The Queen came to the desert not only to rain blackness on the nearly all-white Coachella music festival, but to represent the power of Black women.
“Coachella, thank you for allowing me to be the first Black woman to headline!” Beyoncé beamed as she launched into her rendition of “Run the World (Girls!)” at Coachella 2018. And yes, Beyoncé rapturously, gloriously blackened the predominantly white Southern California music festival, turning the scene into a HBCU halftime performance complete with dancers, drum lines, and a marching band costumed in the gear of her newly imagined sorority Beta Delta Kappa.
The sisterhood of Beyoncé arrived in the desert spring not just to rain blackness, but also to infuse femme power into an event lacking other female headliners. In a year when women artists pushed back hard against male dominance in the entertainment industry, Beyoncé’s first live performance after giving birth to twins choreographed an extended homage to Black women who powerfully step into roles traditionally occupied by men.
Beychella’s Black feminist vision emerged in the first minute of the two-hour set, which opened with the fierce performance of a Black female drum major serving face in her plumed hat and goldenrod jacket. After the drum major blows her whistle, flags part to reveal twirling dancers wearing bodysuits that bear the face of ancient Egyptian regent Nefertiti. At the end of the line stands a modern vision of Nefertiti herself: a regally costumed Queen Bey posed in a black-and-gold-sequined Balmain body suit, head dress, and cape inspired by the famous (so-called) Berlin bust of the Egyptian queen.
As in her film Lemonade, Beyoncé showcases a Southern culture so black its African roots show. HBCU marching bands and step shows build on often unacknowledged West African influences. “Sterling Stuckey, University of California, Riverside, Professor Emeritus, and other historians connect black college band showmanship to influences from 13th-century West Africa and the Egun masqueraders of the Yoruba tribe, who would play musical instruments and dance during funeral processions,” observes The Birmingham Times. And for those who don’t know that Black American marching bands are connected to the African continent, Beychella brings Black homecoming to Egypt to party with Nefertiti.
But neither Beychella’s drum major nor Nefertiti are typical Black women of their time. Female drum majors are still rare enough at HBCUs to raise eyebrows. “A number of band directors have an unspoken rule when it comes to drum majors: no girls,” ESPN’s Latria Grant writes in her thoughtful article on Benedict College drum major NaKia Bryant. “When pressed about their beliefs, they lean hard on tradition and stereotypical notions of women being unable to control their attitudes. Others cite uniformity of the drum major’s look—usually six feet tall and boyishly lean—as the reason for their preference.” But with her hair flowing unbound from her hat and her lips painted bright red, Beychella’s drum major is unapologetically feminine and in control as she drives home her opening solo.
And when the Nefertiti bust Bey’s costume is based on was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912, the Egyptian queen was hailed as an icon of beauty. But later scholars like Julia Samson, who examined reliefs of Nefertiti and her husband King Akhenaten in Amarna, Egypt, came to different conclusions about the regent’s importance. Not merely eye candy, Samson points out, Nefertiti “wore kings’ crowns … evidence [that] strongly suggests she was co-regnant during [her husband’s] lifetime.” Where Nefertiti appears with her husband in the carvings Samson examines, though, Bey-Nefertiti enters as a queen among other queens. So the drum major’s Beychella connection to Africa isn’t only through her music: it’s also through a lineage of black woman power that stretches from the other side of the Black Atlantic.
As the performance unfolded, Beyoncé and her BDK sisterhood continued to layer on black cultural references from throughout the diaspora: Nina Simone, Malcolm X, Fela Kuti, and the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” made appearances. The headlining performance became so Black that the concept initially worried Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles Lawson. “I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominantly 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,” Mama Tina shared on Instagram after the performance. “She said that her hope is that after the show young people would research this culture and see how cool it is.”
What if young white spectators at Coachella and in front of screens did exactly that? I’m going to imagine a young white woman named Becky (of course) who didn’t know what HBCU stood for before Beychella but is now excited about Black marching bands and step shows. Becky does know about other Black musical cultures, though, and over the past year may have read stories with titles like these: “Hip Hop’s Misogyny Problem Keeps Getting Worse” by Kiana Konders and “Alleviating the Effects of Misogyny in Rap and Hip Hop Music” by Uzochi Nwoku.” These titles routinely crop up despite the explosive growth of hip-hop feminism, which over the past 20 years has highlighted Black women’s contributions to these genres.
But because of Beychella, Becky sees Beyoncé mainstreaming a Black musical tradition while centering women’s contributions to the genre. So Black women—long imagined as marginal to mainstream musical cultures both as people of color and as women—are entering Becky’s imagination as central to this culture that she’s now excited about. By tuning into Coachella, Becky has inadvertently taken in a black feminist revision of American musical cultures.
What does watching Beychella’s Afro-celebratory sisterhood mean for black women viewers, though? I’ll imagine a young black woman named Baía—my daughter’s name—who knows about the long history of African queens and sings the Black National Anthem. Baía is elated to see her version of history enacted for the viewing public and gets satisfaction when white peers suddenly turn to her as a cultural expert. She also gets satisfaction from telling them that they need to do their own research, as Beyoncé suggested, and not rely on her to educate them.
Maybe Baía is interested in attending a HBCU or joining a Black sorority but has reservations, knowing HBCUs have been criticized for policing Black women’s and Black queer self-expression in the name of respectability politics. She’s read critiques like those of Evette Dionne, who writes: “Black female students are encouraged to conform to an unattainable ideal of black womanhood, even at HBCUs. We’re supposed to be dainty, quiet and dedicated to uplifting the community like Alabama State University alum Rosa Parks. We’re forbidden from twerking. We’re given strict curfews. We’re told to wear pearls and stockings because that’s what ladies do.” People have also told Baía about Deborah Whaley’s study Disciplining Women: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Black Counterpublics, and the Cultural Politics of Black Sororities, which celebrates the political and social work of black sororities but recognizes that “there is credence to the accusation of colorism, classism, heteronormativity, and the overall elitism” of Black Greek organizations.
But Beychella’s BDK sisterhood offers Baía a new model of what she can imagine and demand of HBCUs and black Greek organizations. Beyoncé performing bare-legged and cleavage-proud embodies an image of how respectability politics could disappear from HBCU culture without undermining black women’s power; an image of how all that’s empowering for women in HBCU culture can be re-invented to serve her generation. Maybe she applies for one of the Homecoming Scholarships that Beyoncé announces for students attending HBCUs, firm in her knowledge that black women can be drum majors or kings or whatever it is she, Baía, wants to be.
Welcome to the University of Beyoncé, everyone. Please take notes.
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