On Saturday night, Beyoncé made history as the first black woman to headline Coachella, a year after her original performance was postponed due to her pregnancy with twins. Fans were quick to dub the massive concert series “Beychella,” and it’s hard to argue with them. As New York Times music reviewer Jon Caramanica declared, “there’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year or any year soon.”
Although the nearly two-hour long performance was notable for its many surprises, Beyoncé’s show was about much more than her reunion with Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland of former girl group Destiny’s Child or her duet with rapper husband Jay-Z, as a number of publications have highlighted. It certainly cemented her place in music history, but what was most notable was the way it was unabashedly an homage to both her own roots and the influence of the black South on American pop culture. This was black excellence at its most beautiful and most bold, performed for the world to see in front of an audience that is known both for its cultural cachet and its racial ignorance.
This was black excellence at its most beautiful and most bold, performed for the world to see in front of an audience that is known both for its cultural cachet and its occasional racial ignorance.
Staged with all the pageantry and glorious excess of the homecoming half-time shows intimately familiar to black Southerners and generations of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) alums, Beyoncé took the stage in royal attire worthy of this post-“Black Panther” moment. With a dazzling black crown punctuated by pops of gold and backed by a full marching band, dancers and more, the grandeur made a statement, especially at a festival filled with performances marked by minimal staging.
But again, this wasn’t spectacle for the sake of spectacle, something reviewers lacking a comprehensive understanding of Beyoncé’s career and background seem to have misunderstood. Using the marching band’s drum majors, dancers and regal pageantry as her anchor, Beyoncé laid bare her black Southern cultural pedigree. Hits like “Crazy in Love,” “Formation” and “Say My Name” (with her Destiny’s Child bandmates) were interspersed with mashups from the band, which seamlessly weaved in references to Southern pioneer Master P’s “No Limit” catalogue and other influential Southern rap, including her native Texas’s chopped and screwed sound.
This is a woman whose black Southern DNA runs super deep. Her father, as she boasted in “Formation,” is from Alabama and her mother's family hails from Louisiana. Beyoncé herself is a Texan, born and raised. Mathew Knowles, her longtime former manager, graduated from Nashville’s Fisk University, the home of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, early pioneers for spreading black music globally. Such authenticity was also reflected in those on the stage with her: The marching band members hailed from such revered programs as Florida A&M, Prairie View A&M University, North Carolina A&T, Tennessee State University and Alabama State University and were directed by the legendary Don P. Roberts.
Beyoncé could have stopped there and her performance would have still been legendary. But showing the influence of black Southern artists on hip-hop and contemporary pop music wasn’t enough — this was a concert about the black cultural influence writ large. Echoing the struggles of the civil rights era, Beyoncé sang verses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem, which has was a staple of black gatherings throughout the 20th century. Her dance-off with sister Solange — which included the childhood game patty cake — suggested how subtle early cultural transmission can be.
To highlight the black Greek experience, Beyoncé even created her very own Beta Delta Kappa, complete with a custom coat of arms, to showcase probate and step shows like those Spike Lee widely spotlighted in “School Daze” 30 years ago.
Showing the influence of black Southern artists on hip-hop and contemporary pop music wasn’t enough — this was a concert about the black cultural influence writ large.
Other black cultural touchstones included references to Nina Simone (who was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same night), a sample of a Malcolm X speech declaring that “the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman” and a performance of her 2013 hit “Flawless” featuring the voice of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. Additional nods to the African Diaspora included the sounds of Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti and reggae.
For so long the price of black superstardom has come with a certain “colorlessness” and “universal appeal,” effectively deemphasizing the artist’s black identity. Michael Jackson easily comes to mind. And a few years ago, Beyoncé appeared to be following a similar script. But, with her “Formation” video and Super Bowl 50 performance paying tribute to the Black Panther Party’s female leadership two years ago, she has made a defiant turn towards her black identity.
In an era where casually dressed professional black men are still being arrested for sitting quietly in a Starbucks, Beyoncé’s decision to embrace and celebrate that black identity is more powerful than ever. She has simultaneously affirmed her “Wakanda Forever” solidarity while challenging her legions of non-black fans to accept all of what she represents.
In an era where casually dressed professional black men are still being arrested for sitting quietly in a Starbucks, Beyoncé’s decision to embrace and celebrate that black identity is more powerful than ever.
Beyoncé has dominated the urban and pop music scenes for more than a decade now. With Beychella, she left few doubts that she has earned her place alongside the all-time greats, especially Michael Jackson and James Brown. Like them, she has built upon the black cultural tradition in powerful ways, creating new music that never forgets where it comes from.
Still a few years shy of 40, Beyoncé has grown increasingly fearless with no signs of slowing down. The more she faces off against patriarchy, white supremacy and misogynoir, her voice and message has become louder and more inescapable than ever. The mother of three is determined to do more than her part to make this world a better place and is challenging all of us to get in “formation.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer and cultural critic. Her work has appeared on The Root, NBC BLK and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.