Features June 7, 2013
Beyoncé's Africa: Pyramids, Lions, & Ismael Kouyaté

With the newest batch of summer interns having recently arrived at the Afropop office, our ranks have never been bigger. But more people mean more opinions, and when a contentious topic comes up (like Beyoncé’s new track, “Grown Woman”, which features the Griot vocalist Ismael Kouyaté and very prominent “African” imagery in the live performance video currently making rounds), the conversation gets heated pretty quickly. Our whole crew had a lot to say, and we wanted to take advantage of the diversity of opinion that we had on the matter.

So we thought we’d try something new. Below is a transcription of Afropop founder Sean Barlow, Producer for New Media Sam Backer, staff writers Morgan Greenstreet and Zachary Toporek, and intern Lynn Georgis hashing out exactly what’s happening in Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman” and why you should (or should not) care about it. The tape starts a few minutes into the conversation, and there’s no neat wrap-up at the end, but we feel that issues like this resist that kind of closure anyway.

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Sam: African is a modern place where there are people with technology that are making modern media-

Sean: That’s not necessarily what Beyoncé wanted to create. You might not like it, but so what?

Sam: Because Africa sells to Americans when Africa is an exotic land of masks and lions and cheetahs. This doesn’t make people understand Africa, this makes people think of Africa as the land of lions and pounding drums. It’s like the Lion King, man.

Sean: It’s also the fact that this is sort of Afrobeat.

Sam: No, this is Timbaland. This is how Timbaland sounds.

Sean: What’s the feeling of the song?

Sam: That she’s a sexy, grown woman.

Zach: Does Africa need more people further sexualizing it?

Sam: No

Morgan: But it [the video] doesn’t have anything to do with Africa. She’s using it to sell her music and her message right now. It doesn’t have anything to do with the message of the song.

Sean: If I were doing this, of course I’d like to have more of the real Africa in the song.

Sam: Now there are pyramids. What I’m saying is that-

Sean: That was the first major African civilization, the pyramids are great. You can’t diss the pyramids.

Sam: What I’m saying is that Africa now- people know about Pyramids, the Nile, and masks, and giraffes, and lions. But I don’t think that Africa needs people to have more awareness of lions, tigers, and pyramids.

Zach: Will you explain what her take on Africa is?

Sean: It’s more imagistic. I don’t think she has much of a take on it.

Sam: Do you think that the Lion King is a major symbol of African identity?

Sean: I’ve never seen The Lion King.

Morgan: I’ve never seen The Lion King either.

Zach: How have you both survived this world?

Sean: When Ismael comes on, does he actually appear?

Sam: I don’t think so.

Lynn: No, he’s not in the performance.

Sam: See, now she’s depicted as an animal.

Zach: And there are Zebras. That’s good, very African.

Sean: Maybe the point is that she’s brought this fantastic voice into the fold of pop music.

Sam: But the point is that we’re talking about it because it’s African, but it’s not African.

Morgan: I think the interesting story is the fact that in a period of a couple months, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Solange have tried to involve Africa in their image and music and not necessarily in a positive way.

Sam: It’s a trend, not an engagement. As opposed to The Very Best who do a cool take on modern African music.

Sean: Yes, but that's a different thing.

Zach: But at least there’s a duet of sorts with a Griot singer on this track, and that is a level of engagement, right?

Sam: No.

Morgan: Does he appear [in the video]? Is he named?

Sam: I don’t think a sample of a cool singer’s voice is an engagement.

Lynn: He’s not in this video, it’s just her.

Zach: It is better than JT. [Justin Timberlake's use of sampled field recordings from Burkina Faso in his latest album. Afropop previously discussed that HERE]

Sam: I don’t think so. That didn’t bother me because he didn’t make a big deal about it in the song.

Sean: I think the analysis is, “Okay, Beyoncé did a thing that is Africa-focused and that’s worth celebrating.”

Sam: But it’s not Africa-focused!

Sean: Africa-engaged.

Morgan: This is the part that you think is Afro-beat-esque?

Sean: Yes.

[Silence as all listen to the recording.]

Sam: Okay. That does sound more legitimate.

Morgan: That’s because it cuts to the live band from the pre-recorded track.

Sean: It’s cool that she’s brought this voice from west Africa and this Afrobeat thing. It’d be nice if she did perhaps more with it in terms of modern African music. But this is where she is right now.

Sam: I think a lot of western artists have taken the idea and image of Africa and used it to sell their stuff. I think this does not reflect any real engagement with Africa, I don’t think that anyone comes away with a greater appreciation of Africa. In fact, I think this only reinforces stereotypes about Africa that so many of the artists that I’ve read about since I’ve worked here are trying to change. [They say] “I’m from the Congo, it’s not the land of lions, we’re a modern society where we make modern, cool music. It’s not drums and pyramids... it’s Electro Chaabi”.

Morgan: And you think that JT didn’t do that?

Sam: I think that JT sampled an African thing and used it in one song. I don’t think he-

Zach: He didn’t brand his whole performance as African.

Morgan: I also didn’t hear Ismael.

Zach: He was in there, on the bridge.

Sean: It would have been nice if he’d been part of the performance or recognized in the multi-media aspect of the performance. I agree with what you said, Morgan. To frame this as part of a recent trend. People who love African music have different views on it. How “authentic” it is, however troubled that word is. But some people are enjoying the hell out of it and are glad that it’s getting out there to a mass audience. African music so often lives in this little media niche. Very few people hear it.

Sam: Do you think that- that a white teenager or a black teenager in America, do you think that if they see that, that’s African music getting to them? Fela [on broadway] was African music getting to people.

Lynn: I think that they’ll think that they’re hearing African music because they don’t really know about it.

Zach: That’s the big problem with this. It’s putting forth a false representation of Africa’s identity.

Lynn: I think that to them, they’ll think it is African music, but that’s only because the broader audience hasn’t been exposed to authentic African music.

Sean: That’d be interesting to investigate.

Morgan: Even to me, I keep thinking back to the world cup song. “Waka Waka”. That is actually was an older song, but [Shakira] paid for it, it was all legal. But none of the kids know that. It’s all, “Oh, Shakira did this cool song about Africa”. But at least she paid for it.

Sam: I also just feel that the thing is that, given the way that modern pop music is able to sample and contextualize things... In a rap song, in a hip-hop song, you can sample any  sound in the world. That’s the strength of hip-hop. You can take a sound from anywhere and fit it into a song. So I feel like unless it engages on a larger level than that, if it’s just used as raw material on a track, then it’s just like Timbaland’s engagement with Arabic music on those Missy [Elliott] tracks. It’s like, “I’ve got a harmonic major scale kind of thing going on, so I can use some Arabic music samples!” If there’s tablas in a song, it’s not Indian music!

Sean: I think the thing to do is to note it, say it’s out there, people are seeing it and you should check it out yourself.

Later, long-time intern Shaina Lipp come in to the office and had this to say about the performance video:

“Stories, histories are not exclusively told through text and literature, as the Griot reminds us. There is a discourse of images which is unavoidable in media, where the story of culture of is told on a mass scale. I am of the mind that shows such as Beyoncé's “Grown Woman” video... instead of engaging their viewers critically/offering a critical voice in a discussion of contemporary African anything, creates a jumbo-lumped collage of disparate images that are associated with the African continent. The effect is one of spectacle..."

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