The QUEEN DOES NOT DISAPPOINT
This past weekend, a wave of excellence swept through the Californian desert as Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter delivered a debut Coachella set that is already buzzing to be one of the most iconic performances of our generation.
And not only that: Beyoncé also made history as the first black woman to headline Coachella.
“Ain’t that ‘bout a bi***” Bey announced, delivering a tongue-in-cheek but well deserved criticism of the festival’s long standing issues with diversity and representation.
As a person of color, it’s easy to echo her sentiments.
Music festivals have long been known to cater to a certain (and very specific) demographic: upper/middle-class, and white. After all, Coachella has been touted as Millennials’ and Gen Z’s Woodstock. A white hipster wonderland and bohemian paradise that revives the age old motto of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll.”
Perhaps Woodstock’s demise signaled an end to a specific type of music festival—specifically, one that touts exclusivity and bars representation of all types of people.
And indeed, these music festivals that have emulated the “Woodstock” prototype have come under fire in recent years for lack of representation, issues of cultural appropriation, and insensitivity to its marginalized festival goers. It all plays back to that demographic—that default white gaze that’s sometimes referred to as the “mass appeal”. The mass appeal that “The Man” wants performers to cater to.
And as a performer of color—and the first black woman headliner, no less—it can be tempting to “water down” one’s presence in order to cater to the masses. Make yourself relatable, and appeal to the grander scheme of things, in order to be taken seriously or be successful. Blackness, in particular, has long been argued to be “niche”, and not marketable as an avenue—whether it’s in film, music, or otherwise.
“Nobody will get it,” the argument goes.
“It’s too ethnic/unrelatable/distancing.”
“It won’t be successful if half the audience doesn’t get what you’re doing or know what you’re talking about!”
Bey said eff all that.
In the same way people have color have learned to navigate and embrace “default” white culture, Beyoncé gave Coachella audiences a little glimpse into beautiful black realness in her two hour set.
Starting with a riveting drum snare to introduce the Queen herself, Bey enrolled us all into the fictional HBCU of Beyoncé University. While strutting in a beautiful caped leotard and Egyptian inspired headdress, a 200-person marching band played behind her, adorned in black and yellow (an homage to the Beyhive) and delivering heart-pounding beats and contagiously dynamic dance moves.
Instead of Indio, California, we were all suddenly transported to the good ol’ south, enjoying the ambiance of an authentic southern black university drumline. The gorgeous rendering of the stage only added to that effect, mimicking the visuals of pep rally bleachers and majorettes at a homecoming game.
Once Bey changed into a sweatshirt bearing her unique coat of arms, she—along with her frat brothers of “Beta Delta Kappa”—began a stupendous step routine that shook each audience to their core, I’m sure. It was less of a performance at that point, and more of a live interactive experience—of witnessing a probate, being with classmates at a homecoming game, and just enjoying the excellence of the black college experience.
Unabashedly celebrating it in her set was so important. Stepping and marching bands are important facets of black culture, and rarely are they—or the HBCU experience as a whole— highlighted so prominently without being reduced to a “niche” or a cultural exhibition for superficial consumption, rather than genuine appreciation.
But Beyoncé delivered, and she delivered it well. Audiences were not alienated, nor were they confused by her displays. Each and every person—black, white, or otherwise—fully embraced the experience they were being given, and watched each moment of her set with bated breath, and awestruck eyes.
Following this homecoming performance, Bey continued to dazzle audiences with a rousing dose of nostalgia: Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland graced the stage for an outstanding and well-received Destiny’s Child reunion. The throwbacks continued with homages to Nina Simone, Dawn Penn, and even Malcolm X. During her set, Malcolm’s famous line: “ The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” played against her visuals, striking a deep and powerful tone.
And we’re not even finished yet. Jay Z made a cool cameo as he sung a duet with Bey and amped up the excitement for their anticipated “On the Run II” tour. And Bey added to the melanin magic with her rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—a tune that is historically considered to be the black national anthem.
Overall, it was groundbreaking. It was musically masterful. And it was black as hell.
Beyoncé did not make herself small in order to make everyone else comfortable. She understood the vibe that Coachella has prided itself on maintaining (i.e carefree, bohemian, and not so…PoC) and deliberately turned the entire thing on its head. She broke away from the status quo and reinvented an entirely new festival atmosphere that doesn’t stray away from the cultural relevance and social commentary of today’s society.
But the most important thing? Beyoncé didn’t exclude anyone with her performance. White and non-black audiences didn’t feel distanced or excluded from the performance—rather, they understood the significance of each homage played out throughout Beyoncé’s set, and they felt excited. Invigorated, even. For so long certain parts of black culture have remained hidden, or trapped in these “niche” spaces. But the reality is that all audiences—not just black or PoC—are hungry for these narratives, and the ability to appreciate experiences like this in a grander scale. It’s how we’re able to come together, learn from each other and move forward as a society that is tolerant and respectful of all types of people, all types of experiences.
And while black audiences immediately understood and picked up on Beyoncé’s cultural nods, white audiences—and anyone else not familiar with black culture—were able to learn something new, catch a glimpse of a rich and ever evolving heritage, and hopefully take something positive away from her performance.
How do we feel about Beyoncé’s debut Coachella performance? All I have to say is: My edges Bey. My. Edges.
P.S Oh, and did we mention? The HBCU theme wasn’t just for show. This Monday, Beyoncé revealed that she will be gifting a $25,000 grant through her #BeyGood initiative to four HBCUs: Tuskegee University, Bethune-Cookman University, Wilberforce University, and Xavier University of Louisiana. This grant will be rewarded to one student from each HBCU for the 2018-2019 academic school year under the Homecoming Scholars Award Program.
Do we deserve Beyoncé? Probably not.