If you watch the credits of Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King and don’t let Disney+ shunt you over to watching CGI big cats, you’ll notice something interesting. Dotted among the songwriting credits for Beyoncé and her contemporary superstar collaborators from last summer’s album are several tracks with names like “Little Girls’ Sung Games” and “Lullaby – Nzakara,” archival recordings of African folk music that date back to the mid-20th century, capturing traditions that go back much longer. They’re drawn from the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, a massive 127-album collection of recordings drawn from all over the world and released by Smithsonian Folkways. In a project explicitly dedicated to Beyoncé’s son, Sir Carter, the recordings, many of which are lullabies, underline the way in which tradition is passed down through music (and, in one case, how that transmission can be exploited by outside parties for profit).
For insight into how those recordings came to be, and what Beyoncé is up to with them, we turned to ethnomusicologist Atesh Sonneborn, the retired associated director of Smithsonian Folkways, who oversaw the massive digital release of the UNESCO collection beginning in 2014.