Beyoncé creates space for Blackness regardless of her audience, and it’s empowering to witness.
By Jazmine Joyner
Beyoncé officially changed the game, again, this past Saturday. Her performance at Coachella not only broke streaming records for the festival, but when she took the stage, she also became the first Black woman to ever headline the massively popular music festival, to which she responded, “Ain’t that a bitch?”
“Beychella”— a phrase coined by DJ Khaled to describe the impact Beyoncé’s performance had on the festival — was a celebration of Black culture, specifically Black collegiate culture, with shout-outs to HBCU Fraternities and Sororities, marching bands, and step teams. Beyoncé created one of the Blackest performances I have ever seen performed at Coachella. Her mother, Tina Lawson, shared on Instagram her concerns for her daughter’s performance; “I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the Black culture and Black college culture, because it was something that they might not get.” Her daughter’s response to these concerns were thoughtful, “I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice, and at this point in my life and my career I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.”
Beychella was by far the most impressive performance I have ever seen put on by any performer. She took the Coachella stage, and gave one hell of a show. Coachella is the ultimate white space—an overpriced festival for privileged white kids to go out into the desert and wear problematic outfits and dance to their favorite bands. It wasn’t until 2014 that the festival started hosting more of a variety of mainstream hip-hop and R&B acts on its lineup. Past headliners were mostly white, featuring Arcade Fire, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phoenix, and Kings of Leon.
Beyoncé often performs in traditionally white spaces, but when she takes the stage, she subverts the white space and, instead, creates a distinctly Black one. We could argue that Beyoncé’s performances have become truer to her since the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Pre-Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, her performances were inherently Black because she is Black, but not explicitly and unapologetically Black in the way that they are today. With philanthropy, the Carters have made donations to pro-Black causes, including bailing out protesters, and continue to carry that pro-Black message with their performances and music, as Beyoncé did with her 2016 Super Bowl performance, her 2017 Grammy Performance, and now her 2018 Coachella performance.
The NFL is a corporate entity that employs mostly Black men on the majority of its teams yet has an overwhelmingly white fanbase. In 2017, the racism and /anti-Blackness within the league was at its height, largely due to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest. Beyoncé took to the field on February 5, 2016, in her hometown of Houston, Texas for the Super Bowl Halftime show. There, she and her dancers paid homage to the Black Panther Party, a political organization founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seales in 1966, to challenge police brutality against the Black community. Beyoncé, her dancers, and the marching band that accompanied her on the field were all clad in black berets,leather jackets, and unitards—ensembles reminiscent of the Black Panther Party’s uniforms. The impact was immediate. Beyoncé put forth militant imagery of a mobilization of Black Women in Black Panther outfits backed by a powerful new anthem. She debuted her new song “Formation,” one of the most pro-Black songs she has written to date, celebrating Blackness in all of its forms, and a call to action to the Black community.
Within the first minute of the performance, Beyoncé exclaimed, “You just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making!” and she and all of her dancers threw up Black Power fists as fire spouted out behind them, affirming the message she conveyed to the audience and the people at home. The song/performance went on to showcase Blackness with her lyrics as well as the imagery. She used her performance to turn a white space into a pro-Black one by elevating Black people, and Black Lives Matter into the narrative of the Super Bowl—something the NFL actively made sure to eradicate from its football season.
Of course, this performance went on to become one of the most controversial halftime shows in Super Bowl history. Fox pundits tore her apart, and people lost their minds on Twitter, while Black people celebrated the Blackness Beyoncé brought to the stage. This performance became a benchmark for what was to come in the singer’s future performances.
Like the Oscars, the Grammys have spent years steeped in anti-Blackness, dictating what music is award-winning and what isn’t, and usually rewarding white artists for their minstrelsy. Over the years, more often than not, established Black artists have lost out on the biggest award of the night, “Album of the Year.” It has been a decade since a Black artist won the award (Herbie Hancock won in 2008), despite the rising commercial success of Black music and Black artists, showing that they will gladly take profits from the labor of Black artists and their audience rewarding their hard work and talent.
Beyoncé performed in 2017, showcasing her remarkable album, “Lemonade” which was up for “Album of the Year”, while she was pregnant with twins; it was to be a spectacular night for her, and she was expected to take home the show’s highest honor. Her performance was a celebration of Black motherhood and Black women—dressed as the Yoruba goddess Oshun, the goddess who gave birth to humanity. She is the goddess of life and fertility, a fitting choice for the pregnant starlet. This performance not only celebrated the beauty of Black motherhood, but paid tribute to the African Diaspora by reaching back to her African ancestry to show the beauty of Nigerian culture, all while commemorating Black women and their daughters.
Bringing this message to the Grammys was a foot on the neck of the biased awards show and the anti-Blackness it perpetuates. But even after giving, hands down, the best performance of the night and creating the best visual and musical album of 2017, “Lemonade” did not win Album of the Year, continuing the tradition of Black artists not being given a seat at the table.
Predictably, there was backlash to this celebration of Black Women and motherhood. Many thought that Beyoncé was using the imagery of the Virgin Mary to say that she was giving birth to God. The misogynoir was dripping from every corner of the internet. But for those 10 minutes, Beyoncé again brought a celebration of Blackness to the mainstream and made a white space a Black one.
When you look back on Beyoncé’s performances over the last two years, you see a theme start to crop up in her work. She elevates and affirms Black people through her carefully planned and curated work to show the beauty and creativity of Black culture, intentionally letting Blackness take center stage, whether it be her roots or her celebrating the culture as a whole—it is there front and center for the world to behold.
Beyoncé sums it up better than I can in her mother’s recounting on Instagram: “She said that her hope is that after the show young people would research this culture and see how cool it is, and young people Black and white would listen to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ and see how amazing the words are for us all and bridge the gap. She also hopes that it will encourage young kids to enroll in our amazing Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Beyonce is bridging that gap by bringing Black Culture to these white spaces and showing the world who we are and what we can achieve, all while declaring that we belong here too.
Author Bio: Jazmine Joyner is a black disabled femme writer who resides in Southern California. In her free time she likes to write, play video games, and read.