We don’t talk about the ancient religion in my Yoruba family, our parents having chosen Christianity, but several elements of our culture permeate our worship. Those in our extended family who continue to serve ancient Yoruba gods chose a violent, bloody worship, one that requires constant devotion, constant bloodshed, and constant death in order to achieve and maintain power. Their worship is ugly and violent by design, a sharp contrast to the soft, brilliant, and glittery facades so-called traditional African religions are given in American media today. These gods are powerful, and to their followers, more real than the air we breathe. That kind of power, as with any kind of power, comes with a price that can see the global spotlight. We call that price sacrifice.
To say that Beyoncé's performance at the 2017 Grammy award ceremony was out of this world would be both an understatement and a misrepresentation. It was from another world entirely, one that many viewers instantly recognized from multiple vantage points, sending social media platforms into a flurry of activity and hot takes, and lighting up the backchannels with text messages and voice notes. But what was glaringly absent to me – and to many others who have firsthand experience with the different religions from the Africas – was the element of sacrifice.
The Missing Sacrifice
Sacrifice is a key foundation to most spiritual practices, organized or not. However, the American public simply doesn’t have the range to talk about matters of the spirit and the laws that govern them. This is clear in the way people wrote and talked about Beyoncé's work from Formation to Lemonade. Formation was a beautiful collaboration of Black women from across the African diasporas. The video's elements of spirituality were as tangible and definite as their sources were intangible and unclear to many who watched, until the hot takes, again, started to stream in with statements about African religions, deep south spiritual traditions, voodoo, and all the things American media has relegated to the horror section of its cannon. Wanting to find themselves in the art, many began to speculate on just how close Beyoncé was to these symbols of traditional African religions.
Formation was a beautiful collaboration of Black women from across the African diasporas.
The trajectory didn't stop there; the full-length Lemonade project dropped and immediately made its mark as an important part of Beyoncé's oeuvre and American popular culture. The hot takes were abundant, of course, but much more strident in their inferences about her spiritual life. Essays, thought pieces, and social media conversations delved into the high symbolism of her art. The visual album provided writers much more to work with, more ways to project onto Beyoncé the desires of traditional African religious practice.
Things had died down by the time Grammy season came around, until in the days before the awards ceremony, Beyoncé continued the themes of Lemonade with a flowery, watery, and highly editorialized announcement of her pregnancy. The images are decadent, and once again, hot take nation got to work, drawing from their own epistemologies to impose onto and draw from the images conclusions about Beyoncé's supposed spiritual practices.
It seemed as if everyone, on all sides of the African diaspora and from all spectrums of religions and races had something to say. But without the language of spirituality and sacrifice, these hot takes fell short.
Art as the Vehicle for the Myth of African Spiritualities
In an attempt to make sense of the new world Beyoncé and her collaborators were creating, most of the takes rooted the symbolism of the work–visual album, the pregnancy photoshoot, and the Grammys performance–in art and religious iconography, most of which were western and/or European in origin. There were run downs of the different symbols of motherhood and womanhood in different cultures, and comparisons with entertainment artifacts that took deep cuts from West African indigenous religions.
Amanda Alcantara, for example, writing for Remezcla, describes the Yoruba religious elements that make up parts of the visual album. Although she interviews a handful of practitioners, they all stop short of describing the spiritual elements and rituals that make up the act of worship. Instead, the article is closely tied to visuals of the work, which is what everyone is using to arrive at their conclusions.
Almost immediately after her Grammys performance, accusations of appropriation came from viewers in The Africas and from here in America, too. Tobi Ojo, writing for Agbara Magazine, cuts to the chase: "To put it point blank and simple, Beyoncé's attempt at appreciation of African culture was not appreciation, instead it was glaringly disrespectful."
And, just as quickly, other viewers in the Africas defended the performance, like Christiana A Mbakwe who asked, in response on Twitter, "How on earth can a woman of African descent appropriate African culture?"
Ojo doesn't actually say Beyoncé's appropriating African deities for her art, but that her appreciation of African cultures rankled him a bit. And while I agree with him, I would suggest that Beyoncé is not even thinking about the Africas in her work, at least not the multiplicity of the Africas. I think the art of Beyoncé and other Black artists in diaspora are working with the myth and the memes of Africa, displacing the voices and cultures of present-day Africas in their execution. Beyoncé the brand and the icon is in the lineage of a long-running imperial and capitalist endeavor that dismantles cultures and reassembles them from pieces that fit into the western imagination to be packaged and sold to communities of displaced Africans longing for their roots.
This cultural moment is complicated by the fact that social media brings Africans-in-the-Diaspora and Africans-in-the-Africas into tight quarters before we've each fully destroyed our respective lenses of white supremacy.
Yes, yes, yes: not all Black artists looking at Africa do this. But not all artists have the reach Beyoncé has in this moment not only to execute this production, but also to access the work of other Black women artists who weave their spiritual practices into their art. This is how, in the poem Somali-Brit poet Warsan Shire wrote for Beyoncé's pregnancy announcement, you can have a deity from West African traditions, and a historical figure from Egypt in conversation. It's all so very confusing and incongruous and nonsensical if you try to look at it as a literal confession of her spiritual affiliations rather than a text of art made up of parts of Africa-the-meme that work for her.
This is much bigger than Beyoncé. Africans from every iteration of diaspora are borrowing from and against each other in attempts to (re)construct a sense of identity, belonging, and place in a world that's been designed to use us and discard us, while killing and trying to kill us in the process. Is it any wonder that young Africans and descendants of Africans are mesmerized by the goddess-Beyoncé story and the possibility of her embodying the fullness of what they see as Truly African™? Because if she does, she gives our spirituality a validation that doesn't exist in the western imagination, and opens up inroads to African histories that are currently blocked by persistent white supremacist ways of knowing.
