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17 April 2018

Beyoncé at Coachella was a joyful, subversive celebration of Blackness

It was more than just a superlative performance: her blockbuster headline set had enormous cultural significance in the midst of Trump's America.

By Bärí A. Williams

Beyoncé was the first Black woman to headline the Coachella festival – and she did not want you to forget it.

During her historic, almost two hour long headlining set on Saturday, she provided a masterclass in Black American history and musicology, coursing through the history of Black music across the diaspora and decades, from Nina Simone, to Juvenile, to Fela Kuti. With the backing of a marching band that paid tribute to the culture of historically Black universities and colleges in America, she played a set list of some of her biggest hits, from a Destiny’s Child reunion to her latest single with DJ Khaled, “Top Off.”

Beyoncé set the tone for the night with a parade of dancers again reminiscent of historically Black colleges’ prolific dance teams, making her grand entrance costumed as an ancient Egyptian queen to the tune of the New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna”.

She reappeared in a sweatshirt emblazoned with Greek letters, establishing her own fictional Black Greek student organization (the system of US university fraternities and sororities is known as Greek) of Beta Delta Kappa. She performed “Crazy in Love” with the marching band, before transitioning into Juvenile’s 1999 hit “Back that Ass Up,” ending the song in the chopped and screwed style of her hometown, Houston.

The message was clear – if it wasn’t evident before, Beyoncé is Black and proud.

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Most interesting about Beyoncé’s Coachella performance is not the elaborate staging and theme, though impressive, but her choice to now assert her cultural pride and reverence in overwhelmingly white spaces, especially in the midst of Trump’s America.

Like she did in her 2016 Superbowl appearance, Beyoncé proudly displayed her pride for her heritage and influences by reflecting them back to her target audience – Black people – at the same time showing others what it means to code-switch as a minority.

Coachella historically attracts a white audience, particularly wealthy white millennials who are just as interested, if not more, in being seen and taking pictures for Instagram than the music itself – and who have thousands of dollars of disposable income to spend on a festival. For Beyoncé to debut a performance this culturally Black was not coincidental, as a captive, and partly clueless, audience looked on.

From Malcolm X speech excerpts to singing James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing”, a song often called the Black national anthem, her performance was full of cultural shorthand that they may not have recognised or understood. It was genius, especially at this moment in history; a love-letter to Black people in as vast and grand a public spectacle as possible, live-streamed to a vast global online audience

There may have never been a span of time for Black pop culture like 2017-2018, with the success of Oscar-winning Moonlight and Get Out, and the box office record-breaking Black Panther serving as thought-provoking discussion-fodder and cultural touchstones.

While the Obama administration fostered a sense of overwhelming pride and “we made it,” Trump’s ascension and the accompanying racial tension and rise of white supremacy groups, preference for assimilation, and attack on multiculturalism has made the moment ripe for asserting Black pride in bold, blatant ways.

Beyoncé proved she was up to the task, noting she was the first Black woman to headline the event, sarcastically punctuating the history of the moment by adding, “Ain’t that about a bitch?”

By taking her most popular and recognisable pop hits and using them as a canvas to showcase less mainstream elements of the Black experience, Beyoncé shifted the power dynamic by making the white majority the cultural outsider, for once, all while resetting the bar for live performance. Using the Coachella stage to pay homage to her culture, particularly her Black southern roots, could almost be classified as subversive.

The onus is now on the audience to seek out information to understand what they saw. Beyoncé’s message was clear – this performance was in, of, from, and for the culture, but it wasn’t her job to translate it for you. If you don’t get it, you aren’t meant to. It’s not for you. If you want to understand it, you will put in the work to do so.

The world’s greatest entertainer, a 36-year-old married Black mother-of-three and businesswoman, affirming on one of the world’s biggest stages that not only is Black beautiful, but influential and powerful, was a truly important moment to behold.

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