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26 April 2019

Homecoming shows, more than ever, that none of us can be Beyoncé

Seeing her perform is like looking at the sun.

By Micha Frazer-Carroll

None of us can be Beyoncé. I was more aware of this than ever in the run up to Homecoming, when Netflix’s Facebook account posted the following comment below a teaser vid:

“Reminder: if you aren’t that fussed about Beyoncé there is no obligation to watch this. Some people really like her and that is okay too.”

It was perhaps the gentlest form of mediation to remind those frustrated by the endless, decades-long Beehive hysteria: Beyoncé is not culturally compulsory. To put it as Twitter would, not liking Beyoncé does not constitute a personality. It’s going to be okay.

But that might be hard to believe, especially after the month we’ve had. It’s been a formidable trifecta of Beyoncé news: Lemonade arrived on Spotify, Beyoncé’s Coachella set (Beychella) also took the platform, and the performance was released as a Netflix documentary.

The star’s ability to work a crowd far exceeds her physical performances, permeating the way she brings music to fans. The Beychella releases use the opposite marketing strategy to Beyoncé’s signature album drop; rather than silence, exaggerated buildup. What was once one event is now stretched out to the before, during and after, the making of, the audio, the video, the live version, the recorded studio edit. It’s a slow build of hype that repackages existing content – which works because, after all, it’s Beyoncé.

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Beyoncé represents the unattainable, and the documentary plays heavily on this premise. A recurring theme is that there is no one as famous as her; hence her ability to self-reference so smoothly – many discography highlights are worked into the fanfare, due to lack of time to hash them all out in the setlist. The performance acts as a whistle stop tour of her 20+ year career, with shots of individual audience members going crazy as song intros play, reminding us that she has been producing solo number ones since most of her fans were children.

To witness a Beyoncé show is to watch history in realtime; seeing her perform, particularly watching her dance, is like looking at the sun. After the original festival performance, The New York Times proclaimed that Beyoncé was bigger than Coachella – and it’s true, as she thanks the audience for letting her be the first black woman to headline, viewers are aware that it’s probably the festival that owes her the thanks.

Adjacent to this theme of excellence, the documentary steers towards black history and black education. The (surprisingly specific) concept of the historically black university underpins the performance, visible in the all-black marching band and appliquéd uniforms in a triangle formation dotted around mocked-up bleachers.

Towards the documentary’s end, there’s more explicit discussion from her performers about the importance of majority-black educational spaces. And Beyoncé’s choice to target the university might not be as unlikely as it initially seems – after all her father, Mathew Knowles, attended the historically black Fisk University, and Beyoncé herself launched the Formation Scholarship almost two years ago to the day.

Beyond formal education, the concept of exchanging both knowledge and care across generations, which featured heavily in Lemonade, crops up repeatedly in Homecoming. Queen B rarely does a show without the inclusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “we teach girls to shrink themselves” speech, but the documentary also draws on teachings of black feminist writers of times gone by, notably Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou.

Barely one musical minute passes where a black artist from the archives isn’t referenced in a sample, lyric or riff. The volume is turned up on Caribbean influences, with Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam mixed into Dawn Penn’s You Don’t Love Me spliced alongside Sean Paul’s vocals. As a Caribbean Brit, it’s striking how successfully this diaspora focus makes me feel just as involved and included in her history lesson.

But Beyoncé also tips her hat to her former and current contemporaries in a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments – calling out Soulja Boy’s signature “you!”, incorporating Missy Elliot’s marching band drumbeat, referencing the nursery-rhyme riff of DRAM’s Broccoli

Crucially, bonus track Before I Let Go shouldn’t be interpreted as anything other than a stealth cover of Cameo’s Candy – setting out Beyoncé’s true Homecoming manifesto. The referenced 80’s dance hit is a staple at black weddings, birthdays and other celebrations, with an accompanying dance routine that gets members of every generation flocking to the dance floor. It’s the perfect symbol for her reimagined community: one huge, black, intergenerational mashup. For her, love, solidarity and education through music is paramount.

Beyoncé’s public persona will always present contradictions and limitations. Many parts of the performance still carry an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance – jarringly capitalist messages make particular songs oxymoronic, notably Formation. Read widely as a critique of police brutality, its lyrics still tell fans we should strive to be the next “black Bill Gates” and that the best revenge is getting rich. From where Beyoncé stands, that probably feels true.

The idea of hard work has long been central to her brand. It’s elaborated in the documentary’s behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage. The fastidious, tireless, perfectionist Beyoncé we’ve become acquainted with over the years makes a comeback. She dances just months after childbirth and firmly tells her team about her suggested tweaks to the show: “until I see some of my notes applied it doesn’t make sense for me to make more.”

Watching is tiring at points – it strikes me that Beyoncé works harder than I’d personally encourage any black woman (or any human, for that matter) to work. But I’m aware that this is part of the appeal, the allure, and the unique spectacle that is Beyoncé.

It’s true, none of us can be Beyoncé – but crucially, we probably shouldn’t be. That is okay too.

Micha Frazer-Carroll is opinions editor at gal-dem, a columnist at HuffPost, and also writes for the Guardian. She tweets @Micha_Frazer. 

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