While Lemonade is technically labelled a “surprise album” for its lack of marketing and sudden release, there’s not much that’s surprising about it (with the notable exception of the possibility that Jay-Z is a cheating slimeball). It was predictable that the album would be released exclusively on Tidal, the streaming service Beyonce owns a stake in, that it would follow its predecessor Beyonce’s visual-album format, and that it would be really, really good. Like, really good. Like twelve perfectly executed tracks ranging from vulnerable anthems to unapologetically catchy bops to songs that manage to be both. (Don’t Hurt Yourself, anyone?) Could we really have expected anything else from Beyonce?
It also isn’t a surprise that white men are mad.
Today’s White-Man-To-Make-Headlines-For-Having-Opinions is Piers Morgan, a well-known journalist who wrote a piece in the controversial Daily Mail entitled, Jay-Z’s not the only one who needs to be nervous about Beyonce, the born-again black woman with a political mission.
Yeah, the title is almost as long as the op-ed itself.
Obviously, the Internet got very angry about this, considering most people are bigger fans of one of the most talented and prominent superstars of our generation than some crusty white dude, and they even made him a Trending Topic for what I can only imagine is the first time in his life.
Yes, Piers referred to Beyonce’s Black Panthers homage during the Super Bowl as a “police-hating theme”. Yes, he described her dedication to more socially-aware music as “militant”. Yes, he stated outright that Beyonce is using the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown to sell more albums (although, I can’t imagine how a music video showing these women for a few seconds could possibly be the sole factor for someone to purchase the entire album). These statements are problematic, and reinforce a racist, sexist double standard (would he call Kendrick Lamar ‘militant’?) But, this article isn’t about those statements. They are so wrong that they speak for themselves.
This article is about the fact that, at the very heart of his words, there is the opinion that famous people can’t be activists without a financial incentive, and that Beyonce’s political commentary seeks to “exploit” people’s struggles rather than provide support.
This is wrong.
First things first, Piers bemoans the “old” Beyonce, who told him in an interview she hadn’t been a victim to serious racism and churned out hits without making people feel uncomfortable. He says that this old Beyonce focused on “entertaining for the sake of entertaining”.
This is an interesting sentiment- that Beyonce, who makes millions of dollars entertaining the masses can do it simply for the sake of it, but she couldn’t possibly be an activist for the sake of activism. He also criticizes Oscar winners who talk about social issues in their acceptance speeches, Madonna for adopting children and celebrities who generally associate themselves with good causes.
What he doesn’t understand is the fact that famous people have a unique opportunity that many social movements, news outlets and charities don’t. They have access to a broad audience- which Piers himself notes crosses racial, gender, religious and geographic borders- and have influence. The New York Times and CNN can try to highlight the plights of children in war-torn lands all they want, World Vision can air as many tear-jerking commercials as they can afford, and they still won’t have access to the audiences that a pop star will. People trust their favourite stars. They seek out more information about them. They want to be like them. There’s a reason famous people are used to sell everything from perfumes to shoes to magazines to you get the picture, they sell a lot of stuff.
A lot of famous people understandably feel they have the obligation to speak out about the issues they are passionate about. If using an acceptance speech or a Super Bowl performance leads to just one person donating some money, or sharing a petition, or voting or anything else, then it’s worth it. Are you not a journalist, Piers? Do you understand how, while your craft is not based around making others’ lives better, it can be used as a tool? If Beyonce featuring the mothers of black boys lost to police brutality is exploitation, what do you call the journalists who reported on the case? Were they not using a tragedy to push forward their careers and make some money?
Yes, many celebrities have managed to intertwine their activism with their public images- when you think of stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and Lena Dunham, one of the first things to come to mind is their political or social activism, for better or worse. But similarly, David Bowie and Prince are remembered for breaking away from gender norms, John Lennon is synonymous with the fight for world peace. Yes, activism and social causes can become an integral part of one’s personal, public and artistic identities. Yes, it can be exploited, just as any artist can exploit their public persona. But it’s not inherently exploitative.
