Visual director Jenn Nkiru discusses ‘Brown Skin Girl’ from ‘Black Is King’, her association with Beyonce, and the film’s underlying message on colourism and more
When Beyonce voiced The Lion King’s fierce lioness, Nala, in Disney’s ambitious remake of the much-loved franchise, a soundtrack that effectively fused pop and Afro beats, ‘The Gift’ was born. But, little did we know this track would unfurl an entire visual album that celebrates Black diaspora and African ancestry. Black is King is a bold, aesthetic feat: a close look at colour and Black history through multiple, strong collaborations. And, what could be more timely: the album arrives at a time when the conversation around colour and race gains steam, like never before.
Written, directed and produced by Beyonce Knowles-Carter, the narration is mostly cohesive but not without its fair share of abstraction — some of the metaphors and iconographies hit home. Be it the white butler brushing Beyonce’s teeth or the very white tradition of a high tea party, attended by all Black women.
The album’s feminist streak glints through two tracks: ‘My Power’, where Beyonce dances in a church, the choreography of which exudes strength and grace (which fans have quickly taken to, with the #MyPower challenge) and ‘Brown Skin Girl’, a groovy celebration of identity based on skin colour. Jenn Nkiru, the visual director of ‘Brown Skin Girl’, who has collaborated with the singer on multiple projects, talks to MetroPlus about the album’s relevance, the narrative style of the track and her experience working with Queen Bey herself.
You repeatedly refer to your visual language as ‘Afro Surrealism’. What exactly is it?
Afro Surrealism or Black Surrealism is the closest to what I consider I do. It is addressing black issues through a surrealist lens and exploring socio-political, racial ideas through a lens that is more expansive than the rigidity of reality.
Black is King is all about inclusion. Can you take us through your experience of collaborating with Beyonce?
As a continuation of the work I have been making and through my discussions with Bey, we very much wanted to have a conversation around women of colour and celebrate them. I was also very keen on making sure that we address the global conversation around colourism beyond just Black people — it is a conversation that needs to happen within all South Asian cultures.
We have been working on this for a year, and the video has taken on so many different meanings. We were thinking about how to make sure we were inclusive of the ‘now’. But this ‘now’ I am talking about is a more consistent ‘now’. Pandemic or not, there is always a bigger pandemic around racism. We wanted to make this for children, families and those who find themselves in it.
How did you decide on locations for shooting the video?
The video was shot across London, LA and Nigeria. I am from London. Throughout this entire piece, we wanted to engage in a diasporic conversation. We wanted to emphasise and showcase, as the lyrics say, ‘the complexities of complexion’. In South London, particularly, I knew the people and their culture well. So I knew the women from Black and South Asian communities, from there.
Can you talk about the narrative style employed for ‘Brown Skin Girl’?
The narrative surrounds the idea of how we celebrate women — who in our contemporary and mainstream culture — are not really celebrated in a way that it is reverential, befitting and divine. So, a lot of the visual motifs and language used were around feminine energy and growth.
Also, the video is based on a Black tradition that happens internationally, a debutante ball. It is a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. So, we are really thinking about the intersection of ages, and the moments and events where multi-generational people come together.
How is this particular track relevant to Black is King as a whole album?
It is a story that touches all of us but we are looking at it through the framework of one boy. We are looking at it through the framework of some level of masculinity. ‘Brown Skin Girl’ is one piece apart from ‘Power’ that is completely dedicated to women in a film called Black is King. I wanted to make sure that the connection to the film remains but it can also stand alone as a singular vision.
Black is King is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar