Beyoncé is at the pinnacle of her career. At the Coachella festival in the Southern California desert on Saturday, she showed that there’s nothing this mother of three can’t do. But she didn’t just kill the performance; she also rewrote the book on black respectability politics. She could have decided to play to the majority-white audience with a show that made it easier to forget cultural differences. Or she could be herself. Beyoncé chose the latter.
In putting on a show that celebrated the diversity of black people, she conveyed that no matter how much fame or money she has, she will refuse to divorce herself from black culture, even the parts that are underappreciated, disrespected or misunderstood by white people. Beyoncé was performing her music, but she was also saying that the performance of respectability — the policing of black people’s behavior and appearance to better appeal to white people — is an oppression we don’t need in our lives.
Black musicians in particular have long been told how they should look and perform to sustain their success and be marketable to a larger audience. That often meant that black artists distanced themselves from the things associated with black culture, especially the things that might be coded as not-respectable.[Receive the day’s biggest conversations right in your inbox by subscribing to the Opinion Today newsletter.]
Whitney Houston famously struggled under this weight. At the urging of her mentor Clive Davis and others, she wore glamorous clothes, sang pop-driven songs instead of R&B and obeyed other unwritten social norms that circumscribed how she could live her life and express herself.
Members of Beyoncé‘s audience at Coachella.CreditKyle Grillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama have all been accused of staying aloof from black culture to gain more power and be more relatable to a wider, whiter audience. It is a common belief among black people that the more successful we become, the more we should keep away from black culture — especially when white people are looking. And especially at work.
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Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Lawson, echoed this sentiment before 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,” she wrote on Instagram.
But Beyoncé assuaged her fears. “I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice,” Ms. Lawson recalls her daughter saying. “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.”
It would have made sense if Beyoncé decided to perform songs that were more culturally ambiguous, as to not alienate the people she was hired to entertain. However, before a mostly white audience, Beyoncé sang “Lift Every Voice,” widely regarded as the black national anthem. That song melted into “Formation,” her own pro-black anthem, where she talks about loving “Negro” noses and positions herself as a black Bill Gates.
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She also amplified Malcolm X’s famous words about black women: “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.” This centering of black womanhood is not what black people have been taught to do when given as much power and attention as Beyoncé has.
It would have been reasonable to assume Beyoncé would perform the entire show in a glamorous couture number, like the Nefertiti-inspired costume she came onstage in. Respectability is also imagery: Black people are told, when we gain power, and are under the gaze of the public, we must always wear our most formal and elegant attire.
Instead, with millions of people watching in the desert and online, Beyoncé reappeared in blue distressed denim shorts and a hoodie advertising a fake historically black college. Success does not need to have a preferred style; a black person does not have to wear a glamorous gown or a tailored suit to captivate the imagination of the public. Beyoncé shows that talent and discipline are enough.
She follows in the tradition of black performers like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, but she is unique in imagining blackness as something so big. To Beyoncé, attending a historically black college is more than a niche experience coveted only by students and alumni. Instead, it’s something thematically paramount and worthy of an enormous stadium.
You might think that Beyoncé’s promotion of historically black colleges and their intellectual traditions also might have conflicted with her sexually charged songs like “Partition” and “Drunk in Love.” We’re taught that an intellectual being can never be sexual one. This is especially true for black people who have been hypersexualized in media and daily life. So it wouldn’t have been odd for her to edit her sexuality to fit society’s ideas of what it means to be proud, black and smart.
Not at Coachella. Beyoncé performed her sensuality proudly in those songs making political statement that a person can be both intellectually rigorous and sexually expressive.
We know Beyoncé can sing and move, and that she treats stadiums as if they are her living room. But it wasn’t clear whether, after Clive Davis called her “the first lady of music,” she would adhere to respectability politics, especially on a stage like Coachella, where she may have alienated a large portion of her audience. The easier route would have been cultural ambiguity. But excellence is found in risk, and Beyoncé has proved to be an artist most interested in excellence.
All black people should follow her lead and refuse to shrink blackness. Black people often negotiate how much of ourselves we should show to make others comfortable. Black people often feel the need to edit parts of our culture and upbringing for the sake of appearing respectable — that is, of course, until our music and style are appropriated by the very people we were attempting to not alienate.
Beyoncé’s Coachella performance suggests that, as black people’s power grows, we should intentionally amplify the culture that nurtured us. This anti-respectability politics that Beyoncé brought to the stage is what transformed her performance into a political statement.