You know what I hate? What I truly despise? The assumption that Beyoncé’s fans (read “the hive”) cannot be a complex set of people who traverse space and place in multiple and complicated ways, the assumption that we are a homogenous set of automatons who have no agency, no capacity for critical thought. That is perhaps the most infuriating part of being labelled a member of ‘the hive’ by people who are only interested in being critical of that Queen we call Beyoncé Giselle Knowles.
Beyoncé, for many of my closest friends, operates as an axiom for us to wrestle with our feminism and all the limitations we inherently face when thinking through our praxis. Her feminist iconography is, of course, limited. There are crude articulations of capitalism in her mainstream iconography — much of it imbued with the bizarre, reductive features of white feminism. We all know that.
To borrow from Mariah Carey and Lufefe Boss, these problematic features are “vividly emblazoned” in every image curated by Beyoncé, her team or her fans. As Edward Said argues in Orientalism: “No production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in [their] own circumstances.”
So, really, the argument problematising Beyoncé is a best rusty and trite. Mother of feminism and queen of my heart, bell hooks, I am clocking you here.
But the point about Beyoncé for most of us, is that she exists. Beyoncé acts as a reminder that women have been running kingdoms for decades. She allows us to think about both contemporary and ancient histories of women who ran entire empires. Through her, we can think of a lineage of beautiful, black, brilliant women who have been rigorous about usurping power in an anti-black, anti-female world.
However, in her paper entitled Feminisms, Motherisms, Patriarchies and Women’s Voices in the 1950’s, Nomboniso Gasa does caution against creating an essentialist approach “either in terms of race, gender, geographical or any socio-historical category.”
Gasa continues: “What must be acknowledged, however, are the different historical and situational realities and that these may call for a different approach and an adjustment of a particular framework. This is not a negation of a feminist tradition, whether it is from the northern or the southern hemisphere.”
My contention is that part of the work of feminism, especially feminism through the prism of Beyoncé, needs to transcend a textual and literary approach and also include the actual bodies and experiences of black women.
One cannot possibly think about Beyoncé without thinking about the powerhouse that was Madame C.J. Walker and the ways in which she revolutionised the hair industry, as we know it.
Walker literally exploited the racism of the anti-black and anti-female American society by creating hair-straightening products that would make black women’s hair more palatable for white America. (This is not a judgement on women who straighten their hair. I fully support the weave-wearing, Dark ‘n Lovely- relaxing women who sit in the rickety taxis, occupy the lecture halls or even strut, like Olivia Pope, in the streets of Sandton. These women are fully entitled to do whatever they choose with their hair, especially now when certain factions of the #NaturalHairMovement want to demonise them. Black women, I beg, please let us not be used by patriarchy—we are all beautiful and we can all exist simultaneously with different kinks, silky and sometimes un-moisturised hair).
Noliwe M Rook’s brilliant book, Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women gives us a little insight into the levels of #BlackGirlSlay that Walker was accessing. She writes:
African American women who advertised beauty products produced cultural images that served to re-present the bodies of other women whose race they shared. In the process, they articulated standards of beauty that were not predicated upon unfavourable race ideologies that structured and undergirded discourses from competing and advertising concerns. They drew upon culturally discrete symbols and practices within African American communities and placed African American communities and placed African American women’s bodies within the context of religious doctrine, which dictated that a woman should strive to have long hair. They also argued that hairdressing was a career choice African American women could ill afford to overlook. African American women cosmetic manufacturers [like Madame C.J. Walker] used a counter-hegemonic discourse to critique ideologies of race and class in the dominant as well as African American middle-class culture.
This is Beyoncé’s intellectual and political ancestry. This is why Ntombizikhona Valela and I were so salty when she cited Bill Gates in the formation video instead of Walker. Perhaps, that is the brilliance of Beyoncé. She is able to make a man like Bill Gates, who for all intents and purposes can be understood as the manifestation of white monopoly capital, seem ordinary and potentially even mediocre. But let me stay away from the dark hole that is theorising about the Formation video because I could literally go on forever. I mean it. Forever.
The first time that academic Siphokazi Magadla introduced me to Ifi Amaduime’s seminal text Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in African Society, I could not help but think of Beyoncé.
