Caribbean Creative Presence For Black Is KingSunday, April 04, 2021
When Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter speaks, the world tends to stop and listen.
Twenty-two years into her career, the Internet streets are still abuzz with the debut of Black Is King — a film directed by the 38-year-old Queen Bey. Making its Disney+ debut last year (July 31,) the highly-anticipated movie was an undeniable celebration of African lineage and traditions. The film not only revisited the continent's culturally rich history, revered rituals and identities in multiplicity, but it also showcased a full exhibition of cultural reverence that allowed African people around the diaspora to find joy in their light, and to be seen. The treat in store was a visually stunning display of black excellence in all fashion forms, with many people enthralled by the dreamy sequences of scenery, such as the sharply styled MOOD 4 EVA highlight — and not just as a result of hip-hop royalty Jay-Z rolling up to a mansion in a crisp Rolls Royce, or Beyoncé's diamond encrusted teeth being brushed by a white butler while draped in a silk dollar-print robe by Duckie Confetti.
In the days following the film's release, fans would learn from key members of the film's production team that the African diaspora played a massive role in the creative direction of the movie.
Part of that community, of course, also includes the Caribbean — a region of breathtaking islands some 7,000 miles west of Africa. Quietly nestled in hypnotising crystal blue waters with picturesque landscapes, we are popularly known for our enchanting “sun, sea and sand” tourism appeal. Notably, the Caribbean also has a heavy dose of African ancestry littered across the islands, further dynamised by our English, French, Spanish, Dutch colonial influences. From The Bahamas clustered in the North with their “Junkanoo” tradition, to the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the southern part of the island chain with its annual Carnival celebrations known as “The Greatest Show On Earth”, our culture is punctuated by the traumatic history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade — making this space profoundly multicultural, but it unearths a complex relationship with black identity and representation.
Unsurprisingly, the Caribbean made its creative presence felt in Black is King — with undeniable influence taking shape in such iconic moments as the life-sized chess board scene featuring avant-garde looks from Simon-Hartman London in MOOD 4 EVA, or the stunning 2-piece set on a sultry Queen Bey which distracts from Burna Boy's visual absence in JA ARA E. Taking an audacious step into a fictitious world of next-level fashion and beauty inspired by The Lion King, celebrity costume designer and wardrobe curator Zerina Akers and world-class hairstylist Neal Farinah formed a part of the production team that brought their collective genius to the project, injecting their own unique understanding of real African culture through their powerful Caribbean experiences.
Farinah, a certified celebrity hair doyen who has been styling Beyoncé's hair for over a decade, reveals that Mrs Carter explained the concept of Black Is King to him after a 2:00 am on-site job, which she excitedly described at the time as “her baby”. As she showed him various references to African hair during their conversation over a year ago, he recalls being mind-blown by her inspirational ideas, but ultimately realising that the proposed workload was a massive undertaking that would require a skilled team of hairstylists who needed to be equally passionate about hair. Creating 40 varied wigs with intricate styles and hues in less than a week for a movie set is no easy feat — but that's exactly what his team was able to achieve. “What I love about Beyoncé, is that although she's my boss when we're working, we have a friendship,” says Farinah.“She gives me a platform to share my creativity, speak on (black) culture, and she's always coming with something new and different. And I love that innovation about her because that's who I am as an artist.”
Black Is King interpreted intricate African hairstyles, such as the signature Mangbetu tribal crown from Eastern Congo worn to display royalty status in the 1900s ( Brown Skin Girl); the Zulu Tribe's bantu knots that symbolised a person's marital status ( Already); the horned head braidwork originally worn by Ethiopian Dinka and Mursi tribes to demonstrate prestige and power ( Already) and the outstanding Nigerian style known as Orisha Bunmi, worn for special events ( Brown Skin Girl). The finished hair products made definitive statements through colour, texture and length, courtesy of a team that spanned parts of the Caribbean — from Trinidad and Tobago to Jamaica — that created a sense of camaraderie and community on set. “It was such a diverse team, all black, all powerful,” says Farinah. Working with a hand-selected team of hairstylists such as Tobagonian-born, Brooklyn-based braider Xia Charles, Trinidadian Keinda Samuel, Kendra Garvey, Kamilah Gerestant, Nakia Rachon, Nicole Newland, Safiya Warner and Tashana Miles, Farinah worked meticulously to broaden the dialogue on the customs and depictions surrounding hairstyling in the film, by paying an authentic tribute to a number of tribes in Africa that he would have learned in his own extensive and diligent research. “I had to have the best of the best, and I wanted to share that pie with everyone,” explained Farinah. The journey also helped him connect the dots to black hair in his own Caribbean heritage. “Being a hairstylist raised in a multicultural country as Trinidad and Tobago, these Black Is King hairstyles meant something more. It was spiritual, it was generational power, it was respect and deeper than I ever imagined.”
