Monday, March 4, 2024

Opinion | Let’s finally stop pretending Beyoncé stands for liberation


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“You know you that b—- when you cause all this conversation,” Beyoncé bragged in her hit “Formation.”

Well, this week proved Bey was right about herself — in a way.

On Dec. 1, she premiered the movie about her recent Renaissance tour, “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé.” When news hit that the film would show in Israel, amid the country’s retributive assault on Gaza, some fans urged her to pull it from the country. When the movie did open, video emerged of Israelis waving their flags to the tune “Break My Soul” — while in Gaza, Palestinians were being ruthlessly attacked by Israel’s bombs.

Many on social media were aghast. “Break My Soul … ironic this is their fight song when they break the bones of thousands of children in the streets of Gaza,” one X user said. Another wrote: “Beyoncé took her own advice of staying mute truly to HEART & remained mute while we are forced to watch Israelis celebrating her film screening on stolen land while the Palestinians are being annihilated out of existence.”

Beyoncé’s defenders clapped back, saying that Black women stars deserve grace, that celebrities who aren’t intellectuals or activists shouldn’t be expected to lead freedom movements and that other billionaires are not held to these standards.

As of this writing, Beyoncé has not spoken publicly about what has been happening in Gaza.

I do enjoy a lot of Beyoncé’s music and cultural output. But I can bop to her while also understanding she is a capitalistic tabula rasa, standing for everything and nothing at once. And when it comes to speaking out about Israel and Gaza, her silence says a lot about the immense cultural power — and structural powerlessness — of Black women.

Black women are often treated as both goddesses and social justice mules. We hear “listen to Black Women,” “vote like Black women.” At the same time, Black women are expected to perform the labor of liberation work for every cause under the sun, while contending with misogynoir, abuse and a lack of support and resources.

“Black musical traditions may have the potential for radicalism,” Angelica Jade Bastién wrote for Vulture, “but Beyoncé’s neutrality demonstrates they aren’t inherently that way. More than anything, ‘Renaissance’ is a testament that Beyoncé is a brand that stands for absolutely nothing beyond its own greatness.”

I contend that silence in the face of oppression is not neutral. Beyoncé does stand for something: for a particular strain of racial capitalism that is concerned mostly with selling the aesthetics of Black liberation for mass consumption. There’s a lot of money to be made in satisfying White mainstream fantasies of “safe” liberation, even if — perhaps especially if — those fantasies defang movements for actual freedom and justice and preserve the status quo.

The facets of this liberal fantasy include “Black First-ism,” or being tapped by White-owned brands to be the first Black person to do a thing. This was played up when Beyoncé was the first Black woman to headline Coachella and when she was featured by Tiffany as the first Black woman to wear its famed yellow diamond, a rock sourced during the bloody era of British colonialism in South Africa.

The liberal fantasy of progress requires performances that borrow from the aesthetics of Black and LGBTQ+ liberation. This allows Black people to make millions off organizations with a history of anti-Blackness, such as the National Football League, or from colonial entities such as Tiffany. In the case of Beyoncé, it allows her to quote Malcolm X on Black American women’s dehumanization, while saying absolutely nothing about the terrifying dehumanization of Palestinians. It allows her to make a song titled “America Has A Problem,” yet say nothing about the role of the United States in bombing Palestinians to bits.

It’s not as though Black celebrities haven’t spoken out. Beyoncé’s sister Solange posted “Free Palestine” to Instagram, and R&B singer Amerie has been vocal about Palestinian freedom on the platform. Singer the Weeknd announced he was providing 4 million emergency meals to Gazans. Rapper Redveil called for a cease-fire at a music festival and displayed the names of dead Gazan children during his set.

Meanwhile, Brand Beyoncé’s performative use of Black radical aesthetics challenges nothing. It threatens nothing. It does not move people to mobilize to build true power or to help the oppressed. Most of all, it does not move audiences to muster their love, solidarity and courage to challenge U.S. power and abuses.

Rather, its primary aims are to champion individualism, inspire feel-good endorphins and move us to whip out our credit cards at the checkout line. Brand Beyoncé is part of the same system that wants us to fork over cash for absurdities such as the “It’s the freedom for me” Juneteenth napkins at Walmart, but not to demand justice and freedom from state brutality. It likes its revolution profitable — not problematic.

But Bey has amassed enough power and money to break the template, right? She has broken the internet with surprise visual albums and broken records with tours big enough to move local economies. Is it too much to ask for a simple statement about state brutality against Palestinians? If liberation is her brand, could such a stance really cause her empire to fall?

In the absence of words from Beyoncé herself, that’s what we’re left to assume.

Perhaps it’s this specter of Black powerlessness that has made the discourse over Bey’s silence on Palestinians and the decision to screen her movie in Israel so fierce. Her lack of real-life action exposes the superficiality of the Black liberation aesthetic she has profited from — a hard pill to swallow when other artists and writers around the world are being canceled for speaking out.

“Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper,” Beyoncé says in one of her most famous lines. Indeed, in the face of brutal oppression, she is projecting a clear message: Any Black person who wants to be like B and secure the bag should get in formation and keep quiet.

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