How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get in Formation

by fivefifths

On Beyoncé's liberation music and the journey to the Joy

Vann R. Newkirk II (fivefifths) is Co-Chief Scribe at Seven Scribes, a writer at Daily Kos, a fiction writer, blogger, futurist, and activist. Vann is currently working on a science-fiction novel and short story series and resides in Silver Spring, MD. Find him napping on a bus near you.

If there is a Church of Beyoncé, then I am a late convert, a Christmas-Easter heathen who found an altar call a night after a club visit that ran too late. I’m the cat making change out of the collection plate. I’m the guy in the overflow room, too worried about whether I smell like liquor to sing all the songs, but still vibing and giving a little hungover foot stomp all the same. I’m late, I’m trash. But I’m in the building.

It wasn’t long ago that I was out in the street, cursing the joint as I walked by. I wasn’t always a Beyoncé fan; I used to be a hater in the worst way. Like many straight dudes-especially straight black dudes, I suspect–the very idea of Beyoncé grated my soul. I thought she was a beautiful person who made terrible, uninspired, vapid pop drivel. As a fan of music, I couldn’t deny that she was talented as a singer and was surrounded by a team of world-class talent, but nothing about “Get Me Bodied” or “Crazy in Love” moved me.

I hated Beyoncé because the Joy that she represented felt utterly unreachable to me. tweet

Of course, even if I believed Beyoncé vapid or bubblegum pop, her music was certainly no less poppish than plenty of other artists I did not so viscerally hate. That’s probably because of just who enjoyed Beyoncé. In hindsight I realize that a lot of my hating was fueled by standard man-gripeing about anything that women could enjoy. It’s not made for me. It’s good in the club when they dance on you but nothing else. Look at how crazy they go for it. [Sarcastic] yaaaassss. The fact that Beyoncé seemed to have a real impact on the happiness of several black women I knew just drove home my discomfort by proximity. I hated Beyoncé because the Joy that she represented felt utterly unreachable to me, and I processed this hate with the typical snotty behavior of those disconnected by privilege. Tuh.

Even though Beyoncé (the album) began my process of musical Beyoncé appreciation (it’s a fucking brilliant album), I still didn’t quite get it. Despite the fact that the album featured words from Chimamanda Adichie, who I’d been reading and absorbing, and despite the embrace of Beyoncé by several feminists and womanists that I respected deeply and have been learning from for years, that central disconnect still kept me from a true appreciation. I still didn’t get it the way that other folks got it. And as those disconnected from reality by privilege tend to do, instead of asking what was up with my understanding, I just passed all of those praising and loving Beyoncé off as kinda crazy. The very little amount of writing I’d done about Beyoncé for GQ, in which I joked about run-ins with the Beyhive after I’d made bad jokes about the quality of her music, underscores that disconnect.

The major turning point in my understanding of Beyoncé came about a year ago (I told you I was late). My freelancing career was on the up and up and I’d finally broken through to a publication I held in high esteem, Grantland. My first essay for Grantland in late 2014 was an exploration of black protest music and how it had resurfaced after Ferguson. I predicted, based on Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and D’Angelo’s music, that black protest music would see a resurgence in the center of music. I am happy that that prediction seems to have come true, but the most pointed critiques of the essay came from people who noted that I had left out women almost entirely from my assessment of the current landscape and my analysis of the genealogy of protest music.

That certainly wasn’t the point, but the critique stung because it was true. I hadn’t intended to totally miss out on black women’s contributions to protest music. But at the same time I was still blind in a way that I could not understand. Even as a person who listens to music maybe 16 hours out of every day, I could not think of many concrete current examples of black women making music that I would consider protest music or liberation music.

The eureka moment came in a response to both my work at GQ and Grantland. While many of the most vocal Twitter-based members of the Hive were appeased by the amends I’d made in recognizing their power at the former, some still questioned why I’d expended so much energy discussing Beyoncé (the phenomenon) in a whimsical tone while I’d given so much reverence to male artists in the latter. Why didn’t I consider Beyoncé’s music to be about protest or liberation?

Here’s the thing: the entire narrative of liberation is centered around straight black men. That’s the full extent of black male privilege, a privilege which leaves black women, transgender black folks, non-binary and gender fluid black folks, and queer black men out in the cold. The crux of this privilege: that while we are all partners in the fight for civil rights and social justice, only black men–especially cisgender straight black men–make a return on that investment of struggle. So it was when the Fifteenth Amendment granted black men and black men only the right to vote. So it was when black women took up and created the rallying cry of #BlackLivesMatter and nobody showed up for #SayHerName for Sandra Bland and Gynnya McMillen. So it was when the Black Panthers were lauded as revolutionaries but suffered heavy attrition among women who didn’t feel safe.

So it was when we gave artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole the mantle of Black America’s musical liberation without realizing that they both stood in the shadow of a Givenchy-clad Titan.

I was trapped by my own narrow definition of liberation, centered as it was on only the things that straight black men are denied. tweet

That Titan, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, had been shaking the foundations of oppression in ways that I simply could not understand, long before “Alright.” But the continued challenges from her fans, which I am eternally grateful for, helped bring me around. If I believed that Black Lives Matter, how was I so blind to the fact that “Flawless” was one of the most necessary anthems of self-affirmation in the contemporary era? How did I miss the themes of sexual autonomy, agency, consent, ambition, black pride, and resistance that Beyoncé represented? The easy answer is that I was trapped by my own narrow definition of liberation, centered as it was on only the things that straight black men are denied.