David Bowie wasn’t exploiting women when his androgyny became a major part of his identity as an artist. The Beatles weren’t exploiting their own drug use when they wrote entire studio albums about it. Taylor Swift wasn’t exploiting her ex-boyfriends when she created a persona that was partially based around her visceral, personal retellings of her former relationships. A prominent part of Beyonce’s public identity was her seemingly picture-perfect relationship with her husband and her openness with her sexuality. She isn’t exploiting her own body or her marriage when she comes out with tracks about Jay-Z or sex. She’s allowing a prominent aspect of her life to inspire and guide her art. That’s what artists do.
It isn’t a “fashion accessory”, as you put it. It’s an obligation to give back, to understand that a lot of forces helped to put you in the position of success you are in, and you have the power to help others.
This is especially true for Beyonce. Piers brings up a 2008 interview where she admits to facing a little bit of racism, but tries to focus mainly on how her career has broken barriers. He uses this almost as proof that there’s no way her concern for the Black community is genuine- I say it’s the sign of the opposite. Beyonce has found her catastrophic fame because of a number of reasons- and her outstanding talent, work ethic, performance abilities and physical beauty are among them- but it could definitely be said that Beyonce may have benefited from her lighter skin tone. This doesn’t suggest she doesn’t deserve her fame, or hasn’t worked for it- it just suggests that she may have not faced specific barriers as a result of her skin tone. That’s how privilege works.
Regardless, the Black community has helped put her in the position she’s in. They related to her, connected to her style and her music, admired her confidence in her own skin, went crazy about how she embraced her curves and her Blackness, and in return they flocked to buy her albums and see her shows. The Black community turned her and Jay-Z into shining examples of Black excellence, and role models for black kids everywhere. Maybe that’s why she feels her activism is so important- she has an obligation to her community, as a role model and spokesperson.
It’s undeniable that Beyonce speaks for Black people everywhere, to an extent. She has a diverse audience, and she’s managed to show each and every one of them that a black women can love her curves and her hair and her features, that a woman can be a great mother and a success and still be sexual. She’s in a unique position where she can communicate a message as a person with authority and dignity, not as an angry or envious or lazy black person, as so many young activists are written off as. She’s the world’s Black Girl Next Door. It makes perfect sense that the next step after world domination would to be use her power to convey messages that rest of the world just isn’t getting: that Black people still face huge injustices, and power can be all too easily abused.
It’s not a fashion accessory- in fact, I would say that Beyonce’s activism is unique in the sense that it could put more of a damper on her career than with other celebrities. I don’t remember the scathing op-eds about Leonardo DiCaprio’s call for climate change action during his Oscars acceptance speech. Angelina Jolie has never been labelled “militant”. Lady Gaga has never been seen as anti-straight for her LGBTQ activism. While on paper, racial equality seems to be a cause we can all get behind, it gets more complex and divisive the more you look into it. The Black Panthers and Malcolm X are controversial. The exclusivity of songs like Formation do make non-Black listeners feel isolated. Beyonce isn’t making benign speeches or hiding behind a series of social justice-themed Tweets. She’s taking a bold risk in her activism- and this might just push away some of her listeners. That’s not something to be worn around like a purse or a pair of stilettos. It should be worn around like a badge of honour.
As for Piers’ repeated claims that celebrity activism is exploitative, and financial incentive is often involved?
If that’s the case, then it’s the case. Celebrities should be called out when they perpetuate harmful ideals (like the White Saviour Complex) or demand money from organizations for their work, but if money is truly the only possible motive behind activism, okay.
All I know is this. Beyonce’s activist role will inspire young black girls everywhere. Her activism will lead some people- not all people- to see race issues from the perspective of someone apart of the culture and community. Her charity that she founded to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, and her fund to help the poisoned families of Flint, Michigan- which she hasn’t toted around publicly like a fashion accessory- has helped real people. Just like other famous people inspire and help to create positive change through their art and their activism.
If all the good that comes from the free publicity and influence of celebrity activism is to help a career, fine. Then the art that surrounds us- from T.V. shows to music to paintings- only exists for financial gain as well. Then that waitress that was friendly and accommodating at that restaurant was only looking for a large tip. Then the journalists who go around the world exposing atrocities are only looking for an increase in magazine sales. If all the good things in our world exist only because fiscal incentive is the root of human behaviour, then all those good things still exist.
I’m just glad that someone is our Black-Girl-Next-Door, regardless of the reason.