How Black Is King Got Its African Lullabies

A Smithsonian Folkways ethnomusicologist explains how their recordings made it into the visual album.

Beyoncé, on a horse, with a pipe, in cowprint

If you watch the credits of Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King and don’t let Disney+ shunt you over to watching CGI big cats, you’ll notice something interesting. Dotted among the songwriting credits for Beyoncé and her contemporary superstar collaborators from last summer’s album are several tracks with names like “Little Girls’ Sung Games” and “Lullaby – Nzakara,” archival recordings of African folk music that date back to the mid-20th century, capturing traditions that go back much longer. They’re drawn from the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, a massive 127-album collection of recordings drawn from all over the world and released by Smithsonian Folkways. In a project explicitly dedicated to Beyoncé’s son, Sir Carter, the recordings, many of which are lullabies, underline the way in which tradition is passed down through music (and, in one case, how that transmission can be exploited by outside parties for profit).

For insight into how those recordings came to be, and what Beyoncé is up to with them, we turned to ethnomusicologist Atesh Sonneborn, the retired associated director of Smithsonian Folkways, who oversaw the massive digital release of the UNESCO collection beginning in 2014.

Sam Adams: Looking over the recordings of African folk music included in Black Is King, they’re all drawn from a period between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. Is there something special about that period of time?

Atesh Sonneborn: There were a couple of things going on. One is an intense period of recording, but also an intense period of publication. People recorded and deposited those recordings in archives for years, and nothing was ever heard, but then there came a few record labels like Folkways and Ocora that put out stuff from all over the world. And they didn’t find a huge audience, but they found an audience of people who really were fascinated by it—in some cases by the exoticism, and in some cases by the recognition.

What’s your own connection to this collection of music?

In the late ’60s, early ’70s, I used some of the music in a radio show I did for KPFK in Los Angeles about the history of Vietnam, and then I studied ethnomusicology at UCLA, where this becomes a really significant reference work, because there’s so many music traditions at the village level that were recorded from the 1950s through the 1990s, when they were still whatever it means to be authentic.

Looking at the tracks Beyoncé chose for Black Is King, do you see a connection between them?

When I tried to reverse engineer how the search would occur to get these materials, I think I get it—the basics of it—although I can’t figure out how they got to the Pete Seeger. I thought she was trying to do a couple of things. One was to reach back to her own sense of African heritage, which is, just because of the nature of being descended from slaves, you don’t really know where your African heritage starts. So she reached into Central Africa and Western Africa, and I think she or somebody who was working for her went in for sounds, and they searched for lullabies, they searched for children’s songs, and they searched for, again, a concept of authenticity. “Who am I?” The thing that’s ethnomusicologically interesting is people finding themselves, finding their own identity in music.

Do any of them stand out to you from an ethnomusicological perspective?

I really personally like the way the Baka material goes, the Cameroonian lullaby, because they use a method of singing where each person has a note or two that comes at a certain point in the melodic line, and they only do it then. So it’s both polyrhythmic and polyphonic. You know how English hand bells are, where they’re doing “Jingle Bells,” and one person has “jingle”? That’s the same concept, except in a very different kind of interlocking pattern. But for me, that was the coolest.

Maybe the most substantial piece of music that’s not Beyoncé’s is the use of Solomon Linda’s “Mbube,” which eventually formed the basis for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” although Linda originally got no credit and his family had to sue Disney to get paid for its use in The Lion King. That feels like a pointed reference to the historic exploitation of African and Black culture by the music industry, which is also something the largely white ethnographers who made these kinds of recordings were accused of. So has there been a reconsideration about the way this material was collected and used?

Oh, gosh, there’s been reconsideration. It’s ongoing. It’s ongoing. And yeah, how to do that in a paragraph? Obviously, as we learned, I think, in seventh grade, the anthropologists went out and treated them as exotic other, didn’t quite treat them as people, came back with their artifacts, their music. And no names were used, and maybe no money was exchanged. “Do you mind if I record you?” “Well, no. We give our music. It’s a gift from the gods. We give it to you.” And OK, we take it back, and we publish it, and we make money, and we don’t give you a dime. That, by the 1970s, was very much being challenged. And the idea of an ethnomusicological work being a collaboration. You know, not I know. You, the subject of what I’m trying to understand, you as a knower. I am not the knower. I can’t do anything but faithfully trace what you know and share it. There’s much, much more of that. And I think at this point there’s been, over the past 30, 40 years, a number of significant moments where somebody in some place that is not a big urban center in Western culture said, “Hey, that’s my grandfather, and we never saw a dime.” That’s still going on.