Class is In Session: Beyoncé Gives Us a Course on Black Expression

By: Helena Berhane

"Thank you for letting me be the first Black woman to headline Coachella," said Beyoncé on Saturday night. "Ain't that 'bout a b****?” Beyoncé’s Coachella set on Saturday night was such an iconic performance that she inspired a new nickname for the 2018 music festival: “Beychella.” After cancelling last year’s appearance due to her pregnancy, this year's Coachella marked her first live performance.

She explained to the crowd, “I had time to dream and dream…and I dreamed up this performance”. A dream indeed – the singer is the first Black woman ever to headline the festival and despite the majority white audience that Coachella attracts, she made it a point to make every aspect of her performance a learning lesson or as the New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix put it, “an education in Black expression.”


The monumentally ambitious and meaningful performance was brimming with references to Black history and icons, female empowerment, and even historically Black universities. Amongst the many, here are five standout lessons to takeaway from Beyoncé’s Coachella performance:


Lesson #1 – Black Schools Matter
If there was a main lesson from Beyoncé’s 2018 performance, it was the cultural significance of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). Dressed in custom “sorority/band leader-esque” inspired Balmain pieces, Bey took America to a HBCU halftime show complete with a marching band, high-energy majorettes, a step show and probate. Set on bleachers, it was a “one band, one sound” show as over 150 Black band members danced while playing instruments typical to those at your average HBCU homecoming. She opened her set with a soulful rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” commonly known as the Black national anthem. This also represented a moment of Black pride and unity especially amid the NFL kneeling controversy (the singer was the surprise presenter for Colin Kaepernick at last year’s Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards in December).


Beyoncé’s ode to the Black college experience couldn’t have been any clearer after it was announced that she would donate $100,000 to four HBCUs for the 2018-19 academic year through her “BeyGOOD” initiative. Ultimately, she showed attending a historically Black college is more than a niche experience coveted only by students and alumni. Instead, it’s something paramount, worthy of being celebrated in an enormous stadium.


Lesson #2 – Black Artistry is Multidimensional
Beyoncé’s performance, nearly two hours in length, was rooted in blend of black musical history – from the feeling of New Orleans and it’s horns, Houston chopped and screwed beats, ’70s funk’s Afrofuturism, Kingston and its dancehall, Brooklyn-style rap velocity, and even Nigeria with a homage to Fela Kuti as her band ran through a pulsating rendition of the afrobeat legend’s 1976 classic “Zombie.”


Her comprehensive retrospection underscores not only her own Southern identity but also showcased how global Black vernacular continues to shape her and the Black diaspora as whole. Furthermore, she expresses the beautiful multidimensionality of Black artistry by including several young, talented artists throughout her sets (including twin dancers “Les Twins” Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois and Nigerian singer Diddi Emah who elaborately twirls her baton). She gave talented and unique Black artists their own moments to shine throughout the whole show and reaffirmed why she is a leading voice of the millennial generation. Additionally, Beyoncé’s proud and fierce expression of Black artistry engaged several issues that Black women face especially as a result of mass media pressures. In particular, her HBCU-themed performance promotes the idea that a proud Black woman can indeed be both intellectually engaged and sexually expressive, although we are often told otherwise in society. By deliberately asserting her sexual authority, she makes the political statement that women should own their identity and sends the message that “No matter what you’ve been told, you’re beautiful. You matter.”


Lesson #3 – Vintage is Still In
During her performance, Beyoncé reunited Destiny’s Child making them the first girl group to perform at Coachella. And even though most Gen Zers likely just found out who Destiny’s Child was…the throwback set where Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams harmonized with Bey to sing “Soldier”, “Lose My Breath” and “Say My Name”, ushered in a major bump in digital sales. Forbes revealed data showing that digital song sales for Destiny’s Child hits soared some 767% not even 24 hours after the group collectively wowed the crowd. The sudden uptick in downloads showed us that this 90’s group has not lost their relevancy.


Lesson #4 – Beyoncé has Vibranium Lungs.
There can be no other explanation. I mean she killed it for 2 hours straight and yet held the poise of a majestic African Queen.


Lesson#5 – Bold Authenticity Trumps Ambiguity
On a stage like Coachella, you may have expected Beyoncé to dial down the deeply embedded Black expression in order avoid alienating a large portion of her audience. In fact, her mother even admitted that she feared a white audience wouldn’t understand the show.


In an Instagram post on Tuesday, Tina Knowles Lawson wrote, “I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and black college culture because it was something that they might not get.” Beyoncé’s mother went on to admit she was wrong to make that assumption, and said, “her brave response to me made me feel a-bit selfish and ashamed. She said ‘I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice and at this point in my life and my career I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.’ She said that her hope is that after the show young people would research this culture and see how cool it is, and young people black and white would listen to ‘LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING’ and see how amazing the words are for us all and bridge the gap…”


For brands especially this is a lesson learned. The easier route would have been cultural ambiguity but creating a strong impact is often found in risk. And in this case we see just how much staying true to her fans paid off. It wasn’t about creating something that was trendy or easily palatable. She delivered what she believed was an authentic stake in the ground and was able to execute one of the most elaborate and culturally influential concerts of the decade.

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