Breaking down the African imagery in Beyoncé’s Black Is King

Beyoncé in “Mood 4 Eva” from the visual album BLACK IS KING on Disney+
Beyoncé in “Mood 4 Eva” from the visual album BLACK IS KING on Disney+ /

Beyoncé’s Black Is King is about finding oneself, telling the story of people from the African diaspora with the help of the Lion King narrative. Here we break down some of the African imagery featured.

Beyoncé’s latest visual album, Black Is King, premiered on Disney+ at the tail end of July, drawing praise from critics of both music and film. The songs on the visual album are from The Gift, the soundtrack for Disney’s live-action The Lion KingBlack Is King is about finding yourself and connecting to where you come from.

The story of The Lion King’s Simba is scattered throughout the visual album’s footage, but the true heroes of this story are people of the African diaspora, people of African descent. Black Is King is truly a love letter to Blackness and encourages all Black people to know their history and better understand themselves.

Black Is King is filled with African imagery and symbolism that helps tell the story of the hero’s journey. Once you understand what these are, this film becomes much more powerful — so let’s break down some of those elements.

Orishas and African Spirituality

Just like in her previous visual album, Lemonade, Beyoncé incorporates African spirituality into the story. The most notable example is Beyoncé aligning herself with the orisha Oshun (Osun). Orishas are like gods in African religions, and some examples include Ifa’ (Yoruba), Vodoo (New Orleans) or Vodou (Haiti), and Santeria (Cuba). They are the mediators between the human and the divine worlds.

Oshun is a female orisha that represents fertility, the river, and the feminine divine. She wears yellow, gold, and loves honey. She has a contagious laugh, but don’t cross her. This angry side of Oshun was shown in Lemonade, when Beyoncé was destroying everything in her path to avenge a cheating husband during the song “Hold Up.” At the beginning of that musical number, Beyoncé emerges through golden doors, with water flowing out. Whenever Beyoncé is wearing yellow, dancing near the water, or wearing gold she is invoking Oshun. She even says in the song “Mood 4 Eva,”  ” I am Nala, sister of Naruba, Oshun, Queen of Sheba…”

Beyoncé’s role in Black Is King is that of the mother. Oshun is the orisha of fertility and the river,  which are life-giving sources. Mothers give life. Beyoncé also has portraits of herself with her children in the style of Virgin Mary imagery. It’s important to note that some of these African religions combined the tradition of Catholic saints with their spiritual beliefs.

Oshun isn’t the only orisha associated with water, feminine energy, and fertility. When Beyoncé is dressed in blue or indigo she is invoking Yemoja. Yemoja in some of the African diasporic religions is associated with the Virgin Mary. She is the protector of women, and cowrie shells are associated with her wealth. Beyoncé wears a cowrie shell headdress, which represents creation, femininity, and sexuality. There is also the beginning scene where Beyoncé is dressed in white, going through a baptism type of ritual with the infant in her embrace. This ritual could be an offering to Olukun, who is the orisha of “ocean, depths, darkness, and profundity.” He is also represented in white.

Another orisha that’s mentioned is Ogun In the scene for the song “JA ARA RE” by Burna Boy, where adult Simba is driving fast in stylized cars and surrounded by beautiful women. Ogun is a warrior orisha, and he symbolizes traditional masculine strength. He is also the patron of blacksmiths, hunters, truck and taxi drivers, and mechanics. In a scene where everything is super masculine and mechanical with the use of cars and motorbikes, it makes sense that Ogun would be mentioned.

In the musical scene for “Mood 4 Eva ” Beyoncé is reading a book titled “Black Gods and Kings,” further proving the spiritual context of the film.


Water has a huge presence in Black Is King. Above we mentioned that water is a life-giving source, and that there was a baptismal ritual in the beginning of the film involving water, blessing the baby Simba. When Simba’s character is closer to realizing who he is, we see more water present in the film. Simba swims through water to get to the elder that blesses him for coming back home. A voiceover from the film says, ” Water signifies life, water signifies purity, and water signifies the ability to be reborn.”

Although there is so much positivity associated with water in this story, there is a tragic element, and that’s the transatlantic slave trade. Millions of Africans were stolen from their homes and dropped off in the Americas or the Caribbean. Some were thrown off the ships, left to drown in the water. There is a scene in the film where Beyoncé is dressed in white, floating in the middle of the ocean. Her voiceover says, “Lost languages spill out of our mouths.” This refers to slavery ridding people of their languages and culture.

A major theme throughout Black Is King is understanding your history, but in order for many people who belong to the African diaspora to understand their history, they have to revisit the pain of slavery.

