The Blind Spot of Beyoncé’s Lion King Soundtrack

The singer’s musical accompaniment for the new CGI remake neglects to include any artists from the region that inspired the film—a curious lapse in narrative fidelity.


On Tuesday night, Beyoncé made a bold, sentimental dedication. Speaking with ABC News’s Robin Roberts during a special program that aired ahead of the new Lion King’s release, the singer explained the motivations behind the compilation album she executive-produced as an accompaniment to the film. “This soundtrack is a love letter to Africa, and I wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa, and not just use some of the sounds and did my interpretation of it,” she said, of The Lion King: The Gift. “I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa. ”

During the Roberts special, Beyoncé also premiered the video for her new song “Spirit,” which plays during the movie and is included on the album. “Spirit” begins with a Swahili chant that translates to “Long live the king.” (The song also appears on the film’s official soundtrack, which is otherwise rather similar to the 1994 version.) The music video is an unsurprisingly impressive production: Beyoncé belts the inspirational lyrics with gospel-like intensity as she stands flanked by impeccably styled dancers. Everything, in classic Knowles fashion, is precise. The background is by turns lush and arid; Beyoncé is pictured both near a waterfall and in the desert. The latter landscape is, of course, a familiar visual cue for works produced in (or inspired by) the continent. It’s hard to watch “Spirit” and not immediately recall, for example, Janet Jackson’s 1997 music video for “Together Again.”

“Spirit” is The Gift’s final track. The rest of the album, which was released today, unfolds in what Beyoncé called a “soundscape,” in often algorithmic-seeming fashion. The Gift travels from Nigeria to Ghana to Cameroon and down to South Africa—and features tracks from artists such as WizKid, Tiwa Savage, Mr. Eazi, and Shatta Wale. These transnational collaborations are important ones: They connect musicians from those countries to African American stars (and listeners)—among them Beyoncé’s Lion King co-star Donald Glover (as his musical alter ego, Childish Gambino), Jay-Z, Tierra Whack, Pharrell Williams, and Beyoncé herself.

Even when interrupted by interludes voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen (who play Timon and Pumbaa in the film), these collaborations function as both sonic linkages and broader affirmations of the ties among black people across continents (a frequent subject of interest for Beyoncé). The tracks themselves are percussion-heavy, with plenty of ambient sounds meant to evoke the jungle; often, this doesn’t grate too intensely. Standouts such as “Don’t Jealous Me” (its cheeky title a phrase familiar to many English-speaking Africans) even incorporate the native languages of their artists—in this case, Lord Afrixana’s Ghanaian Twi.

Some songs, especially “NILE,” do register as overly romantic, sometimes to the point of condescension. Together, Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar sing the improbable chorus: “One time I took a swim in the Nile / I swam the whole way, I didn't turn around / Man, I swear / It made me relax when I came down.” It’s a strange visual, oddly divorced from the reality of life on the continent. After all, the Nile runs through Sudan, which is still experiencing a turbulent political uprising. What’s more notable, though, is what the album lacks—namely, even a single song from an East African artist, despite the prominence of Kenyan musicians such as Victoria Kimani and Nyashinski and Tanzanians such as Diamond Platnumz (whose nickname is quite literally “Simba”). Given Beyoncé’s proven ability to produce meticulous work, it’s curious that her “love letter to Africa” appears to have left out the region from which The Lion King draws the majority of its visual cues.

Of course, The Lion King is a fictional tale. But both the original film and the new remake are heavily inspired by the geography and cultural hallmarks of East Africa, a fact that’s not gone unnoticed by fans and music aficionados from the region. The Kenyan-born Ivy Awino, who serves as the Dallas Mavericks’ official DJ under the name Poizon Ivy, was surprised when she first saw The Gift’s tracklist. “It's not uncommon knowledge that this movie was inspired by the plains and the scenery and the wildlife and the parks in Kenya,” she told me earlier this week, citing Hell’s Gate National Park near Lake Naivasha and Maasai Mara National Reserve, which is contiguous with Tanzania’s famed Serengeti National Park. “I just thought that it would be logical to include music from that part of the world.”

The Lion King: The Gift does, for all its playback value, sound like it’s missing something. In this, it shares an unfortunate bond with another recent African-inspired soundtrack. Black Panther: The Album was produced and curated by Kendrick Lamar, alongside the Top Dawg Entertainment label lead Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, as a kind of playlist for the fictional East African nation of Wakanda. Though consummately entertaining and very stream-friendly, Black Panther: The Album fumbled a chance to pair the film’s landmark boundary-breaking with sounds that matched its pan-African ambition. The compilation album was, in effect, a Kendrick Lamar record with some South African–dusted interludes. As the writer Lawrence Burney noted in Vice’s “Noisey” at the time of its release, “Black music has always been more than what is just being made in the U.S. and right now, much of American popular music is borrowing from black artists outside its borders. So for a more accurate depiction of today, Black Panther’s soundtrack should have reflected that reality.”

Indeed, Black Panther: The Album and The Lion King: The Gift miss rare opportunities to showcase a broader slice of African (and African diasporic) music with Marvel and Disney’s massive audiences. Both projects are the product of massive entertainment conglomerates; Disney is no small shop, and neither Beyoncé nor Kendrick Lamar is an indie artist. It’s simultaneously understandable and particularly disappointing, then, that these productions register as incomplete—or, worse yet, seem to sacrifice regional narrative fidelity for commercial appeal. That “Hakuna Matata” remains the only other Swahili-driven song on either soundtrack of The Lion King, a movie set in a fictionalized version of the Serengeti—despite Swahili being the lingua franca of East Africa—is hard to rationalize.

In part, these lineups are explained by the fact that the artists on both records, who hail from Nigeria and other West African nations, are already superstars in their countries and beyond. Crucially, they sing largely in English, their music easily understood by listeners in American markets. Afrobeats—which The Gift falls under and which, as a label, is often erroneously used to describe multiple different genres that have emerged on the continent—has achieved crossover success in the United States through the music of artists such as Davido, Burna Boy, Mr. Eazi, and Tiwa Savage. So, too, has South African house music; artists such as Black Coffee and Busiswa have established international fanbases. It’s both commercially reasonable and a massive boon to their home markets that artists of their ilk are present on Disney-associated productions.

Still, it remains difficult for those with ties to countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to justify the omission of their artists’ music. “The thing that stings the most is when the blanket term Africa is thrown over an entire body of work but the representation doesn’t match. 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,” Awino said. “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.”

To help combat the comparative invisibility of East African, and especially Kenyan, music, Awino and other industry insiders have recently undertaken a host of different initiatives. The Kelele Sessions, for example, are weekly meetings held in Nairobi’s Supersonic Africa, an audio-production facility. Each session begins with an artist, producer, or DJ playing new or unreleased music for other attendees, who offer feedback. The series, which takes its name from the Swahili word for “noise,” doubles as a brainstorm for ways to push the homegrown music industry forward. Awino notes that while the Lion King dustup is unfortunate, it’s inspired her to continue pushing for the music she and her counterparts care about most—even if Disney doesn’t. “We have to commit ourselves to our country … whether it’s gospel, whether it’s genge, whether it’s kapuka, hip-hop, rock, pop, R&B, Afro-fusion, Afro-pop, benga,” she said. “It’s high time that we simply start taking ownership and embracing what’s ours as ours.”