By Kehinde Andrews
I obviously kicked a hornet’s nest with the article on Beyonce and the Superbowl in the Independent. I wrote the piece not as an attack on Beyonce, it was more of a response to the overreaction to her symbolic gesture at the Superbowl. If we are so desperate for signs of recognition and respect that we embrace style over substance, then we are in a sorry place in terms of activism. The fact that of everything I have written (Guardian and OBU) this piece is the one that provoked the most discussion also speaks volumes to where our political debate is.
It is not trolling to disagree and critique Black representations and politics. The history of Black struggle is not the sanitised version we get every Black history month, where everyone got a long and were part of the same movement. There have be major disagreements throughout our struggles; just listen to what Malcolm had to say about Martin. We should embrace these debates and discussions.
To reply to some of the criticism over my article on the Beyonce issue there are a few points to make:
This was not a subversive political act, which meant she risked being rejected by her label and sponsors. Everything from the outfits, to the X tribute were all given the green light by the network. It was even connected to the launch of her new song and music video. This is not Tommie Smith and John Carlos and the 1968 Olympics in an act of protest that cost them their careers.
It is not anti-women to point out that for Black women to gain space on mainstream platforms they have to perform in oversexualised ways. It is a strange kind of choice, when it is the only option for mainstream success. This is also not about policing the sexuality of Black women. I have previously made the same argument for how Black men have to present in hyper masculine, Thugified ways to get airtime (From the Bad Nigger to Good Nigga). If L’il Wayne had the audacity to do a tribute to Malcolm X on any stage, I wouldn’t have even bothered sending the piece to a mainstream news source because there is no chance would be able to print the severity of my words.
The truth is that Beyonce and other mainstream artists are following a trope of Black female representation that is well worn and goes back to the abuse of Sarah Baartman (or Hottentot Venus). In fact, the idea of the hyper sexual Black Panther woman has been around since the 70s and a major feature of the Blaxploitation genre (shout out to Foxxy Cleopatra). In a way, Beyonce’s tribute to the Panthers is the ONLY form a tribute to the organisation could take in the mainstream, as it disempowered the political impact by being presented in a comforting package for white America.
In the response to the article there was a repeated comparison to Aretha Franklin’s support for Angela Davis, and Beyonce’s for #BlackLivesMatter, but the two are incomparable. The Black Panthers were a revolutionary organisation, deemed to be terrorists and labelled ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States’, by J Edgar Hoover, who was at the time the head of the FBI. Angela Davis was the most wanted woman in the country when she was captured and it is not an exaggeration to say that Aretha Franklin’s public support for her could have cost her career and even her liberty. On top of this Aretha was not the global icon that Beyonce is, back in 1970 and had a lot on the line. Beyonce and Jay-Z have a net worth of $1billion, if they never make another penny again they will still be independently wealthy for eternity. It’s not brave to make a stand when you have nothing to really lose.
The final point I will make is that I am aware that Beyonce and Jay-Z have given a lot of money to noble causes. However, we should not confuse philanthropy with activism. If you make your money from going along with a system that oppresses Black people, then you may still be criticised when you give some of it back. The best thing about Beyonce’s performance is that it has brought the Black Panthers and radical politics back into the discussion. It is essential that we reengage with this politics, which is anti-capitalist, anti-mainstream recognition and wants to transform the social and economic system that oppresses Black communities. If we do this however, we’ll find a politics that has little room for the career of Beyonce so far or her symbolic gesture at the Superbowl.
We will be hosting a discussion Sistas in the Struggle: The Radical Feminism of the Black Panther Party on Thursday March 10th 6.30 at Birmingham City University.