Wardrobe Stylist Zerina Akers praises Farinah as a longtime collaborator on a number of projects, explaining “Over the years, I love how unapologetically himself he is at all times.” For her, the inclusion of Caribbean creatives for Black Is King, including London-based designer Melissa Simon-Hartman and the talented Tobagonian tailor Delia Alleyne, introduced a new wave of iconic ingenuity to the project. Referring to Alleyne as “a godsend”, Akers credits Alleyne for a number of memorable looks, including Tierra Whack's ominous cape in My Power. If you did not notice Burna Boy's nonappearance from JA ARA E, it may have very well been because of Beyoncé's psychedelic opening look that was specially designed by Alleyne. Akers also lauds the work of Trinbagonian-Ghanaian designer Melissa Simon-Hartman for the custom-made black and white chessboard looks for the MOOD 4 EVAscene. The conscientious work ethic of her Caribbean peers while on the set mirrors a reflection of Zerina's own approach to her labour of love, which she traces back to her Jamaican and Panamanian roots.
Always an advocate for clients and peers expressing their authentic selves through fashion, Zerina, who is also responsible for styling superstar duo Chloe x Halle, proudly admits that her Caribbean heritage has immensely shaped her styling skills. “I was never above working for free — (in the beginning of my career) I worked with many different stylists on many different shoots and I just took my time and learned,” says Ayers. She speaks lovingly of her maternal lineage — including her Panamanian grandmother who is married to Akers' Jamaican grandfather. “It's funny because when she talks, everybody gets confused because her accent is Jamaican but her first language is Spanish.” Akers credits her grandmother with teaching her how to sew — a Caribbean tradition, similar to many countries in the Motherland, often handed from women to girls.
In turn, Zerina credits her own determination to succeed to that “Caribbean grit”. “Having that upbringing has opened my mind to many different worlds; I would not just bring things home, but I would take things and ideas from my Caribbean home and bring it out into the world. It's motivated me to get out there and do it,the good work.” Following an overseas assignment in South Africa for Beyoncé's Global Citizen Concert in 2019, Zerina admits that her creative eye elevated with her artistry in the wardrobe game from that single travel experience. She explained that she was able to bring depth to several ideas, such as inspiration from the award-winning work For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf by playwright Ntozake Shange, as well as 90's inspired Versace campaigns.
Armed with extensive research thanks to Creative Director Kwasi Fordjour, Ayers' goal was clear ahead of production for Black Is King. With a burning desire to honour African culture as opulent and timeless, she strategically set out on a monumental task — connecting with a number of designers throughout the African diaspora that would add value to the overall vision of the project. In Zerina's eyes, African lifestyle is the epicentre of fashion — at the intersection of luxury and individuality. “I wanted to pull inspiration from traditional African cultures to contribute to the narrative (…) to connect that with the diaspora. So we have the design, the designers, but then we have the ghetto. And not to say that's all that we are, but that's where the heart is.” She set out to explore new silhouettes, colour combinations and textures that still were visually familiar to Africa — collaborating with an assortment of creatives such as designers Adama Paris and Tongoro Studio of Senegal ( Brown Skin Girl), American brand Lace by Tanaya ( Find Your Way Back), art dealer Twiga Mbunda ( Already) and a signature Egyptian-inspired headpiece collaboration with Akers and couturičre Natalia Fedner ( Find Your Way Back). If fashion were a spectator sport, then the end result of this style ode to Africa in Black Is King is olympian — careful, deliberate, game-changing and authentic. As with any medal ceremony, Akers shares her top three looks from the film. “The Valentino on the car with the all-leopard in Already; Timothy White's huge black gown from Brown Skin Girl when Beyoncé is down in the cocoon and then she stands up and then the floral tea party scene, not just her look but the entire scene — those 20 or so looks, that was just one of my favourite things to style.”
In their own career film reels, Black Is King is etched as an unforgettable highlight in the professional lives of both Zerina Akers and Neal Farinah. The Caribbean consciousness is at the forefront — centering their own lived experiences as African people.
Asked about “when the noise subsides” from the film's current buzz, Zerina trusts that Black Is King will leave Caribbean people with a burning desire to explore African culture and spirituality with a greater sense of entitlement and assurance. “I want them to remember that they were also included, and that they were also present, and that the artistry was also present. It's okay to walk into a room and know that you do own that room,” she states. For Neal, this is a moment to celebrate Caribbean joy, while recognising that a new journey has begun for his own award-winning career, saying “Anything is possible in life (…) in helping to pave the way for other young artists from the Caribbean, I'm just rolling high and celebrating for all of us.”
— Originally published in Native Magazine
Text: Tenille Clarke
Tenille Clarke is an avid storyteller, seasoned publicist and cultural enthusiast from Trinidad and Tobago who often pens about her ongoing love affair with travel, entertainment and culture through a Caribbean lens. Follow her digital journey @tenilleclarke1 on Instagram and Twitter.
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