Unapologetically Black Beyoncé
Two years after standing in front of a bold background that proudly proclaimed the word FEMINIST, Beyoncé yet again used her platform at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) as an opportunity to make a statement. When she arrived on the red carpet with the “Mothers of the Movement” (that is, Lezley McSpadden, Gwen Carr, Wanda Johnson and Sybrina Fulton, mothers of black people who have been killed at the hands of law enforcement or vigilante justice), it was clear that she “did not come to play.”
After MTV announced the performance, the audience was repeatedly told that Beyoncé would be performing Lemonade. This was confusing. For anyone who has not been blessed these past few months: Lemonade is Beyoncé’s latest album. It is an hour-long visual narrative with poetic interludes by Somali poet, Warsan Shire. Different from BEYONCÉ, the previous visual album where each song had its own music video, Lemonade is one long film where all the videos are interconnected. Atypical of a musician’s standard album release, it has since scored four Emmy nominations. This album is unique. Therefore, we wondered. What exactly would she be performing? How could Lemonade even be performed on stage?
Our questions were answered when we were wowed with a 16-minute medley that included poetry, camera smashing, and four different songs. A killer performance, typical for Beyoncé. The vocals were amazing. The choreography was brilliant. Almost every article since has declared her performance the highlight of the show. Many suggested the awards show was not even worth watching up until that point. It was a performance that any pop star should feel lucky to claim. However, more than purposeless art for an audience to consume, enjoy, and forget the next day-- it was politically powerful.
Opening with the first song on her album, “Pray You Catch Me,” Beyoncé stands surrounded by women dressed in white who fall to the ground bathed in a red light, while a black man in a hoodie, reminiscent of Travyon Martin, follows her on stage. This is a poignant representation of the police brutality against black bodies that has been prevalent in America’s history. While it is not a new issue, it has received far more awareness in the age of smartphones and social media, and is something Beyoncé has highlighted a lot recently. The women on stage then get back up and stand with her as sheperforms three more songs on the album. Closing her performance with “Formation,” the album’s first single which many dubbed “an ode to black pride,” she says “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation,” cueing the women on stage to lie down in the symbol used to represent a woman. This is again a powerful reminder of who she is: A Black Feminist.
The more political Beyoncé on this latest album was not a completely new phenomenon. On her self-titled album that she released in 2013, the song “***Flawless” features a roughly minute long interlude from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, lamenting the fact that girls are raised to aspire to marriage instead of accomplishments, and defining Feminism. At the time, this was (and still is) a very powerful statement. The stigma surrounding the word “feminism” is well known, mostly due to ignorance of what the word means. Therefore having one of the biggest stars in the world not only declare herself a feminist, but provide a definition in the middle of the song, was a game changer for many young women who may have feared using the word. One could probably view this statement she made in 2013 as a prelude to what was to come. In this latest era, she takes it one step further addressing not only sexism, but also its intersections with race and its implications regarding social injustice and police brutality. Back in February, when she released the video for her brand new single “Formation,” it became clear that a new era of Beyoncé had arrived. With catchy lines such as “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afro/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” one could see that this “new” Beyoncé was going to be unapologetically black. And with powerful images from that video, such as a little black boy raising his arms up in front of a row of white police officers who raise their hands in response, the words “Stop Shooting Us” spray painted on a wall, and Beyoncé lying on a sinking New Orleans police car, it was clear that she was not releasing a pro-black album without also commenting on the issues black people were facing. This political commentary continued when she performed at the Superbowl, with her dancers dressed as black panthers. Naturally, not everyone was pleased. People were enraged, not wanting to see her publicly asserting her blackness. Some saw this as an attack against police officers. There were racist remarks against her, and people threatened to boycott her. In fact, there were rumors that police officers would even refuse to staff her concerts. Once her tour did start and she sold her own merchandise that said “Boycott Beyoncé” it became clear that she saw the reaction to her powerful stance, and she simply did not care. This Beyoncé was here to stay.
“Formation” and her Superbowl performance can be considered appetizers. The visual album, Lemonade, is the entrée, featuring varied beautiful images of black women everywhere from Serena Williams and Zendaya to Amandla Stenberg, and more. An excerpt from a Malcolm X speech towards the end of the album (“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”) makes it abundantly clear that Lemonade is intended for black women. In a world in which black women and other women of color experience racism or are ignored by other feminists, and a world where black women experience disrespect and misogyny by men of their own race, having a huge star release a powerful piece of art that is intended for black women is inspiring.
No doubt, Beyoncé will continue to receive a lot of backlash for her political art. After the VMAs, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani said he thought it was “outrageous” that she used it as a “platform to attack police officers.” The anger and criticism is not just from conservatives, either. Many who may agree with her message have been critical of the method, and questioning of her motives. But regardless of one’s personal opinion, most would agree that Beyoncé is probably the biggest star out right now. People are always watching with their mouths open, waiting to criticize. Therefore, the fact that she is using her platform as a mouthpiece for controversial issues, and that she is making sure to highlight the community that she comes from, is inspirational. It would be easy to stay silent. It would be easy to just continue to make people happy. It would be easy to just continue to make money. Beyoncé chooses to go beyond that. I cannot speak for all black women, and I would never try to. But as one solitary black woman, I can say that I am so grateful. I am absolutely in formation.