Kwasi Fordjour has earned Beyoncé’s trust, but he wants yours too. After working his way up from an internship to creative director, the Ghanaian American Houston native is now a visual architect behind Black Is King, one of this year’s most poignant works of cinematic art.
Co-directed, co-written, and executive produced by Beyoncé, Black Is King — released globally to stream on Disney+ in July — is the megastar’s latest effort in reaching beyond the audio medium to influence the larger cultural canon. The film serves as a visual companion to her 2019 release The Lion King: The Gift, a tie-in album attached to Disney’s “live-action CGI” Lion King remake.
In Black Is King, Beyoncé, Fordjour, and a bevy of other creators attempt to navigate a story of boyhood and manhood as told through the Lion King narrative but reinterpreted with Africa and Black America at its center. They present material and fantastical depictions of Black people’s relationship with power, wealth, leadership, and community — a fairytale built upon their own personal narratives and shared histories.
As a man, you’re a reflection of the men and women who’ve come before you, who nurtured you. And this was my part [in Black Is King] — a love letter to my father, furthering our name.
It’s heavy work, but Fordjour has been prepping for it his entire adult life. After landing an internship at Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé’s management and entertainment company, in 2011, he over time forged a body of work that includes cover art (The Lion King: The Gift, as well as Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s collaborative album, Everything Is Love) and music video choreography (“Drunk in Love,” “XO,” and “Grown Woman”).
Fordjour hopped on the phone with LEVEL to speak about the vision of Black Is King — from what it means for African and American history to how it’s helped shape his own identity and passions.
LEVEL: Black Is King is steeped in African imagery, language, and culture. Your name, Kwasi, is Akan [an ethnic group and language spoken in southern Ghana]. Talk about the meaning of your name, and your journey to co-directing this film.
Kwasi Fordjour: I was named by my father after the day I was born, which is Sunday. I’ve been at Parkwood for 10 years. I was a 20-year-old intern and I worked my way up from there. I was an intern for maybe two to three weeks. Then I was given the job as creative assistant, where I assisted the creative director at the time, Jenke Ahmed Tailly, another African man. From there I just blossomed and worked my way to the place I’m in currently.
How did you land that internship at Parkwood Entertainment?
I was a young kid going from door to door in Houston, trying to find someone to mentor me and to help with a project I was working on for the Grammys’ pre-professional camp for the youth. When I was 15, I was introduced to Tracy Matthews at Music World Entertainment, which was Mathew Knowles’ company in Houston. Tracy, Mathew Knowles, and Ivan McGregor — who works with us at Parkwood currently — embraced me with open arms.
From there I left, went to college, moved to New York with $500, took a couple of odd jobs. A year or two later, ended up working under Kim Burse, who was our musical director at the time. She was preparing for the Roseland live show that Beyoncé did for the album 4. That’s where the internship started with Parkwood. I was connected with the general manager at the time, [head of publicity] Yvette [Noel-Schure], and numerous other people.
That rise is interesting to note, because in the closing credits of Black Is King, your name appears in big letters right after Beyoncé’s. How much agency did you have in the visual storytelling? What did you want to bring to the film?
[Beyoncé] gave me a lot, honestly. She had a vision and she was open to my vision. She was open to a lot of the collaborators’ visions, because this was a labor of love. This was a passion project and she was truly doing this for the culture. So just to bring in a diverse group of directors and collaborators — both Black and White — it was a multicultural celebration and she was so open and willing.
There were a lot of things that connected to The Lion King that I identified with — especially this idea of self-identity. Black men are often addressed with these roadblocks where we have to look at ourselves and adjust our identity as we grow. We have to decide how we want to navigate this world, the type of man we want to be. That’s been a constant in my life. I recently reconnected with my brothers who live in Ghana. I didn’t have the strongest relationship with my father. I found out three or four years ago that he had passed away.
As a man, you’re a reflection of the men and women who’ve come before you, who nurtured you. And this was my part [in Black Is King] — a love letter to my father, furthering our name. When you talk about legacy, ancestors, and history, it’s been my story as well… I just wanted to pay tribute to my father, and she welcomed that.
Other members of the cast and crew spoke about honoring the legacies of their lost loved ones through Black Is King. It’s clear that for the people involved, this film is a testament to your personal lives. It seems like Beyoncé was a palette for all of you working with history and cultural contexts.
As a creative, you’re inspired by things that happen in your life. She said in her letter on Instagram that this was a labor of love and she had a vision. This vision started as a few videos. From there, it built organically into a film because she saw a message that needed to be told and she saw the power of reimagining this story and applying it to real life.
