Beyoncé in L’Officiel Magazine Fela Tribute Stirs Controversy Over “Black Face” Instead of Obvious Stereotype of Africans

Yet another debate in the public eye as fashion and race intersect. In January 2011, I discussed the alleged whitening of Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan’s face on cover of Elle Magazine India to make her look whiter than she really was. Because news reports indicated Rai-Bachchan allegedly had a problem with the image, I addressed the issue of consent and a few legal principles, specifically releases, when a publisher, photographer and model/celebrity decide to do business together.

On the public relations part and the broader question of the role of race and stereotypes especially in fashion, I pointed out the hypocrisy of the debate over “whitening” of  faces of ethnic minorities who are celebrities on fashion magazine covers. Specifically, I addressed the fact that in the past and present, with the exception of an instance of which the major outcry came from the African community, blacks and whites alike appear comfortable with the darkening of African skin, especially African models, to fit stereotypes of who they think Africans are.

Black celebrities play into these stereotypes and so do whites and you need not go too far to see music videos, fashion editorials where both depict who they think Africans are, including even in the current case I address involving Beyoncé.

The current story with Beyoncé, again, raises these issues.

L’Officiel Magazine as a salute to Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, a music icon and political activist, decided to do a fashion editorial. They thought Beyoncé best fit what they envisioned. The parties agreed and they conducted a shoot. In the shoot, as part of the Fela tribute/reference, they feature Beyoncé in a Nigerian headgear called “gele.” Beyoncé also wore other African-inspired dresses. In the same shoot, in one instances, Beyoncé’s face is darkened and what appears as colorful tribal marks are placed on her cheeks.

This last shot has since hit the web and of course the last two days have seen many on the web categorically and comfortably throw the word “black face” accusing Beyoncé of perpetuating stereotypes of Black Americans.

I agree that Beyoncé does further a stereotype. I disagree, however, that the dark coloring on Beyoncé’s face, albeit not exactly my cup of tea, perpetuates the stereotype of the “Black Face.”

First, let’s define “Black Face.” I think Wikipedia’s definition captures quite well what Black Face was and meant. I quote some part of the wikipedia definition.

” Blackface is theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and propagated American racist stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon “. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s . . . “

For our purposes, the same wikipedia article also provides an image. Before I even get to the image, for those who tag Beyonce’s look “black face:”

1. How does Beyoncé’s alleged “black face” in this shot propagate “happy go lucky darky on a plantation?”
2. How does Beyoncé alleged “black face” in any way shape or form resemble a “dandified coon?”
3. What sense does it make for Beyoncé to undermine herself as a Black-American woman, especially where she gave consent to the darkening of her face. She has a huge fan base encompassing Blacks, she is Black, married to a Black man and from a Black family, not so?

Now a sample  image from wikipedia on what a Black Face Looked like

I agree that there is a stereotype but it is the one majority of the media and online news outlets carrying this story are not interested in acknowledging, much less discuss. It is that of  the African and who the African ought to be.

The truth is,  if Beyoncé was an African, especially an African model, and her face was painted this dark, many would not raise eyebrows because of the accepted beliefs from both whites and blacks on stereotypes of who Africans are. Indeed, Beyonce’s editorial underscores my point. She and the L’Officiel team are paying tribute to Fela an African and for them, the editorial is incomplete without the darkening of Beyonce’s face to depict Africans.

When Beyonce wears the gele, she is still Beyonce in a gele. But, once she darkens her face and places tribal marks on her cheeks, now she is African and logically paying true homage as an “African Queen” to Fela. Forget the fact that Africans come in all kinds of shades. Indeed the L’Officiel admits this point in a released statement on the shoot below:

“The fashion magazine is about to celebrate its 90th birthday. To celebrate this anniversary, the festivities start with the March issue, with Beyoncé on the cover. The star agreed to pose for an incredible fashion shoot, with the theme of African Queen, paying a tribute to the legendary Fela Kuti (Nigerian political singer who died in 1997). Far from the glamorous Sasha Fierce, the beauty posed for the magazine in amazing fashion designer clothes, but also in a dress created by her mother. A return to her African roots, as you can see on the picture, on which her face was voluntarily darkened. All the pictures will be available in the collector edition, on sale at the end of this month.”

To be African or interpret Africa, there must be a darkened face. As an African (Nigerian)- American who also hails from where the late Fela did,  a member of the press and fashion communities, this reasoning and interpretation to me, fundamentally, is where the issue lies and one that should continue to get as much light and debate a possible.

Beyonce’s L’Officiel shoot, “Black Face?” Hardly.