper conversation. This is where hot take culture comes in.
In the days after the backlash, the activist doubled down on her comments, posting (and seemingly deleting) the following on Instagram:
Here, Noname makes apparent what many of us could read between the lines of her original tweet — that her issue wasn’t so much with Black is King specifically, but Beyonce more generally.
It could be argued that Noname’s comments were calculated rather than candid. Particularly during a pandemic, internet personalities know that hot takes get clicks, and talking about Beyonce will land you in the spotlight. No one can be prepared for stans to come after them, but there is a level of knowing that has to take place immediately before posting a critique of the world’s biggest pop star. At the end of the day, Noname has an audience, and to feed that audience she provided a very critical look at something that, in her eyes, people were about to misguidedly fawn over.
There was also a strange martyring occurring in her original tweet with regards to Africans on the continent. From my own perusing of Twitter, it appears that, similarly to Americans, Africans born and raised on the content are mostly enamored with the film, while some others are critical.
For the majority-positive responses I’ve seen from folks of the continent so far, there is a gratitude for the work’s existence, and recognition of its limitations as a singular piece of work. Thus, for Noname to name this as a reason to diminish BIK’s impact, feels performative.
What’s more, I have begun to question the inconsistency with which some activists discuss capitalism as it relates to celebrities. Anytime Beyonce puts out a work, there is a segment of socially-conscious people in pro-liberation work that criticize it. And yet, we collectively do not feel this same energetic resistance to capitalist work by someone like Rihanna, who recently launched yet another Fenty brand. It seems many give Miss Fenty a pass because her capitalism is product-driven at the moment — the fruits of her capitalist ventures can be held in our hands, smeared across our faces, and worn on our bodies. It is mass-produced in stores and sold online. It is easier to problematize Beyonce’s work because for the most part it is abstract, intangible. Whereas it is more difficult to do the same when many of us go about our days wearing Fenty underwear and Fenty lip gloss.
When we decide to be opaque about our like or dislike of an object, we stray further from radical honesty. Ultimately, both sides of this controversy are doing the same thing: drawing conclusions about a work based on personal feelings toward the object, and pathologizing opposing perspectives as a defense mechanism (for self or other).
When someone doesn’t like Beyonce, there is often a certain air about them. The feeling that disliking her work is an achievement unlocked, a higher level of consciousness reached because they can problematize her. A seeing of oneself as a tiger above the sheep. I find it odd that this phenomenon only exists for Beyonce.
There is no indictment of self for liking Beyonce’s work and engaging with it positively. By the same token, there should not be any penalty for disliking her. Both sides, however, must begin to be more honest about their true reasoning for why. I understand that perspectives like Noname’s exist in response of an inadvertent deification of Beyonce by the masses. Any fault found of Beyonce must be presented with assuredness to weather the storm of backlash from BeyHive stans. We should begin to pierce the veil of both of these extremes to simply examine what is, and engage in rich, balanced discussion about what we find.
In doing this, we must apply nuance. When considering the problematic aspects of a system, person, or piece of media, we must be cognizant of the gradations of harm created by the source material. Black is King is an extension of The Lion King, meaning that it is meant to be simplistic for its intended audience, that being children. It begins, tells a story, then ends — just like any other film. Outside of it being problematic in various respects, it ultimately does not inflict harm to Black people — in America or Africa. As a fan of Bey, I do want her to account for the ways she continuously promotes a sort of classism with her work. Nearly all of Beyonce’s work in the last 5 years could only be consumed through a premium cable network or streaming service — luxuries that even many middle-class folks can’t afford.
But in terms of the work itself, some people may be trying to find depth in shallow waters. It should be fully possible to find joy or disgust in something without being labeled a sellout. It is only when you are unwilling to engage with nuance that no one wins. And we all want to win, right?
Ultimately, what has been most bothersome when reading responses to Black is King is the discussion of Beyonce as merely a creator, a platform, a supreme being. To expect or only acknowledge perfection of Beyonce is to ultimately confirm her deification; only deities are unproblematic and free of blemishes, all-knowing and ethereal. No matter what we’re saying about Beyonce or Black is King, we must always recognize the artist’s humanity. Whether or not we accept it, it remains to be true: that Beyonce is a whole person, capable of not getting things completely right. This far into her career, she has earned the right to imperfection. As fellow humans seeking liberation, that fact must be permissible.