• Beyoncé, the entertainer, is now using her music to make a statement about race relations and black femininity. (Getty Images)
The disruption of Beyoncé’s more palatable image as merely a spruiker of ‘girl power’ is telling. Not only does it expose racist attitudes; her supposedly militant activism points to an artist who has earned the freedom to be creatively self-defined, and the power this represents scares people, writes Amal Awad.
By
Amal Awad

27 Apr 2016 - 10:23 AM  UPDATED 27 Apr 2016 - 11:07 AM

It would be difficult to log on to social or mainstream media following a Beyoncé ‘event’ and not hear about it. We’re not allowed to merely like or dislike what Beyoncé does artistically. Criticise the singer and you will be met with the sting of Beyoncé’s global ‘Beyhive’ fan base, made up of admirers who watch with an adoration that borders on the religious.

When Beyoncé debuted her new visual album, Lemonade, on US network HBO a few days ago, the response was predictable. The interwebs lit up with conjecture on the meaning of her songs, which alluded to marital troubles. What followed was an explosion of commentary that centred on whether Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z had cheated on her, with the less-meaty addendum that Beyoncé has thematically moved on from feminism to racism.

She hasn’t really; Lemonade is as much about womanhood as it is about the status of black people in the US. And the marriage stuff is curious, sure, given how intensely private the pop star is. Beyoncé’s public image is carefully curated, with real-life cracks like the infamous elevator incident between her sister and husband quietly swept under the rug.

Lemonade is as much about womanhood as it is about the status of black people in the US.

So Lemonade is groundbreaking for the remarkably honest tone of it – this is Beyoncé declaring her own personal revival, her electric anger giving insight not only to relationships, but oxygen to issues of politics and racism. Beyoncé has always declared herself a feminist, but she seemingly inhabits it with Lemonade.

But dig a little deeper and something much more interesting – and troubling – is occurring. When notoriously controversial commentator Piers Morgan lamented that the singer he met with a few years ago wasn’t the “militant activist” she is now, he illuminated a discomfort that is far more telling than the anger we saw post-Superbowl, when Beyoncé provoked backlash for her nod to the Black Lives Matter movement in her performance of Formation.

I’m neither a Beyhiver nor a Bey-hater, but I must say that what she is doing is extraordinary: she is revealing herself artistically, and peeling back the layers of politeness she’s been expected to exhibit to appease her non-black fans.

She is revealing herself artistically, and peeling back the layers of politeness she’s been expected to exhibit to appease her non-black fans.

For the Piers Morgans of the world, the kind who SNL mercilessly mocked with its clever sketch ‘The Day Beyoncé Turned Black’, Beyoncé is their racism safety blanket. They can digest a black super star and say they’re not racist, so long as she doesn’t emphasise her blackness. The backlash to Formation hinted at this, and drew criticism from even black people who felt the privileged Beyoncé was cashing in on Black Lives Matter.

Beyoncé will make money off this album. But is she not an artist trying to make sense of the world she inhabits and the impact she has on people? What successful black woman would not make a statement on race relations and black femininity?

I’ve been the token ‘diverse-background’ woman who pokes fun at her own culture because it disproves a racist society. You laugh at my stories and we believe we’re equal. All that does is make me feel tolerated. 

This strikes a deep chord for me. As a woman who has long sought to make sense of my hyphenated identity – Arab-Australian-Muslim – one thing has become clear to me: these hyphens serve the dominant culture of Western nations. They do nothing for me, even as I have tried in the past to – humorously – make them my own. And boy have I made them my own. I’ve been the token ‘diverse-background’ woman who pokes fun at her own culture because it disproves a racist society. You laugh at my stories and we believe we’re equal. All that does is make me feel tolerated.

I have written about the experience of growing up Muslim and Arab and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so when the need arises. But it won’t be to feed the cultural voyeurism of the west. It will be because I have found a new way of telling my story – one that doesn’t need your approval; it just needs to be truthful.  

Beyoncé, now in a position of influence, is stripping back the white-friendly layers to determine what she stands for.

Many people of non-Anglo backgrounds are reclaiming their titles, reviving them with their own energy of ownership and pride. In the same way I can call myself a wog and it’s not offensive, non-Anglos are proudly declaring themselves people of colour.

But Beyoncé has, in an act of extraordinariness, done the opposite. Now, in a position of influence, she is stripping back the white-friendly layers to determine what she stands for.

Beyoncé told Morgan in that years-old interview that she was happy people didn’t look at her and see a race – they liked her as a performer. That she has built such a strong platform without exploiting her race is a rare and powerful thing. But she has grown, and in the process has emerged more powerful, reclaiming the parts of herself that perhaps she felt she had to hide in order to succeed.

Beyoncé is, ultimately, an entertainer, and to expect her to play it safe, and to ignore social causes because she will profit from them, is to say that she and we must stay the same. Where is the progress in that?

 

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