At one point in the narration of her new visual album, Black is King, Beyonce intones the following: “What a thing to be — both universal and familiar. To be one and the same, and still unlike any other.”
It was a reference to the central character in the tale, a young African king seeking to regain his throne after being cast out by his own family. But it could just as easily be applied to the Zulu tribesman who recorded a timeless song 81 years ago, and who at least partially inspired Queen Bey to make this film.
The songs from her 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift — a tie-in to Disney’s remake that year of The Lion King — serve as the backbone of this 85-minute film, which was released July 31 on Disney+. Shot in South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, it is her “love letter to Africa,” as she has called it, and it has been well-received. The website Rotten Tomatoes bestowed upon it a score of 98, and critics have called it “eye candy of the highest order” and a “carefully realized … construct” of the singer-songwriter’s previous work, complete with “vibrant cinematography and international scope.”
In addition, NPR’s Cate Young described it as “a synonym for the innate greatness that has been stolen from Black people the world over,” and a project in which Beyonce “seeks to restore that greatness to those of her lineage.” That has particular resonance in the wake of the George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in early July, and the demonstrations that bubbled up in cities around the world afterward.
But this film is also noteworthy in that it serves as a nod to the late South African singer-composer Solomon Linda. As detailed in a 2000 Rolling Stone story, Linda, who grew up herding cattle in rural Zululand, in time made his way to Johannesburg. Between menial jobs he and his band, the Evening Birds, worked gigs, and their popularity grew to the point that they were called upon to cut tracks in a studio.
It was there that lightning struck. Linda improvised a song called “Mbube” (“the Lion,” in Zulu), based on his experiences chasing such creatures away from the family’s cattle herd. And according to Rolling Stone, he stumbled upon the melody that over time would be associated with these words: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.”
That’s right, Linda birthed “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Nobody could have known that then; the studio owner bought the rights to the tune for the equivalent of $2. Linda became “the Elvis Presley of his time and place,” according to Rolling Stone, and the song sold 100,000 copies in South Africa. He nonetheless continued to work a warehouse job for that same studio owner.
In time the song found its way to folk musician Pete Seeger in the United States. He reworked it, and others covered it. Then it was remade once more, into its familiar form, for a group called The Tokens. They took it to No. 1 on the charts in 1961.
Linda died, penniless, a year later. The song would go on to become a staple of the musical and movie versions of The Lion King — the original, which was released in 1994, as well as last year’s remake. Linda’s family sued Disney for royalties, and after a prolonged legal fight, the sides reached an undisclosed financial settlement in 2006.
Beyonce’s mom, Tina Knowles Lawson, said in a broadcast interview this year that her daughter was well aware of Linda’s plight.
“It really angered her, because it’s the same old story,” said Lawson, who added that her daughter pledged herself to telling “the real story of what happened.”
Beyonce honors Linda in her new film by including a version of the original “Mbube.” But really, the entirety of Black is King serves as an homage to him, as it deals with a figure both universal and familiar — a man who was one and the same, and still unlike any other.