"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Beyoncé is no Eartha Kitt.

There has been much talk about how Beyoncé used the Super Bowl to challenge America on the issue of Black Lives Matter. Many commentators have praised her willingness to be “political” on a global stage. She and her dancers dressed as Black Panthers while she sang her new song Formation.[1] Some commentators praised her for what is likely to have been her most radical political statement in her 20-year career.[2] Other immediately criticised her for “attacking” police officers.[3]


Does Beyoncé know why the caged bird sings?
For those who wish to promote Beyoncé’s radicalism to show her relevance for today’s youth, it seems a strange situation. They want her radical enough to appear relevant, but not court too much controversy. [4]She, and most importantly her management team, can use artistic licence for plausible deniability.[5] The radicalism of her performance has the hallmarks of a staged event. She and her management team know that too much controversy is bad for business. Yet, it seems more a corporate branding exercise[6] just as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction was designed to gather publicity.[7]

Is Beyoncé a political vessel to be filled by her management?
Many people would like Beyoncé to be a standard bearer for their political movement. Yet, her career has rarely courted political controversy. She has never challenged the status quo. She is not known for “speaking truth to power”, “forcing power to speak the truth” or risking her career for her political beliefs. It is discouraging to see that Beyoncé’s performance is considered “radical”. Perhaps it is corporate radical chic for a social media age. The focus on Beyoncé will cause us to lose sight of true political courage. We forgot a great American voice who dared to speak truth to power, forced power to speak the truth in the nation’s highest political institution and risked her career for it.

Eartha Kitt stood and delivered on her beliefs in the belly of the beast.
Eartha Kitt was radical. She confronted President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. She protested the Vietnam War at the war’s height and the height of the President’s power.[8] She did not try to package her message with high heels and exposed flesh.[9] She stood up and held the President to account. Most importantly, she did this and accepted the consequences. Her career suffered after she stood and delivered for her beliefs.



What is perhaps a strange irony, Beyoncé sampled Kitt during her song Compromise where Kitt scoffs at the idea that she, or any woman should compromise their lives for a man. The irony is seen in the way that Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, attacked Jay Z for an indiscretion.[10] More directly, Beyoncé claims that she was inspired by Kitt,[11] yet has done little if anything political to reflect her example.[12][13]

A profile in corporate courage?
Perhaps for our jaded, corporate era where courage is reduced to a branding exercise, we find that Beyoncé is a profile in courage. A different era, when artists sacrificed their careers to speak truth to power, required a different form of courage. When it comes time to tell my daughter about a powerful woman who stood up for her beliefs, spoke truth to power, made power speak, and accepted the consequences, I will turn to Eartha Kitt not Beyonce.






[1] http://fansided.com/2016/02/07/beyonce-formation-lyrics/ These are the uncensored lyrics which were *not* sung at the Super Bowl. I suppose it is indicative that Beyoncé would make a “political” statement but ensure that it Beyoncéd with the commercial imperative that has driven her career.
[4] Even her Black Power salute lacked the overt political content of Tommie Smith or John Carlos (or in his own way Peter Norman http://griotmag.com/en/white-man-in-that-photo/ )
[5] Beyoncé performed the clean lyrics to her “political” song.
[8] For a full account of the episode see Janet Mezzack "Without Manners You Are Nothing": Lady Bird Johnson, Eartha Kitt, and The Women Doers' Luncheon of January 18, 1968 Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4, Modern First Ladies White House Organization (FALL 1990), pp. 745-760 
[11] http://empowering.hearst.co.uk/be-inspired/the-women-who-inspire-beyonce/ What is sad is how it all seems staged and packaged so that Beyoncé can assume the mantle of a “trailblazer” who speaks her mind. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/music-festivals/6685942/beyonce-made-in-america-review-recap-destinys-child “By inserting her voice among these historically brash and outspoken women, Beyoncé is getting out in front of the next thinkpiece, claiming her spot among the trailblazers before anyone else can question her role. Ever the self-aware documentarian, she's showing fans exactly how she wants to be remembered: a beautiful, self-possessed woman who wants her fans to believe that they are too -- a daring proposition if there ever was one.”
[12] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/08/23/fashion/readers-respond-beyonce-silence.html?_r=0 Beyoncé’s silence receives as much attention as if she had spoken. Perhaps this is the perfect political symbol for the social media age Beyoncé as canvas her fans can project their beliefs onto so as to reflect back what they want to see. 
[13] [12] “I played at the inauguration because there were a lot of kids in the audience that I wanted to reach, that’s all. Maybe one day I will speak of my political beliefs, but only when I know what I’m talking about.” http://tinyurl.com/zw66g8v 

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