Beyoncé is the world’s ultimate drag queen. She is cut from a different cloth than the likes of RuPaul and his Drag Race beauties. Beyoncé is old school. She knows all too well what she puts so elegantly: ‘history is our future’. I’d like to think she traces her lineage back to Lady Bunny, Miss Coco Peru, Dame Edna Everage and, of course, Crystal LaBeija, founding mother of the House of LaBeija. These are queens who we wouldn’t be caught dead without their drag on – and well until social media – had managed to keep it that way. Calm down, I’m not casting aspersions on Beyoncé’s gender or its expression, I am alluding to how she allows us to see her only as she wants to be seen. Beyoncé is in complete control of her image: she determines the conditions under which we consume her. Unlike other celebrities, we don’t know any of her favourite things. We have no idea, we don’t care at all – but we assume she’ll come correct.
Beyoncé is the world’s ultimate drag queen because drag queens (themselves) cannot parody her successfully. On the fan favourite ‘Snatch Game’ episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009–) three contestants have attempted to impersonate her, and each time it’s like watching a car crash. The underlying assumption (just like with doing drag!) is that she will be easy to imitate. But there are no edges to hold onto with Beyoncé, no clues to follow that betray personal preference or pluck. Beyoncé is perfectly never there in the first place. I’d like to propose that her persona is, infact, Beyoncé and it is Mrs. Knowles-Carter that we don’t know. She – Mrs. Knowles-Carter, the name on her cheques – is the author of the relationship between us and her.
Don’t agree with me? Just take a look at Black Is King (2020), her visual companion to the album The Lion King: The Gift (2019). I’ll admit I have watched it over ten times this past weekend and I’m still shook (I’m even quivering a little as I type this). In our daily lives, as we scroll through our social media feeds, Beyoncé rarely leaves us any breadcrumbs to follow. It is only with these immaculately produced moments – Beyoncé (2013), Lemonade (2016), Homecoming (2019) and now, Black Is King – that she feeds us. With this latest visual extravagance, she makes it possible for those of us with her complexion, from her community and her context, to deftly and deliberately capitalise the B: we are Black. And while there isn’t an escape from one’s skin and situation, here is her reminder and reassurance: we are Beautiful. She adamantly whispers: ‘We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.’ Immediately, who she means by they, and who by we, is made crystal clear.
Illustration by Aarman Roy
Image by Disney+
It is in her ability to play out these delicious demarcations that Beyoncé continues to thrill me. There isn’t ever a doubt that the intention of her work is to glorify the we, while they are always left wondering – like Pumbaa the warthog – is she talking to me? While they might be listening, she speaks to us. In the eighty-five minutes of Black Is King, there is only a single white body – old and servile – most memorably carrying around the silky train of Beyoncé’s sapphire-blue, custom Alejandro x Adam Afkir gown in the track Mood 4 Eva. Are these the full-bodied notes of reverse tokenism that I taste in my mouth?
Much like a drag queen, Beyoncé doesn’t ever publicly acknowledge that she has jotted down any of the criticism directed towards her (hi, bell hooks!). Instead, she uses each of her projects to produce answers, that is, if we are seeking them. In Black Is King, the usual trouble that critics have with Beyoncé stealing focus is addressed. In certain tableaux, she steps back to allow her African collaborators to serve face to the fans. In Don’t Jealous Me Nigerian singer Yemi Alade sexily, strongly stomps about in a red fringe dress, as fellow countrymen Tekno and Mr Eazi dominate the track. Beyoncé blinks in and out of it. In My Power, South African artists Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly shimmy and shake up the screen, stealing attention even from Beyoncé. These aren’t simply gestures of demonstrating pan-African solidarity (hi, Marcus Garvey!) – the two tracks are probably the most catchy, and will be played on loop across the world.
Still, if nothing so far has convinced you of her status as the world’s ultimate drag queen, just peep the fashion in Black Is King. Words fall short to describe the endless, jaw-dropping haute couture moments she slams us with. It is never just one outfit per song. She flits in and out of over sixty-five costumes in this feature-length film. Each is a series of images fashioned to the nines, which sear themselves into memory. Each costume change, cowrie shell, contoured line of makeup and choreography allows Beyoncé and her collaborators to occupy archetypal roles – mother, daughter, sister, wife, boss bitch and banjee babe – and transcend them to make truly iconique images. Beyoncé’s command of contemporary couture; how cloth drapes over her voluptuous body; and how she mixes African traditions and techniques – the superhuman silhouettes, gigantic geles, beaded braids, elegant edamburu styles stacked all together – steals things away from remaining in the cabinets of anthropology alone. She reminds us that remaking things anew has always been the real power of oppressed peoples.
At the end of Black Is King, we get the ‘Simba moment’ we might come to expect. But even so, Beyoncé’s executes a significant sleight of hand. As the credits begin to roll, we are treated to a glimpse of Sir Carter, her son, to whom this film is dedicated. She cradles him in her arms. Even as she engages in this mundane, motherly moment, we are still not shown Beyoncé as ordinary, ever. With Black Is King, she grants her people this gift, too. She tells us, and she tells me – from her grand lineage – that I am not ordinary, I am extra. I am extraordinary.