The Balaya Breakdown
Deeper than you think, showcasing unapologetic Africanness in the heart of France
Today was a “meh” day. I was tired. I have some stuff to do and made progress on half of it but didn’t complete it, which makes it feel like I did a lot of work but didn’t do anything. You know?
Fortunately there’s one thing to save me from bad vibes this month: the music video for Balaya by A Star. This also dropped on my birthday, so I’ll take that as a sign. It’s currently at 600K+ views on youtube and I think I am maybe 100 of them.
There are so many reasons why I appreciate this music video, and after rolling your eyes at my literary-analysis of the whole thing, I think you will too. This is beautifully directed yet simple, with a bright montage of colors, clever cuts between clips, and just a deep sense of joy that leaves you smiling (and dancing) while watching it.
The video opens with rapid cuts, mostly at night, finally lingering on A Star staring up at a brightly lit Eiffel tower — meaning, this is undeniably shot in France, and the production team wants you to know this. Why?
France had a variety of just weird, whether positive or negative, incidents over the past year, especially in 2018. There was the “Malian Spiderman”, which ignited debates over the expectations of immigrant exceptionalism. There was the 2018 world cup, which culminated in France’s football victory, but the many diaspora players hearing that “Africa won the world cup”, or that the French team wasn’t really French, or sometimes that the French players were now really French.
Suffice to say that France’s relationship with African countries, as well as its own (typically Francophone) African immigrant and diaspora population, is complicated.
The Louvre is also shown briefly later in the video, another undeniably French landmark, which reminds me of Beyonce and Jay Z’s “APES**T” music video. There, too, was a sense of unapologetic arrival, an intentional contrast, to say, “can’t believe we made it” here, in spaces that did not want us.
After the short, contemplative moment of the Eiffel Tower at night, the video switches immediately to daylight. The transition from night to day feels like a way of coming out of darkness, and adds to that sense of freedom and open spirit. This particular day in France is gray and overcast, and the bright colors of the dancers contrast with their environment.
Paris might be the fashion capital of the world, but a new wave of African aesthetics is coming — and it could not be more different than the black-on-black, Scandinavian and Western European aesthetic that has been trending for the last several years. This is a blog post for another time, but the Afro-renaissance includes clothing, and a variety of designers, startups, and investors are answering the call.
It’s interesting how in “Balaya”, the contrast is apparent yet simple. The video feels very natural; you could imagine all the dancers as regular people rather than hired artists. They wear stylish but everyday clothing, with maybe the exception of A Star himself, who indulges in a resplendent fur coat. Bright colors abound, but rather than consistent uniforms, every dancer has their own outfit for the day (and the video). A-Star is only slightly more focused on, rather than a typical music video where the main artist is more clearly distinguished. (Edit: I completely forgot to mention that this video also features the Kupe boys, which were instrumental in making A-Star’s Kupe challenge go viral, purely because they are attractive, muscley French dudes and made a 30-second video. Seriously, they really do nothing in that video *rolls eyes* but in the Balaya MV, you can spot them cross-armed in front of the eiffel tower in several shots.)
I love the color transitions (particularly at the beginning) between the groups of dancers before they all come together. The opening dancers wear bright yellow puffers, then a group of three girls in goldenrod sweaters, then a group of men in black puffer coats. Dancers shown individually have a mix of patterns, always a visual statement in contrast with a gray sky and the stone French landmarks, and all come together on the fountain (I tried but could not figure out exactly which fountain this is).
Obviously, dance is the focal point of this music video. It spawned the #BalayaChallenge, another viral dance craze, and A-Star often creates viral dance crazes — including his other hit Kupe and the Kupe dance.
“Balaya” is a perfect example of how a lot of Afrobeats music is inseparable from dance. The music inspires dance moves, viral dance videos make music tracks more widely known, in a constant feedback loop. It’s an integral part of the genre that A-Star, it seems, has decided is his favorite space to be in, after Chocobodi and Kupe. “Balaya” is clearly more intentional with its focus on dance than the former two, and choreographed by “Bad Gyal Cassie” aka Cassie Passionnée, a French afrobeats dancer. Tutorials and dance videos were released soon after the music video.
The people are the point of this music video — they embody everything else. They are there, dancing. They are there, in everyday clothes. They are there, free to express naturally, smiling a little and laughing. The simplicity of the video, rather than making it seem under-produced or basic, is something I find powerful because of its emphasis on the people.
People, black people, in the heart of Paris, being themselves unapologetically, being present, simply being. As mentioned above it is a similar thread to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “APES**T”, the message is simply of existing there, of changing outward ideas of who is in a country, or who belongs to a country, or who belongs in any place. Two young girls appear sporadically; and children dancing is also a viral afrobeats trend everyone loves — maybe because it’s exciting to imagine what those not only a part of, but born into, this cultural wave will make in their futures.