Beyoncé doesn’t just expand those assumptions for black women, either. As an editor, one of my favorite essays to have ever worked on is Rob Henderson’s “Yoncé,” in which the writer deftly discusses what makes Beyoncé’s music humanistic. Henderson breaks down how Beyoncé served as a necessary symbol of liberation for himself as a gay black man. One of the things that struck me most while editing was that I could feel that the cyclonic force of Yoncé meant as much to Henderson’s personal liberation as did the smooth, cursing, drug-peddling swagger of Curtis Mayfield to my own. Beyoncé gave Henderson a new sense of possibility and hope and helped provide something I didn’t even know was missing in the musical space. If the goal of liberation is to truly broaden our sense of possibility and opportunity, then it became finally clear to me while editing that essay that I’d been blind to one of the most powerful liberation forces in music today. And by extension, I’d been blind to the work of several women who aren’t Beyoncé as well.

I realize now that I played a part–maybe a decent-sized part–in the coronation of certain male artists as the voices of black musical liberation. And while I don’t regret that coronation, I do regret that it seems to have come at the expense of women who were doing liberation work that I didn’t understand at the time was liberation work.

Post-”Formation,” that coronation echoes in the conversation about how gender plays a role in who we crown and who we critique for activism. Kendrick Lamar has been almost universally lauded as a leader in black musical activism, and To Pimp a Butterfly  has been recognized as a virtuoso effort in spite of some concerns and lyrics about respectability politics and misogyny. J. Cole has been lauded in a lesser way for work such as “Be Free” that has been recognized as protest music as well, despite the fact that it exists alongside a large collection of sophomoric and almost comically misogynistic songs. I think it’s right to give them credit for how many activists have embraced their work and to give them the benefit of the doubt as young men struggling to actually respond to the world beyond them and as men who have shown some real growth.

But why then don’t we offer Beyoncé’s less contradictory vision the same regard? The video for “Formation,” which meshes classic Beyoncé with images protesting police brutality, sparked not only critiques from the salty curmudgeons who always hate on people protesting police brutality, but from black folks as well. She’s an opportunist. She doesn’t really care about police violence. Why did she wait so long? It’s not enough. Nevermind the fact that Beyoncé has been vocal and active around police violence for a while; this line of critiques also treats a line of oppression that mostly affects black men–namely, excessive use of force and not even the scourge of police sexual assault against black women–as the only front for liberation. Beyoncé’s work to inspire women and LGBTQ folks–her work in promoting agency, self-worth, consent, and in making music that fights a host of concepts that oppress those among us who are not straight black men–goes unnoticed while we rush to crown new-to-the-game men as our leaders.

I watched the Super Bowl in a room full of black women. The TV’s tiny speakers struggled to keep up with the excitement in the room during the halftime show and eventually all we could do was watch as Beyoncé made her boldest statement yet. As Jenna Wortham noted at the New York Times, this performance was a black woman dominating and flaunting her dominance in a space headlined by a man, run by men in an organization that has become a global icon of chauvinism, in an event and sport mostly consumed by and marketed towards men.

And there in the middle of it all, in a Michael Jackson military outfit (and with lyrics mentioning his old nostrils), Beyoncé stood, fierce, delivering. There was a black woman doing what black women have done for time immemorial as well; waving proudly the standard of black liberation that has so often left them behind even as they pushed it the hardest. But the energy in that room told me that she represented a wave of people who would fight for liberation on the terms that they dictated and demanded.

That performance was embraced by the likely embracers and rejected by the likely rejectors. The All Lives Matter crowd revolted, and Beyoncé’s status as a universal icon was actually challenged as folks threatened to boycott her and police even refused to protect her. That’s another element that we miss in the conversation: “Formation” was a real risk for Beyoncé’s image and finance. Would that not be enough to silence skeptics who disappear into the woods whenever their male fave does anything remotely challenging?

Who says that my journey to the Joy, that capital-letter rebellion of embracing freedom and liberation, has to be done through the cold, rigid lens of hypermasculinity? tweet

It appears not, but for myself, this journey to the Church of Beyoncé has been a hell of a ride. Past the revelation that Beyoncé carried the revelation of liberation for other folks, I realize now how much she can represent for myself as well. Who says I can’t be fierce; that I can’t embrace the same kind of joyous, jubilant, dancing celebration of myself as her fans do? Who says that my journey to the Joy, that capital-letter rebellion of embracing freedom and liberation, has to be done through the cold, rigid lens of hypermasculinity? While some things may not resonate as deeply with me because my own struggles are already highlighted in our media, who says Beyoncé can’t be my musical liberator of choice?

Granted, these words only count as anything resembling revelation because of the very privilege that I struggle to examine. The importance of my words pales in comparison to folks like Wortham and Henderson who’ve been there all along and who can more viscerally experience what Beyoncé’s perspective-widening truth really means. But through the lens of my own disconnect, I can also understand just why Beyoncé is so dangerous and why some other folks who enjoy the even more absolute privilege of whiteness lash out when she threatens their comfort.

As Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z says, “they’ll never take the Joy from us.” Not to dig too deep into the infinite well of musical and celebrity hyperbole, but I can say that trying to understand Beyoncé has given me some extra bit of untakeable Joy. That’s a Joy I reflect on as I think about how much I love my jet engine-wide nostrils and my wild Afro. It’s a Joy I think about when I stuff bottles of Cholula or Texas Pete (never Tabasco, tuh) in my bag to go. And it’s a Joy I think about even when I feel the all-too-familiar sadness of seeing more victims of police violence.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got reservations at Red Lobster.

Artwork by Krissi Scribbles. Find her on Twitter at @LipstickYoda

About the Authors:
Published by fivefifths
Vann R. Newkirk II (fivefifths) is Co-Chief Scribe at Seven Scribes, a writer at Daily Kos, a fiction writer, blogger, futurist, and activist. Vann is currently working on a science-fiction novel and short story series and resides in Silver Spring, MD. Find him napping on a bus near you. View all posts by fivefifths

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