Beyoncé's Coachella performance Saturday night captivated me, and that's no easy feat. I like Queen Bey well enough, but I'm not a member of the BeyHive. In fact, I consider the social media-powered cult somewhat silly and bordering on obsessive.
Still, everything about Beyoncé's Coachella show — it was the first time a black woman headlined the 19-year-old Southern California music festival — was a black-history-is–American-history spectacular: Opening the show in a Nefertiti-worthy Balmain body suit, cape, and headdress, Beyoncé sang each of the evening's 24 chart-busters with a live marching band, featuring the caliber of musicians and dancers you'd see at a historically black college or university. Three songs in, she gave us a soulful rendering of the Negro national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
The performance has since been dubbed Beychella.
Beyoncé's purple, black, and gold extravaganza was unapologetically black. The celebration of black love — the electricity between Bey and Jay-Z during their duet "Déjà Vu" was palpable — black life, black bodies, and black excellence did not go unnoticed, especially during a weekend when two black men were arrested in a Center City Starbucks for being, well, unapologetically black.
So, though I was intrigued by Beyoncé's Coachella extravaganza, I wasn't completely surprised by the many facets of the performance because I've spent the last month visiting the University of Pennsylvania seminar "Family Feuds: Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Solange and the Meaning of American Music."
If a Georgetown University class about Tupac Shakur once looked at how militancy, vulnerability, and masculinity collide and a Rutgers University class about Bruce Springsteen was an examination of why the Boss' lyrics are a workingman's Shakespeare, then it could be said that Salamishah Tillet's class on Beyoncé is an exploration of everything that makes modern black women tick, and therefore an examination of our culture at large and how black women fit into it.
The class, taught by Tillet, a professor, author, and cultural critic, is a nuanced look at Beyoncé, a semester-long portrait of the artist when her monumental 2016 visual album Lemonade was all everyone was talking about. It's also a look at the work of the artists who, one might say, love her most: husband Jay-Z's introspective 4:44 and sister Solange's A Seat at the Table. Because, it can be argued, without these works and these relationships, we never would have had a Beychella.
"Beyoncé is one of the few artists who authentically gives us the new definition of black womanhood and at the same time is pulling out old histories and engaging in the black feminist theory of performance politics," Tillet said, referencing Beychella. "She's both new and old. That's part of the appeal. She's saying nothing but everything because everything she says is through her work."
Beyoncé has always reminded me of the popular girl in high school who didn't say much but who attracted folks like a magnet. She was pretty. She was confident. She always had the right boyfriends. But she kept out of the everyday drama, keeping her business tight-fisted even when the gossip swirling was about her, her man, or her crew.
But even she struggles. And Lemonade, Tillet said, is Beyoncé's voice in that struggle. Here she is, a woman whom many woman aspire to be. She has the marriage, she has the children, she's at the height of her career. She represents the ability to attain what is unattainable.
Then Jay-Z cheats with Becky with the good hair, and all bets are off. And now it's about taking all that she believes she is — a woman, a black woman, a feminist, a divine spirit, a political animal — to go through the fire to get to the other side. The readings and presentations in this class — and there are dozens by respected artists and writers, like Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava Duvernay, New York Times columnist Wesley Morris, professor and writer Roxane Gay, and cultural critic and filmmaker dream hampton — look at how all these individual facets of Beyoncé make up one powerful woman.
And because the class is called "Family Feuds," it expands to encompass the world around her, proving even self-proclaimed goddesses doesn't exist in a vacuum. These same writers provide answers to questions like: How was Solange able to cement herself as an artist to be reckoned with and more than a superstar's sister with A Seat at the Table? And if there had been no Lemonade, would Jay-Z have released his 13th and most vulnerable studio album, 4:44? Through Tillet's class, we see how these entertainers are working in tandem to create some of our era's most memorable – and definitely talked about — art. A musical dynasty, if you will.
"Lemonade is one of the greatest albums in history," said author and professor Michael Eric Dyson one Tuesday afternoon in class, "because she is calling the accountability of a certain person without ever mentioning his name."
If only I could be that cool.
"Beyoncé is both embracing her beliefs of what femininity is and redefining them," Tillet said.
This is where black women like myself see themselves in Beyoncé, and specifically her Coachella performance.
Like many of us, Beyoncé has a clear understanding of her past. Her Coachella salute to black colleges and Greek life included an outfit that featured a purple-and-silver crest with images of Queen Nefertiti, a black bee, a black power fist, and a black panther. Beyoncé holds her girlfriends in high regard, thus the Destiny's Child reunion featuring former bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. She's super-confident. There was one point in the show when she took her own lyric out context and declared she was "feeling myself." She's a staunch feminist, a doting wife, and she's vulnerable. That's all clear from her relationship with Jay-Z and Solange, as Tillet demonstrates.
And she stands squarely in her blackness. Period.
Beyoncé's mother, Tina Knowles, wrote in an Instagram post that when she told Beyoncé she was worried the "predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all-black culture and black college culture," Beyoncé answered, "i [sic] 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 whats best for the world and not what is most popular."