However, this cultural moment is complicated by the fact that social media brings Africans-in-the-Diaspora and Africans-in-the-Africas into tight quarters before we've each fully destroyed our respective lenses of white supremacy. On one hand, there are descendants of Africans who want to go "back" to traditional African religious worship, not realizing that, first, these practices are not universally African, or even universally West African, Nigerian, or Yoruba for that matter. The inability to see the multiple Africas and to treat them as such is a consequence of imperialism amplified by capitalism. A myth of Africa that facilitates the extraction of resources from the continent had to be created to assuage the humanity of colonizers, and that myth has rooted itself in Black American/Diaspora/African imaginations.
Secondly, the idea of going "back" to a time before colonization is seen as what is Truly African™ by many post-colonial Africans and African descendants. They write off the agency of Africans who chose to leave those religions, labeling them as brainwashed or mislead. However, where there there is oppression, there is always agency, and just like many Africans who chose to kill themselves over being enslaved, many more chose to change their affiliations to their gods.
Then there are those in the Africas who are consuming American exported Black culture but can't see how white supremacist institutions and ideologies impact the narratives that reach the continent and the narratives that come from the continent. The African diaspora isn't just a diaspora of people, but a diaspora of ideas, traditions, and, yes, religions. So while trying to occupy a place of ownership of what is Truly African™, Africans, and Nigerians specifically in this context, erase the agency of Africans all around the world who have molded these ancient narratives into stories and ways of worshipping that affirm their placelessness in hostile lands.
The Boundaries of Western Epistomologies
To gatekeep, that is, to say that we are the final authorities on who is practicing the One True African religion, is to erase the multiplicities of the Africas and its Diasporas, and to miss the realities, limitations, and power of these religions. The conversation becomes defensive on all sides, rather than interrogative and truth-seeking.
These are the boundaries of spirituality in a western epistemology. After Beyoncé released the full-length Lemonade visual album, takes on the spiritual aspects of the project filled the internet. With titles like "Beyoncé Serves African Spirituality in ‘Lemonade’", "7 Artists Explain The Significance Of The Goddess That Inspired Lemonade", and the Buzzfeed-style "6 AFRICAN GODS YOU CAN FIND IN BEYONCE'S LEMONADE", the dearth of language available to us as a culture to talk about metaphysical things became clear.
What was missing from most of the hot takes over the past several months was a deconstruction of the ways we worship and practice our spiritualities.
During Beyoncé's performance, I watched my twitter timelines light up both with people remarking about how amazing it was to see their culture celebrated on a global stage and with people expressing wariness at seeing their culture celebrated on a global stage. But without a cohesive way to talk about spirituality and modes of worship outside of the function of representation of capitalism, we are left with empty symbols of deeply sacred ways of knowing.
What was missing from most of the hot takes over the past several months was a deconstruction of the ways we worship and practice our spiritualities. We were so caught up in the aesthetics of being and defending our definitions of Truly African, that the reasons people seek out new and old spiritualities remained untouched. Questions like: What's happening in the spirits of people around the Black diasporas that's compelling this groundswell of interest in traditional (west) African religions? Why do we only know of one or, at most, two of these religions? What does it mean to be a true practitioner of those faiths?
The reality is that many of us are searching for truths and stories that affirm them. We're looking for ways to heal our spirits that western versions of Christianity, Islam, and other religions have not been able to. In the same way many Black demographics are leaving the church because it doesn't quite fit our needs, many people are looking for a way to make sense of a world that kills Black humans for merely existing. The need for meaning is what drives our storytelling, and the rich and varied traditional African religions are, for many, filling the void left by a lack of spiritual traditions in the west that center our ways of knowing and being. Because of what Wole Soyinka, in the forward to Death and the King's Horseman, calls the Colonial Incident, we, both on the continent and in the diaspora, are catastrophically, materially, physically, and spiritually removed from our faiths the modes of worship created to elevate and disseminate them.
When we approach these worlds and the gods of these worlds as mere art or props, we risk appearing as appropriators and appreciators instead of true worshippers of these ancient ways. Beyoncé's spirituality is beautiful even when it is full of rage, yet too glossy to align with the requirements of traditional African religions from many parts of the Africas and its Diasporas. We are left to consume the worlds and gods of the worlds which Beyoncé constructs for us, whereas, these religions require us to bring sacrifices and participate as worshippers.
Gods and Idols by Design
These deities are designed to be feared and to be appeased. They’re not costumes or plot devices. They’re real and terrifying, demanding of their worshippers things that we, in America, could never imagine except through fiction. Now, the elements of bloodshed and sacrifice are not unique to African religions. Ancient Judaic practices are filled with altar sacrifices and even Christianity exalts the human sacrifice of Jesus the Christ as an incontestable tenant of its belief system. All religions have an element of sacrifice, ritual, worship, and devotion that go beyond the aesthetic. Without the language to talk about this outside of an imperial, capitalist framework, we miss the metaphysical and intangible things, and our spiritualities are incomplete.
When we're not intentional about how we arrive at our spirituality, when we're not paying attention to how power shapes that arrival, and when we don't count the costs of our worship, we end up impressing our desires on our celebrities, our institutions, and our nations. They become reflections of those desires, displacing true the images of these deities. As innocuous as the word is in American culture, an "idol" is merely a reflection of a god, and not the god itself, obscuring the gods from their worshippers and vice versa.
It's clear that Beyoncé is using elements from the Africas to influence her body of post-motherhood work, but it's not clear which Africas, or even if she is paying attention to the Africas, rather than the myth of Africas. But It's bigger than her. There are worlds whose truths are beyond the capacity of any product of American hegemony to point to, and it's up to us to search diligently and thoroughly and uncover them for ourselves.