The scene narrated by the song “NILE”, ft. Kendrick Lamar, captures the complex nature of water for the Black diaspora. The scene follows Mufasa’s death, and Beyoncé leads an all-white funeral procession. The Nile that Kendrick and Beyoncé are swimming in is both peaceful and dangerous. The more peaceful part starts at the beginning of the song.

"One time I took a swim in the NileI swam the whole way, I didn’t turn around, man, I swearIt made me relax when I came downI felt liberated like free birds, I’m stimulated now"

The more dangerous or cautious part follows:

"Plunging away ‘less my body’s on topAll of these currents might cost me my life right nowWhere danger finds me, it follows with tidesMany miles ahead of me, still I’m in stride, she saidHey little buddy, where you goin’?I’m not sure of how to know I’m still motionYou seem regular, I seem regularThese streams may take me out to the oceanTold myself if I dive in it without precaution of a life jacketThen I’ll dive in it ’til I’m exhausted and I’m type lackingWaistline on four deep, senses on fortyFeel like there’s four of me"

The Nile is a major river in Africa and the longest river in Africa. It’s not a coincidence that Beyoncé decided to use this river in her song. This symbolism reveals the complexities of Black identity and how it all goes back to this traumatic moment in history. The line from “NILE” — “I’m in the Nile/deep in denial” — possibly references the lack of knowledge that people of African descent have about their ancestry because of their displacement.

The Story of Moses

This is also connected to water, but an image that plays a big part in the Black Is King story is Beyoncé as Jochebed, Moses’ mother, putting him in a basket and releasing the basket into the Nile River. Moses is found by the pharaoh’s daughter. The story of Moses is really close to Black American culture because it’s a story about freedom.

The Exodus story, which is the book of the Bible the Moses story is found in, was even used in the Martin Luther King Jr. speech he gave before he died. There is a Negro Spiritual called ” Go Down Moses,” and the song includes the line that Moses told Pharoah, “Let my people go!”  Harriet Tubman was called Black Moses, since she helped free slaves through the Underground Railroad.

Another way the Moses story relates to Black Is King is that Moses made his way back to his people, just like Simba did. A voiceover in Black Is King says, “Royalty is there to be a blessing to others.” This statement definitely applies to both Simba and Moses.


It is important to note that Beyoncé hired many Black fashion designers to work on the film. Some of these artists include Jerome LaMaar, Loza Maleombhoa, Alon Livné, labels like Tongoro Studio, and more. The costume designer is Zerina Akers, Beyoncé’s longtime stylist. The fashion, like everything else in this film, is part of the storytelling, of knowing oneself and knowing your history. It also shows off the diversity of Africa and presents Africa in a beautiful, magical way.

The use of textiles is a nod to West African communities that reclaimed the Dutch influence of textiles after colonization. The designers used modern African designs and the Bogolofani textile practice from Mali to showcase the beauty of West Africa. This Bògòlanfini textile design can be seen in Loza Maleombhoa’s bodysuit that Beyoncé wears in the “Already” scene. It has a black and white geometrical pattern with figural mask buttons.

The fashion Beyoncé wears is also there to add drama and flare her dance movements. Dancing in the African diaspora is both spiritual and entertaining in nature. There were designs inspired by the Mossi people, who are native to modern-day Burkina Faso. Mossi people have Ouangos dance costumes that have “elongated stylized masks and layered fibrous cloaks” that are there to emphasize the dance movements. Beyoncé‘s fringed fedora in “Water,” and the crystal poncho by Area in “Find Your Way Back” are examples of how this style of dress punctuates movement.

The film also includes a lot of headwraps, which many people of the diaspora wear with a sense of pride, like a crown. Headwraps are called gele in Nigeria and duku in Ghana. This fits with the Lion King royalty storyline. One of Beyoncé’s famous looks from the film is the braid arrangement that looks like a spool on the top of her head. This is influenced by The Mangbetu people’s practice of Lipombo head-elongation, which gives the women their own version of a crown.

The Burberry cowhide styles in “Already” were made from Nguni shields from the Zulu people.  The Zulu influence is also seen in the leopard print and crystal jumpsuit and matching cape worn in “Mood 4 Eva” that represents leopard print in ceremonial dress.

Beyoncé and her team took the time to highlight the beauty of the African diaspora through fashion. It supports one of Beyoncé’s quotes in the film, “Let Black be synonymous with glory.”

Next. Beyoncé’s Black Is King visual album embraces Afrofuturism. dark

What do you think of Beyoncé‘s Black Is King? Did you notice anything we missed that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments!