You probably don’t need another review of Kendrick Lamar’s blazing, fiery, incendiary, stage-burning medley of ‘The Blacker the Berry’, ‘Alright’, and a live freestyle at the Grammy Awards. But in case you missed the original event, just give a wee look-see before you go on. LL Cool J said it would be controversial, and King Kendrick does not disappoint. Addressing boldly the mass incarceration of black men, the extra-juridical destruction of black bodies, and the economic evisceration of black communities, Kendrick calibrated his set to ignite a media firestorm. So where’s the controversy?
Lamar has received criticism in the past for the political bluntness of his work and for the aggressive imagery of his performances. At the 2015 BET Awards, Kendrick delivered the lines ‘Nigga, and we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’ from atop a graffitied police car while pyrotechnics blazed beneath a massive American flag, and Fox News went nuts. Geraldo Rivera called the song an incitement to violence, opining that it might be even worse for black people than police brutality. And perhaps in response to earlier criticism, Kendrick cut these lines from his Grammys performance, drawing a few complaints about network censorship, but little else.
Conversely, controversy has raged far and wide over Beyoncé’s proud and visually aggressive new video (explicit), dropped the day before her proud and visually aggressive Super Bowl 50 performance. From the NYPD threatening to boycott Queen Bey’s world tour, to Rudy Giuliani launching a ridiculously failed protest outside NFL headquarters, ‘Formation’ has got lots of people in a tizzy.
Channelling MJ in a gold bandolier over black leather, flanked by thirty black women rocking natural hair under Panther berets, Beyoncé raised her fist at the Super Bowl, and the Internet blew up. Of course, there was umbrage from the right over the NFL’s failure to segregate entertainment and politics (ahem), over Bey’s choreography, over the outfits and the hair. But the left has also offered a couple lines of critique, and those critiques have got my wheels spinning.
Some non-reactionary responses to Beyoncé’s video are undeniably important, like Maris Jones and Elena Bergeron, who remind us that for survivors, post-Katrina New Orleans is not an argument but a trauma. But some other leftist responses to Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ strike me as more problematic. Among these fall the arguments that Beyoncé’s politics aren’t properly political because capital.
In the anti-capitalist-Beyoncé critiques, we are implored to track, frame for frame the self-conscious opulence of ‘Formation’—Gucci, Zimmerman, Gucci, On Aura Tout Vu, Alessandra Rich, Chanel, Fendi, more Gucci. We are reminded that Beyoncé’s on her way to selling out a world tour that stands to gross somewhere in the airspace above $200 million. We are called to observe the Airbnb shout-out from that luxury Super Bowl rental. Beyoncé, didn’t we know, is just playing at politics for economic gain. This is spectacle, not impassioned belief.
Regardless of Beyoncé’s not inconsiderable market success, to dismiss her politics as mere capitalist spectacle is to contribute to a discourse on politics that privileges male voices and male bodies. Male voices, we are quietly but firmly told, are uncompromising, male bodies, neutral and unadorned. Female voices, on the other hand, are always already alloyed, female bodies, excessively marketed and market-driven. A longstanding association of women with massification and decadence persists in the figuration of Beyoncé as compromised counterpart to Kendrick’s searing truth.
Such gendered frameworks extend to our current political debates as well. Witness, for example, insipid Donald Trump campaigning as the brave purveyor of truth against a mob of menstruating women. Even his Twitter handle, @realDonaldTrump, lays claim to singular authenticity. And on the Democratic flipside, we have Bernie 2016, a campaign that emphasizes its candidate’s unalloyed condemnation of the neoliberal order and his utter disregard for such trivialities as appearance. In the increasingly vituperative and gendered discourse surrounding the Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes a manicured and moneyed mirage, a passive conduit for Wall Street money, for Bill Clinton’s legacy, and for an increasingly unsatisfying liberal mainstream, itself ineffectual, weak, and corrosive.
While I agree strongly with Bernie Sanders on most issues, I also agree with Clinton on many. I’m also in the demographic sweet spot for divided sensibilities in this race—not quite a millennial but not yet over 45. Like many millennials, I question HRC’s record in the Senate and as Secretary of State, and I question how beholden she might be to some of her biggest campaign donors. Like many self-identified feminists, I also question the messaging from certain sectors of the Sanders camp.
Granting that Clinton’s faults are many, we ought not count among them her savvy negotiation of an inevitably gendered public image. Attacks designed to rattle her establishment credentials too often blur with ad feminam attacks on her personal credibility and integrity and, worse, with outright misogynist attacks on her demeanor, her clothes, her marital life, her body, her aging face. We praise the Bern for his uncompromising outspokenness against the neoliberal clusterfuck that makes of us all homines economici. But Hillary couldn’t stake that ground if she wanted to, and she’s got game (and experience) enough to know it.
Let’s go back, for a minute, to ‘Formation’, which might be instructive not in spite of its flaws but because of them. Beyoncé makes her living on Beyoncé. And, like Hillary, she’s good at her job. Here, she’s also managed to confront her white fans with our wilful oblivion about what it means to be black and female in America. She’s planted a seed of cognitive dissonance, in that we white girls in her audience can’t stop singing a song that is not about or for us. This is important.
Black Lives Matter exhorts us to think about how the United States is founded on the destruction of black bodies. The movement calls white America to account for the fact that our social and legal orders depend, still, on holding black bodies in a state of exception. The flap over ‘Formation’ should remind us as well that so-called civil discourse has always depended on the policing of women. Women’s voices and bodies—especially black and brown ones—have always been subject to pressures from which men are assumed to be free, because male discourse too often depends on the active suppression of women’s voices.
When we praise a male public figure for his clarion truth while criticizing a female public figure for her public visibility—here figured as muddled politics and a moneyed body—we perpetuate a gendered economy that belies, at least in part, the millennial left’s claims to intersectional awareness. In ‘Formation’, Beyoncé calls our attention to the detailed complexity of Southern black experience. She also reminds us that wealth doesn’t erase that complex blackness: ‘Earned all this money but they never take the country out me / I got hot sauce in my bag, swag’.
We ought to consider how our responses to Beyoncé’s cultural power or to Hillary’s establishment capital intersect not only with our beliefs about money, fame, and influence but also with our deeply entrenched expectations about who gets to speak when and about how their voices should sound. Wealth doesn’t eradicate racism. Neither does it ensure gender parity or excuse sexism.
Kendrick Lamar is powerful and important. Bernie Sanders is powerful and important. Beyoncé Knowles is powerful and important. Hillary Rodham Clinton is powerful and important. We should engage each with a common courtesy and respect. And the uncompromising campaigners who sparked this essay? You too have my ear.
Katie Muth teaches contemporary literature and culture in the United Kingdom, where from time to time she crawls out of bed at odd hours to consume American sporting events.