Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Going Native": Beyonce's 'Tribute' to Africa

Beyonce Knowles recently did a photo shoot where she wore dark make-up and African inspired clothing with the theme of "African Queen". The narrative surrounding Beyonce's recent photo shoot was that it was done to honor late Nigerian musician, activist and pan-africanist, Fela Kuti. However, this move was controversial and has had varied reactions in the United States and Europe. Some have argued that Beyonce was insulting African-Americans by donning 'Black Face'. Her make-up however, is distinctively void of the coal colored paint or the widening of the outline of the lips with white (sometimes red) make-up that characterizes 'Black Face'.  Others have commented that what she did was not mocking African-American history because she was paying tribute to Fela Kuti who is African and was honoring Africa. Whilst all the hullabaloo has been about how she is representing African-Americans, it is important to remember that she was not trying to represent African-Americans nor their history. Her intention was clearly to represent who she believes Africans are and what she believes Africans look like. This representation of Africa is should be a concern for Africans because it is projecting an image of African identity on Africa. It is reinforcing stereotypes about who Africans are, what Africans are supposed to look like, and alienating Africans who do not fit that image. Furthermore, it reinforces an image of what an African looks like to a world that already has a myopic viewpoint on African culture.

What is fundamentally missing from all the narratives that I have read, is an African critique of her move. After all, it is Africans she was representing and not African-Americans. Africans have little knowledge about the history of 'Black Face' nor what it means so they would not automatically associate the move with the history of 'Black Face'.  In fact, when I read  about the story in African press, they largely reproduced the arguments that African-Americans and American media were having about Black Face and how it affected Africa-Americans. The African press made no mention to the fact that she was passing judgment on Africans. Nor did they note that by painting her face dark, she is sending a message to the world that Africans are supposed to look a certain way. In examining Africans from Cape to Cairo, we should recognize that Africans are Asian, Caucasian and Black African and Brown African (including bi-racial and non-bi-racial Africans). They look like Cleopatra, Alek Wek, Charlize Theron, Thandie Newton, Winnie Mandela, or Mo Ibrahim. If Beyonce, wanted to honor Africa, and look like an authentic African, she could have done just as well in her natural skin color. If you go to Africa today, you will find Africans that look like Beyonce. what makes it equally problematic is that Beyonce has been to Africa but chose to represent an image of Africa, that persisted in her mind or the mind her entourage.

The MTV article: Experts react to Beyonce's Black Face, notes that the french are not aware of this American racial faux paux and that needs to be understood in the context of American history with African-Americans.  Since this is a plausible argument, we may need to understand it based on how France would interpret this given Frances own problematic  history with Africans. We need to recognize France is a country that has a large percentage of African immigrants and French Africans. They mainly come from North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, etc...) and  Franco-phone Africa (Cameroon, Senagal, Sierra Leone). France is therefore  certainly aware of what Africans look like and can not claim ignorance about the impact of statements and images about color. Whilst they may have not been aware of the cultural significance or ties to 'Black Face', they certainly are aware of Africans in their back yard. On the national stage, we can use the example of the high profile French national soccer teams that are largely made up of  people directly from the African continent or first generation children of immigrants. The teams have also been at the center of racial debates in France. If we assume that they were not commenting on America, then it leaves us no alternative then to look at it as a commentary about Africa. This means that the reflection was about Africa but  inadvertently insulted African-Americans due to Beyonce's American roots. Perhaps this move can be seen  as social reflection of how France views Africans which is equally problematic.

According to French fashion magazine L’Officiel's official response, "The series was conceived as using art and fashion in paying homage to African queens." Perhaps would have pulled it off better though, had they just left out the dark make up.  According to the magazine, "As for the artistic makeup, the inspiration came from several African rituals during which paint is used on the face. We find the images beautiful and inspiring". Maybe, but when you make rituals exotic and take them out of their cultural context it becomes problematic. When you combine this dark-make up with 'African War Paint' on her cheeks and lips, a leopard print jacket, and a necklace made of bone, it makes for a social commentary about African cultural identity. The outfit on its own may have  been  a less obvious way to honor Africa through the display of African inspired outfits.  Yet the the outfit on its own also makes Africans be seen as the 'exotic' other. Add the make-up, and it is an overt ill conceived photo-shoot that reinforces an idea of  'The face of Africa'. The magazines official statement reads, that is was a
"A return to her African roots, as you can see in the picture, on which her face was voluntarily darkened. All the pictures will be available in the collector edition, on sale at the end of this month."- L'Officiel Paris

According to the magazine Fela Kuti was the inspiration of the photo shoot. One wonders if the magazine had been doing a Pocahantas inspired shoot if they would ask her to wear Red paint on her face and if she would have agreed? Or if she was asked to do an Asian inspired theme, if she would paint her face yellow? It seems odd then that they would think that painting their face dark-brown was the optimal way of honoring Femi Kuti. Fela Kuti was a talented musician, pan-Africanist and a sympathizer of the Black Panther Party.  His mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was a teacher, Women's rights activist and Pan Africanist who was acquainted with Amy Jaques Garvey, and Kwame Nkrumah. His brother was an activist and medical doctor who built clinics. His cousin, Wole Soyinka is a Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, writer and poet.  Lastly, his son, Femi Kuti is a famous musician in his own right. If L'Officiel or Beyonce wanted to honor Fela Kuti, I am sure that they would have been a plethora of other opportunities to able to honor him and/or who represent him in more profound ways. I am also quite certain that if they wanted to honor African art, they could have found other artistic ways of doing this.

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