Trigger Warning for Extended Discussion of Racism and Sexual Violence
There is a particularly ugly trend—a culturally delusional, woefully self-involved epidemic—of white people being paid to share uninformed opinions about Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. These pieces complain about her “inappropriate” use of sexuality, the “divisiveness” of her music, or how the writers, white people, deserve to have unfettered emotional access to whatever it is she’s talking about on her albums, as if all her music should be for them. I have not yet checked, but I’m sure this has been the case over the past couple of days in the wake of the singer’s devastatingly wonderful set at the Grammy’s, where—dressed in garb bringing together iconography from Yoruba and Christian spirituality (it’s worth noting that this is not a first for Beyoncé. Her recent pregnancy photoshoot referenced two separate Yoruba deities. Beyond that, if you’re interested in reading more, I would recommend tracking down one of the many fantastic pieces by writers of color on this subject)—she performed two songs from her recent visual album Lemonade.
Within minutes of the performance, social media was abuzz, declaring the singer blasphemous and egotistical. I think Piers Morgan may have wet himself. It was disappointing but not surprising. Hell, when Beyoncé deployed a number of photos to announce that she was pregnant with twins, the internet exploded with pieces about how she was misrepresenting pregnancy or that it was gauche to announce her pregnancy at all (because Black women apparently don’t deserve to look as glamorous while pregnant as Demi Moore once did). No doubt, white people nationwide have continued the pattern since that Grammy’s performance. I don’t know how long the average white person can go without criticizing something about Beyoncé, but it seems like anti-Beyoncé rage is just like oxygen for some of us. And that’s a problem. That’s a big problem.
So, just let me say, from the bottom of my heart, with all the love I can muster: White people, we gotta chill out about Beyoncé.
Let me be clear: You are allowed to dislike Beyoncé’s music. You don’t have to like any music you don’t want to. What is important and problematic, though, is the way that you engage with this dislike. Did you listen to “Formation” and say, “huh…I’m not really feeling this?” Or did you listen to it and think to yourself that it was imperative for you to decimate this track and its video with your blindingly white critique? Did you watch a few snippets of Lemonade and figure that it just wasn’t your thing, perhaps not even supposed to be your thing? Or did you dedicate yourself to explaining to everyone who would listen (anyone who was close enough to have the misfortune to hear) the exactly 700 ways you thought Lemonade was tacky and self-indulgent and exclusionary?
You are allowed to like or dislike whatever you want, but when it comes to an artist like Beyoncé—a woman of color whose latest and most controversial work has been about embracing Black femininity—it is patently irresponsible to not engage with the currents of misogynoir in our country that have motivated much of the backlash against the singer, and very well might be informing yours.
Lemonade itself addresses this. There’s a Malcolm X quote Beyoncé samples, an excerpt from a speech the Civil Rights leader gave to a Los Angeles crowd in May of 1962. The quote goes: “The most disrespected person 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.” It’s a powerful piece of rhetoric that speaks a powerful truth, and sheds light both on what Lemonade is dedicated to combatting and what a large chunk of the reaction to Lemonade ended up invoking: that white America has always saved a special hatred for women of color, whom this nation has abused, exploited, objectified, demonized, used, and exiled. Dating back centuries, white America has had an especially perverse relationship with women of color: defiling their bodies on our terms and punishing them for trying to embrace sexuality on theirs; happy to see them as sexual objects but shunning them when they try to live as sexual agents. Much of the institution of American slavery was about the institutionalization of sexual violence, and that mindset has ingrained itself alongside all of the other enshrined and excused tenets of anti-Blackness in this nation’s history.
So, when white men and women turn out in droves to criticize Beyoncé for making a career based on her looks, for exploiting her own sexuality, for appearing too comfortable or too showy with her own motherhood, her own self-worth, they are invoking more than just the anti-materialist or anti-shallow-pop-music rationale they hide behind when they’re called out. They are knowingly or unknowingly buying into the massive system of misogynoir that afflicts this country and a large swath of its population. They are engaging in a targeted rhetorical violence designed for the insidious purpose of barring Black women from the opportunity of feeling, let alone celebrating, self-worth.
Beyoncé’s showmanship is not some unique display of arrogance. Her exaltation of her own sexuality is not some unique display of indecency. Her invocation of religion is not some unique act of heresy. Are you mad that Beyoncé dressed like the Virgin Mary? John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Are you mad that Beyoncé dances “suggestively?” Have you seen the music video for Britney Spears’ “Toxic?” Are you mad that Beyoncé flaunts her lifestyle? Have you seen Taylor Swift’s Instagram? Have you ever seen a single “E! True Hollywood Story” about any of those big famous rock stars who spent their days writing about how many women they were scorned by or how many women they were gonna use to get revenge? Showmanship, self-love, sexuality: None of these things were invented by Beyoncé, but still she is routinely berated for trying to make them her own. I’m not some big-time detective, but it almost feels like there’s something else going on here.
And even if Beyoncé is the best example of the hatred thrown at Black artists (both men and women, ultimately) who just so happen to do what so many other white artists have done for decades, it’s not unique to her. The media routinely covers Azealia Banks just for the opportunity to call her a crazy, irrelevant bitch, wallowing in the historical refusal to show compassion to women of color with mental health struggles like a pig wallowing in shit. Bashing Kanye West is a goddamn national pastime and you could almost hear the sigh of relief from white people when he began associating with Donald Trump, since now they could retroactively claim the moral high ground. Whenever some rapper says something slightly unpalatable or dresses flamboyantly, white people go up in arms, despite the fact that magazines are still regularly granting interviews to Gene Simmons. Again, it’s almost like there’s more at play here.
That we have become so comfortable accosting Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, abusing her on the pages of our blogs every time she is bold enough to blink or smile or share the blessings of her life with us, is, frankly, disgusting. It’s abhorrent. It’s a crime and failure of self-blindness, the violent failure of our refusal to try out any sort of self-reflection despite centuries of exploitation and genocide. And before you fucking #NotAllNotBeyoncéFans me, I know. I know that you might not like her music because you just don’t like her music. But if it’s so important to you to make that known, and to wage an unending uncreative crusade against her, then you might need to look in the mirror. You might need to ask yourself some hard questions.
And then shut up.