She brought together like minds to add authenticity to that. When you’re talking about this journey — this coming-of-age story of this young man — and you have all of these young men with coming-of-age stories, I think that is important. That’s what’s so beautiful about what she did — bringing together like minds and the camaraderie of that. And creating something that could appeal to different types of people, because there are different types of people [who are] a part of it.
Who was the audience that you or Beyoncé had in mind to consume Black Is King?
We didn’t have an audience in mind. This is a universal story, quite frankly, and it’s a universal experience. Now we focus on experiences that are the most relevant to us personally, as artists, as creators, but the journey of self-identity by way of your ancestry, that goes across the board. That is the core of it. To do something to celebrate Black men and Black women, that is the beauty, because at the core of us, that’s who we celebrate — we are walking representations of that. They all came together to celebrate Blackness.
Speaking to the through line of masculinity in this film, what does the Blue Man (played by Stephen Ojo) represent?
Consciousness. He’s the inner consciousness of Simba. He walked with Simba and he’s also this clarity of thought for him.
This celebration of Black men and Black boys — anchored by celebration of Black women and girls — what does it mean for you for this to come out during a time where we’re seeing continued police brutality and state violence against Black men and women?
For me, it meant the world. It was really powerful, because we didn’t plan this. We started this a year ago. It became a year because of the process and because of constant need to perfect the story and get the core of the project intact. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were planning to go back to South Africa to shoot some other takes and some more of the story because we felt like we didn’t have enough. Then we realized the border was shut down; we couldn’t travel. We had to look at everything and almost reattack it. As things started to transpire, and as we started to continue to build this story of this young king, everything around us started to happen. For me being able to create [for Black Is King] — something that is just so necessary — is probably the most powerful thing I will do in my life.
I wanted to ask about your future goals, but this seems like the accomplishment of a lifetime.
You keep living, learning, and growing. When you begin as a creative, you want to create something that people could really connect to. With this, we were able to use and collaborate with Disney to create a mirror for a lot of young Black girls and boys to truly see themselves and feel represented and celebrated. To me, that is iconic — next to titles like Beauty and the Beast or Sleeping Beauty or Black Panther… It’s just so major.
In this moment, thinking about the level of history, I haven’t gotten past this enough to say, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do next,” because this is so monumental. You want to create to this magnitude. You want to build things for generations coming after you. And to turn the tide that oppression in our history has left us. I’m still kind of living in the moment. I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish, proud that people love it, understand it, and connect with it.
This film is extremely timely, but do you feel like it’s also timeless?
It’s definitely timely, but this is not the start of it. I won’t say this moment of oppression is why we did it. That’s what history says. For me, it’s bigger than that. This lives beyond us. This is celebratory for who we are and where we’ve come from. We skipped oppression and we went to the core. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.
I think it’s timeless. And I pray that children in generations after us will look at this and be able to, again, skip the oppression that’s so frequently taught in Western education and go to the core of Africa and want to know more about the continent and its many facets, the nuances of its multiple cultures, the beauty and richness of it. There’s no date or time span you could ever put on that.
Some people were apprehensive about this film due to the criticisms of how Disney has handled history in other films, and how most people deal with Africa as a continent and African cultural productions. What’s the biggest misinterpretation that you see being leveled against the film? What do you think people are missing?
People are missing that this film is a product of Africans and African American creators. And that is the representation that we need to see on this level and to this magnitude. That, to me, is what we should praise. And the fact that Beyoncé has put these creatives together on a platform like Disney to celebrate our history and the beauty of our Blackness and Africanness. That is what needs to be celebrated. These ideas came from Ibra Ake, Blitz Bazawule, Dikayl Rimmasch, Pierre Debusschere, myself, [Beyoncé]… These ideas came from creatives with diverse backgrounds.
We get caught up in little nuances, but we’re not looking at the bigger picture: the representation, our people on this scale, and us being living testaments to the next generation that this is possible. Being unapologetically proud of who you are and where you come from is possible. And being able to bring on the artists that she brought on for this. She went to Moonchild Sanelly, Tiwa Savage, we have Kelly Rowland in the film, Naomi Campbell, Lupita, Mr Eazi. We have so many different people. How many opportunities have we had? How many times has that happened with the platform like Disney? That’s what needs to be celebrated.
And perhaps that this is not the last opportunity.
This is not the last opportunity. Hopefully this is the start of so many other opportunities. For us to be in this space to tell our stories is a beautiful thing.