Words By Garfield Hylton
February 2016 has been a watershed month for black musical performances. Beyonce released “Formation,” a song and video affirming her blackness to peak levels and Kendrick Lamar, dressed in prison blues and chains with a background picture of Africa, gave an astonishing performance at the Grammys.
Both artists have been commended by fans, but only Beyonce was questioned about capitalism and lack of authenticity. LaSha, in an article for Salon, believed her performance was criticized because she is a black woman.
“…(B)lack women are judged by insurmountable double standards. The difference in those standards is clearest and broadest within the rigid confines of how much of the black community defines what it means to be a conscious black woman, juxtaposed against the virtual carte blanche black men are given over their bodies, art and finances, without challenge to their commitment to black people.”
Her observation is valid. We live in a patriarchal and racist society. Gender and race will permeate any conversation involving the non privileged class. Beyonce, pop culture demigod that she is, isn’t immune from her actions being analyzed by those convinced black women should remain silent. Furthermore, some feel that, as a rich woman who’s owned her sexuality, she’s prohibited from engaging in conversations affirming blackness.
Beyonce, historically, hasn’t been very active in this space. Her and her husband were linked to various Black Lives Matter efforts, like allegedly bailing out protesters and giving money to other social justice groups. Still, she doesn’t have a track record for conversing on racial issues and has been challenged on her seemingly steadfast insistence on remaining silent.
Last August, writer Shannon Houston openly questioned Queen Bey’s silence on social issues in a Vogue magazine interview. Houston wondered why she should “get to sit back and enjoy this silence” that empowers her and felt “she shouldn’t get to do this without critique.”
Regardless of whether one is convinced it’s a legitimate inquiry, the context of “Formation,” its performance, and the announcement of the tour, raised eyebrows. As a person who’s notoriously reticent about sharing her feelings on these issues in the past, her performance came at a moment that seemed to benefit her more than anyone else.
Kendrick Lamar has seemingly been given a pass for his Grammy performance. There’s two things that should be remembered, though. One, he’s been steeped in this conversation for more than a year, and two, his ideas have been openly questioned by writers, as well.
Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor for Ebony magazine, wrote an article in The Guardian condemning Lamar for the lack of black women on his album cover. Last January, I called him out for his comments regarding “black-on-black” violence vs. police brutality. K Dot himself wrote op-eds about issues of police brutality and how the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner struck a nerve with him. Whether he was right or wrong, he was on record long before his Grammy performance.
There are also a few other things to consider. Beyonce is more famous than Kendrick. Beyonce performed a brand new song at the Super Bowl, while Kendrick performed two songs from his album at the Grammys. Beyonce announced a tour after the Super Bowl. Kendrick presumably left the stage and…didn’t announce a tour. Beyonce hasn’t been very vocal on these sorts of issues; this isn’t a knock, just a fact of life, but Kendrick has been embedded in these conversations for a while.
To be sure, Bey doesn’t have to say a damn thing. If she’s not comfortable speaking about these issues, videos like “Formation” are an excellent way to let the artistry speak for her. While some might have questions about her reluctance to speak in the past, that shouldn’t prevent her from expressing herself now. Artists deserve the room to grow, so if it took her a little longer to get here, she should be welcomed all the same.
Yes, she’s a black woman living in a society where her race and gender are seen as detriments to some. No reasonable person should ever think they can divorce the two from this discussion.
Still, the context of what she’s done and it feeling out of the ordinary gave people the right to ask whether this was a sincere move or if she was just trying to ride the wave.