Dear white people,
For the past few years, we’ve lived in a world in which essentially anything Mrs. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter does is headlining news. She’s performed on the world’s biggest stages (multiple times), and generally speaking, it seems like most of western culture enjoys Beyoncé. Good for her. I’m glad.
As an artist, Beyoncé has been vocal and active when it comes to creating art that advocates for and exemplifies the experiences of Black people in America. Because her intentions are clear, if you aren’t a part of that cultural identity, your opinion on her art (approval or otherwise) doesn’t matter.
Beyoncé’s historic, headlining Coachella performance last weekend was quite the spectacle, in which she paid homage to many aspects of African-American culture that you, as a white person, cannot fully understand or appreciate. That’s ok. Regardless, you people have critiques of her performance (many positive) that fail to do her art the justice it deserves.
Watching Beyoncé’s performance and saying things like “The music was fun. The costumes were sexy. The marching band was a surprising and cool theme.” really isn’t sufficient. While those things made be held true (yes, she did a good job and it was enjoyable to watch), at this point Beyoncé’s art deserves a more careful critique.
I think about it like this: there are several layers to what she did. Firstly, Beyoncé’s performance captured something that is distinctly American. The college football marching band. This is something Americans relate to because college football is popular and marching bands are practically indispensable to that experience. If you’re American, or have been to a college (or in some cases, high school) football game, you can probably watch the performance and say “Hey, I recognize this theme!”
Beneath this readily accessible cultural identity, there’s the (musical/athletic/Greek) culture of HBCUs, a specific type of institution in America. The HBCU is a pillar of Blackness in America, and therefore, can only truly be understood by those who share a cultural history/literacy with collegiate black people. I’d argue that people with a black cultural identity were able to understand/appreciate more of the content in the performance than those without that cultural identity.
Within that layer of context, there is a distinctly Southern black HBCU cultural literacy needed to understand further aspects of the show (Black Greek life, probates, creole-inspired musical arrangements, costumes, and set design). It’s here I’d argue that people who aren’t black should largely keep their opinions to themselves. White people are inherently unable to fully understand black art made for black audiences. Period.
Deeper still, there is another cleavage within this racially based cultural identity. For example, black people in Chicago, Boston, or Los Angeles may still have a lesser ability to fully understand Beyoncé’s performance. As obvious as it may seem to state this, there seems to be a lack of understanding that there is no singular black experience in America.
Within the segment of blacks who share a geographic cultural literacy for the performance, we can divide this segment into those who have been participants in this HBCU culture, against those who have not. Southern blacks who have frequented events like this, performed in marching bands and dance teams, pledged a black fraternity, etc. would have an even deeper understanding.
For instance, even though I am a black person from the South who has spent a lot of time engaging with this culture, I would not say that I have the same cultural literacy as my father who is also from the South, but actually attended an HBCU.
All that considered, I think it’s even more commendable that she did this because this show is really only culturally available to a relatively small portion of the American population. Every cultural aspect of the show was specifically targeted to celebrate a sorely under-represented, rich cultural identity in American pop culture.
So, how then, can you, as a white person approach and engage with art like this in the future? What are some ways that you can work to more fully understand and appreciate black art?
I’ll start with this example: Last year, author Ta-Nehisi Coates explained why white people can’t say the N-word in rap songs.
White Americans live in a country where they can DO anything, BE anything, and SAY anything. Literally. And as far as ownership goes, most property (specifically intellectual, i.e. record labels owning black artists’ music…) is owned by white people.
When black people say “Hey white people please don’t use this word, you don’t have the proper context,” it becomes controversial? White people get upset. It’s as if black people owning a part of the American vernacular is egregiously insulting to ~white power~ (which, in some ways it is, but that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing).
Throughout history, it seems as though whenever white people are asked to back off from another culture, they’re like “NOO GIMME! LET ME CONSUME IT!” Like the more you tell a child not to do something, the more enticing that illicit behavior becomes. Ugh.
Similarly, black art, made specifically with black people in mind should be just that. Yes, it can be appreciated from outside that context, but there must always be deference those most culturally literate.
Example: I can enjoy a Bollywood film, but I’ll never be able to understand and appreciate in the way that my friend from Mumbai would.
Context/audience is key. When you put critiques of art black on a public stage (a blog review, tweet, etc), you must be willing to defer to a more culturally intelligent opinion on the matter at hand.
This is why institutions like The Grammys and the Oscars are increasingly unsatisfying. A predominantly white group of judges critiquing and awarding art made for and by other races seems a bit incompatible, right?
White people can properly engage with black art if they are careful to listen first and be willing to take a passenger seat on the journey of artistic appreciation. The best way to do that is phrasing critiques as questions..Like, “Beyoncé’s performance was legendary, I loved the HBCU aesthetic of the performance. I wonder if she did HBCUs proud?/I want to know what aspects of HBCU culture I missed? etc..”
At the end of the day, Beyoncé is a performer. It’s great to simply enjoy the music, and the spectacle at a purely superficial level. (Do not ask me how many times I have seen her 2013 Super Bowl performance. Wig!).
However, if you truly want to maximize your understand and enjoyment with Beyoncé’s (or any other black artists’) work, you can’t simply rely on your own insufficient cultural identity, no matter how much you think you love Queen B.