Beyoncé is the powerful black matrilineal powerhouse that Amaduime describes in her book. For this analogy to work, we might need to think seriously about the Beyoncé of B’day which is, coincidentally, the moment when “the hive” start calling her KING. In particular, we might need to think about what this woman, this Queen, this “King” does in her Upgrade U video. The millennial in me is so tempted to collapse what Beyoncé does into a #flexzone but even millennials can collapse into what Lewis Gordon calls disciplinary decadence when we substitute difficult explanations for cheap sloganeering.
Okay, so maybe as a precursor, we might need to deal with this Beyoncé-is-an-unreflexive-cultural-appropriator-narrative. So, yes, there are times when Beyoncé makes you absolutely cringe with her stylistic and editorial choices. I am still trying to process the Cold Play Hymn for the Weekend debacle. (Beyoncé, I know Chris Martin is one of your closest friends and the photos of him playing with Blue Ivy on Instagram are the cutest things ever, but, Bey, you should never ever imagine yourself as a backup singer to white men, ever again. You are Beyoncé. You are the KING. Don’t let imposter syndrome mess with your slay. You are Beyoncé!)
Also, Beyoncé made it weird by opening a can of worms related to colourism, class and religious symbolism in India. (You dealt us a blow with that one, Bey! Please do not do that again.)
That said, Beyoncé does allow us to think of transnational identities and the notion of a liberation philosophy and praxis, which Enrique Dussel examines in The Underside of Modernity: Apel, Ricoeur, Rorty, Taylor and the Philosophy of Liberation.
Within this conversation Dussel argues that a truly liberatory philosophy moves in a dialectical “passage” between an established system and a newly imagined system of liberation. This insight allows a reconciliation between what Beyoncé does in Grown Woman, De Ja Vu and Girls, for example.
I don’t think Beyoncé bastardises African dress, art and dance in the manner suggested by the anti-hive right-wingers. Beyoncé, in my mind, is in a dialectical passage with all of these art forms. Arguably one of the most influential cultural contributors of our time, Beyoncé actively works to insert African art forms into our conception of the modern. Africa does not exist as a primordial feature of the past for Beyoncé. Africa is the base with which Beyoncé has released some of her most iconic anthems. I really feel academics Jean and John Comaroff should have included Beyoncé in Theory from the South: Or How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa because Beyoncé does exactly that.
Also, anyone who does not immediately think of Boom Shaka’s It’s about Time video when thinking about the stylistic choices that appear in Beyoncé’s Grown Woman is not serious about their intellectual and political praxis as a super fan. Beyoncé, for me, is able to capture everything that was right about the post-1994 period and the cultural boom in South African art and music. It is for this reason that Beyoncé cannot be understood as parochial contributor of art in the global nexus. Whether actively or subconsciously, Beyoncé is really able to facilitate a series of global traditions into one fury of magic that she casually refers to as “concerts.”
I am still recovering from the performance she gave at Oprah’s farewell. There are so many pieces that need to be written about that event, and I mean event in the way that Alain Badiou uses the term “a truth… solely constituted by rupturing with the order which supports it, never as an effect of that order.” He has named this type of rupture that opens truth “the event.” Badiou’s “event” is the thing that Beyoncé does for seven minutes and 56 seconds of my life.
Can we also all acknowledge that Barbara Streisand and Michelle Obama actively took time out of their schedules to explain who Beyoncé is?
If our universities are serious about transformation, they should really mandate Beyoncé Concert Studies in every department. There are so many lessons in pure excellence that need to be gleaned from the very first Live at Wembley Concert all the way to her On the Run Tour. This woman completely destroys the narrative that black people are incompatible with excellence every time she gyrates for twenty minutes in heels whilst still singing in tune. She is the reason why I experience real cognitive dissonance every time I see a white person get paid real money for being mediocre or bad at a job the apartheid government capacitated them to do. Zapiro and Brett Murray are examples of this mediocrity for which they should be held accountable to ensure the prosperity of freedom of speech in our public space.
So back to the Upgrade U video.
Actually, no. I have shown my receipts. I have connected the dots for those of you who are so obscenely anti-hive, and in my mind, sometimes anti-progress.
Beyoncé and the theorisation she enables for black female, queer, trans and non-binary thinkers is extraordinary. This woman, as a signifier, calls for epistemic openings, especially if we are interested in the vibrancy of ideas. Beyoncé as the popular cultural spectre that she is, is our modern day agora.
This is why the release of HBO documentary #Lemonade is potentially the most exciting and equally terrifying thing that is about to happen to me this week.
Main Photograph: Beyoncé courtesy David Counce and YouTube