Black is King is the new visual album by Beyonce, recently launched on Disney+ and excitingly
features a stunning aquatic scene full of synchronized swimmers.
In the final scene of Black is King, Beyonce and her choreographer JaQuel Knight has a vision of a delightful Busby Berkeley number, full of dance and aquatic performers creating formations, in bright neon colours and an underwater piece with Queen B swimming through a dolphin chain circle of synchronized swimmers.
The big difference to the Berkeley extravaganzas of the Hollywood heyday was that the majority of Beyonce’s aquatic performers were black women. A watery spectacular of black synchronized swimmers. How refreshing to finally see.
Sadly, like many other industries, the world of aquatics, be it sport, entertainment or even the general lessons of learning how to swim, is still dominated by white people. Switch on the synchronized swimming (now known as artistic swimming) at the Olympic Games, which athletes have to go through a qualification process to compete at, and how many of them are POC? Watch a film with a synchronized swimming or a water ballet scene in and how many feature black performers? A huge stumbling block is how very few BAME children as well as adults have easy access and opportunities to learn to swim. In 2020 it is still very few.
The background and factual bit:
In the UK, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children can’t swim. The risk of drowning is much higher for black people. This is due to several reasons. Never having had access to lessons, being too expensive, no pools in the area, fearful of water stemming from their parents never having learnt, afro hair being more damaged by the chemicals than hair of white people and not being catered for with suitable swimming caps until recently (check out British inventor Danielle Obe website Nemes).
Unfortunately the stereotypes that black people can’t swim due to their genetics has also been enforced for several generations. This is not at all true and these issues are explored in the film ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’ by Ed Accura.
In the US, the situation is as dire as it is in Europe, perhaps more so historically due to segregation laws and culture in most areas of the country. Swimming really took off in the US within two main periods – the 1920’s and 30s as well as the 50’S and 60s. During the first period, many brand new pools were built but POC were denied access to them. In the latter period, the municipal pools were abandoned and white people took to swimming at expensive private members clubs, not only in areas where only white people could live but financially also making them inaccessible to POC.
After the civil rights riots in the 60s, many cities started building pools in predominately black areas, but they were small and shallow. Swimming never became a part of African-American recreational culture.
A current problem:
Without the opportunities to learn to swim, how can children and adults go on to learn, participate
in and enjoy the other aquatic disciplines? Even those that get the opportunity, far more needs to be done to support these aquatic stars with an equal platform. Until very recently, black children had never seen a black aquatic athlete win an Olympic medal or even compete. Simone Manuel was the first African American to win an Olympic gold in swimming only four years ago. British open water swimmer Alice Dearing, Jamaican swimmer Alia Shanee Atkinson and diver Yona Knight-Wisdom are all hoping to match that success in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
With regards to synchronized swimming on screen, water musicals and aquatic entertainment rarely do we see a black aquatic performer in a Hollywood movie or music video. Certainly not from the Hollywood ‘golden era‘ of Esther Williams aquatic musicals. Budding aquatic stars from the BAME community have not had the role models, people that looked like them, that they could look at the TV or on YouTube and say ‘they are like me. I could do that one day, how do I start?’
More swimming teachers, coaches and aquatic choreographers from the BAME community are also needed and must be supported to achieve these careers. Just think of what talent we may be
missing out on because a community were not given and still not handed the same opportunities as others. This will also increase when the numbers of black children and adults having more opportunity to learn to swim and experience the other aquatic disciplines open to them increases too.
A pivotal moment:The scene in Beyoncé’s Black is King with black synchronized swimmers performing together to the track ‘Mood 4 Eva’ is hugely momentous. One social media message that really summed it up was from Gretchen A Campbell who said “ the way I squealed when I saw all brown girls doing this synchronized swimming routine. I’ve always loved synchronized swimming but I’ve never seen anyone that looked like me doing it.”
As like many of Beyoncé’s videos, Black is King is also a great moment for women supporting women, which was also a big factor on this shoot with a collaboration of synchronized swimmers from various clubs and companies working together. An open casting was held by Annisa Williams, with synchronized swimmers from all over the US contacted to submit their profiles. Beyonce wanted to feature black synchronized swimmers, which production unfortunately struggled to find the numbers they needed in the US. It was a two day shoot in Beverly Hills, with Beyonce turning up on day two to perform her aquatic star moment. Synchronized swimmers from Portland and also Port Antonio – Island Aquatic Synchro Jamaica were invited and flown to LA, including 8 year old Micah to perform along side several other synchronized swimmers featuring our very own Aquabatix USA performers. An aquatic choreographer, Mary Jeanette, helped Beyonce and JaQuel bring their vision to life with the specific water formations. Jamaican synchro said “so empowering for people of colour”. Nicole Chin Shue from the Jamaican team also got to meet Beyonce and say thank you. Beyonce replied that she understood the challenges of being a person of colour in the industry to make a living, but we should never give up. “ Beyonce then went on to say “’I’m so proud of you and so proud of the work that you guys are doing, and you guys are going to inspire so many little girls. Continue doing what you’re doing. Girls from all over the world are here to do this project.” Follow the Jamaican team on their quest for Olympic qualification on Instagram @jamaica_synchro along with the group @blackswans_synchro
You can see for yourself how incredible Black is King is and refreshing to watch a whole group of synchronized swimmers from the black community perform with Beyonce, who of course slayed it with her own inner aquatic goddess in the water. You can watch the trailer for Black is King here.
A hugely important moment where so many black children and adults will see these synchronized swimmers on the screen, be inspired and empowered to have a go. Being shown on Disney Plus and also featuring the synchronized swimming in the trailer on Beyoncé’s social media with 152 million followers, the synchronized swimming will be seen by millions of people. That is millions of children as well as adults from the BAME community seeing people like them performing in water with Beyonce too.
Even I-D reported on their article on the ten important things you missed whilst watching Black is King that “there aren’t a whole lot of Black people involved in the world of competitive synchronised swimming, so when Beyoncé chose to spotlight a group of Jamaicans in the sport, she celebrated the underrepresented as well as the extraordinary.“ Vogue stated to “look out for the epic synchronized swimming sequence” whilst Cosmopolitan said “The trailer started with the coolest synchronized swimming formation you’ve ever seen”.
Thank you Beyonce.
This is hopefully the beginning of a movement of inspiring a new generation of black children to dance in water, like their role models in this video and to show POC of all ages, that they can be glamorous water Queens and Kings.
JaQuel Knight, the American choreographer and dancer who has worked with Beyonce on many of
her music videos and live performances including the infamous Single Ladies routine and her Coachella performance, choreographed the full spectacular.
Black Is King:
A young African king is cast out from his family into an unforgiving world. He subsequently undergoes a journey “through betrayal, love and self-identity” to reclaim his throne, utilizing the guidance of his ancestors and childhood love. The story is told through the voices of present-day
Made by a total of nine different directors, including the American singer-songwriter Beyoncé, the film serves as a visual companion to the 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, a tie-in album curated by Beyoncé for the 2019 remake of The Lion King.
Beyonce says “Black is King is a labor of love. It’s my passion project…with this visual album I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.”
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