“While others search for what they can take, a true king searches for what he can give.”—Mufasa, The Lion King (2019)
Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are modern Black American music royalty. They are capable of upending the entire music industry with a simple tweet, and a co-sign from either means the difference between a distant dream and tangible reality. It’s no wonder film directors and a company as massive as Walt Disney Studios eventually came calling for their services on a soundtrack or two.
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and his team at Disney tapped Lamar, TDE head honcho Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, and producer Sounwave in 2017, to create material for their highly anticipated film. What started as a handful of cuts eventually ballooned into a full-length companion album birthed on a bus during Lamar’s DAMN. Tour. With the desire to make the album’s connection to the fictional African nation of Wakanda more intensive, Lamar and Sounwave began researching and recruiting artists like Babes Wodumo, Saudi, Yugen Blakrok, and Sjava. Lamar and Sounwave used Black Panther: The Album to further connect TDE—and modern rap music at large—to the shores of Africa.
Two years later, the Mouse House came knocking on Beyoncé’s door with a simple request: curate a companion soundtrack for their hotly anticipated live-action remake of The Lion King.
In keeping with the increasingly pro-Black energy of her recent music, Bey and her team reverse engineered the approach of Black Panther: The Album. Instead of bringing American sounds to Africa, she selected talent from across the African diaspora—including Nigerian vocalists Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage, Cameroonian singer Salatiel, and Ghanaian producer Guiltybeatz, among others—in order to bring African sounds to American audiences. With that, The Lion King: The Gift was born.
“The soundtrack is a love letter to Africa. I wanted to make sure that we found the best talent from Africa; not just use some of the sounds and do my interpretation of it. I wanted it to be authentic to what was beautiful about the music from Africa. A lot of the drums, the chants, all of these incredible new sounds mixed with some of the producers from America. We’ve kind of created our own genre. It becomes about more than just the music.”—Beyoncé, Good Morning America
Each project attempts to foster cultural exchange by meeting its own film’s narratives halfway. First, Kendrick tapped into the righteous anger of King T’Challa on Black Panther’s electric title track. Now, we have Beyoncé singing of the balance that Lion King’s Mufasa holds dear on the swelling ballad, “BIGGER.” The royalty angle and direct ties to the source material help both works maintain a spectral presence throughout the album.
At its best, The Lion King: The Gift is a bright and fluid showcase of talent across Africa, rivaling the colorful visuals of the original 1994 animated film. The animated “DON’T JEALOUS ME” is a flex anthem that threads English, Nigerian Igbo and Ghananian Twi between verses from Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, and Tekno. Rising superstar Burna Boy shines on the standout track “JA ARA E” (Yoruba slang for “Wise up”), sharing a cautionary tale about peer pressure (and steering clear of all hyenas) over shuffling percussion.
There is a zeal for contemporary African music with crossover appeal in Beyoncé’s curatorial choices. Those ambitions result in surprising team-ups like Tierra Whack and gqom mainstay Moonchild Sanelly mirroring the energy of Simba and Scar’s final battle on the surging “MY POWER,” and pro-Black women affirmations bound for cookout singalongs like the lovely Wizkid/Beyoncé duet, “BROWN SKIN GIRL.”
If Afrobeats is the steady pulse that moves The Lion King: The Gift, then TDE’s harder-edged production rules the land in the Afrofuturist world of Black Panther: The Album. There is a smaller amount of African artists on display here—all of whom are from South Africa—but their contributions are nonetheless potent. Each artist is present to accent TDE’s ambitions—and the Black Panther narrative at large—as opposed to being the narrative thread that ties the project together, à la The Gift.
Therein lies each project’s most significant flaw: the authenticity on display only goes so far. Africa is the focal point of both stories, but try as they might, both albums unwittingly neglect whole sections of the continent. Black Panther: The Album is a TDE in-house production and only features artists from South Africa, which does little to differentiate the project as more than just another Kendrick Lamar album with minimal African flourishes.
The Lion King: The Gift features a wider variety of artists from a more broad range of countries, but a substantial lack of East African influence—especially strange considering The Lion King is itself a pastiche of Kenyan and Tanzanian influence—hurts Beyoncé’s diasporic ambitions. Kenyan-born DJ Ivy “Poizon Ivy” Awino explained this problem to Hannah Giorgis of The Atlantic in an article titled “The Blind Spot of Beyoncé’s Lion King Soundtrack”:
“I don’t by any means think it was intentional, and I think that the gesture [of making this soundtrack] was extremely needed and very welcome in the sense that this opportunity has now opened the door for these artists and the places that they’re from and the people who look up to them. But it also has been a very eye-opening moment in seeing how the rest of the world views what’s going on musically at home.”—Ivy Awino, "The Blind Spot of Beyoncé's Lion King Soundtrack”
We should commend Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar for using their platforms—and millions of Disney dollars—to attempt to lower the partition further and create bridges between nations and cultures. But seeing as how Black Panther’s Wakanda and The Lion King’s Pride Lands are fictional places located in East Africa, recruiting artists from that area—such as Tanzania’s Diamond Platnumz or Kenyan rapper Tunji—would’ve gone a long way toward strengthening the authenticity both camps were clearly seeking.
It’s not a crime to enjoy either The Lion King: The Gift or Black Panther: The Album—both projects are excellent crash courses in African art—but neglecting the very culture you claim to be writing a “love letter” to is, at the very least, an unfortunate oversight.