I can already feel the Beyhive swarming, but I had to do it.
Over the past week, the world has been going crazy over the surprise release of Beyonce’s new self-titled album. So far, the album has been praised for its vulnerability, feminist manifestos, and the boss-like way that it was dropped without the aid of typical modes of artist promotion like radio, singles, interviews, etc.
Let me first say that I too admired and respected Bey’s strategy and business savvy in choosing to release the album on her own terms and in her own way. It was genius and I have no idea how she did it (in secret, no less) while being in the midst of a world tour. It is a great testament to the level that she has reached in her career. She needs no external promotion because we (myself included now, with this blog post) are her promotion. She did something that independent artists have been doing for years and she is fortunate enough to have a loyal enough base around her that it worked out to the umpteenth power.
But to me, the fact that she has reached a level in her career where she can literally say, “jump” and hundreds of millions of people worldwide will say, “how high King Bey, and where would you like me to land?” is not a testament to some other-worldly awesomeness or musical/performance superiority. Instead, it has me wondering, what else can she do with this level of influence?
Now I know you’re thinking, “what do you mean what else?! She’s married to a fellow #BOSS, has a beautiful little girl, loyal friends, a wildly successful world tour, and a fit figure. What else do you want the woman to do?” Well, I want her to be ABOUT something.
The other day, I went to watch a screening of an amazing documentary called The Trials of Muhammad Ali. The documentary focused heavily on Ali’s decision to refuse to serve in the Vietnam War. In making such a decision, he was stripped of his heavy weight title, lost millions of dollars, was not allowed to box, and faced five years in prison in a case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States and made a statement about religious and political freedom. And as I sat there and watched it, I could not help but to think, ” What happened to celebrities (particularly African American ones) who used to stand for something?”
Granted, Ali was not known for his modesty (he was proud and confident in a time when it wasn’t okay for black people to be that way). Still, what happened to people who did more than sing and rap about how much they’ve accomplished and how great they are, but who actually spoke up and defended causes? This is exactly what Harry Belafonte was trying to say with his comments about Jay-Z last year. In response, proving that they entirely missed the point, the Carters contended that they do a lot for charity and support many causes financially. Except no one was questioning their ability to open their wallets. We were questioning their ability to stand, to speak, and to actually say something (worthwhile, that is).
And yes, Kudos to them for following in Solange’s footsteps and showing up to the Trayvon Martin rally, but that’s not enough. If Beyonce can sell tens of thousands of records in a matter of hours or days with no advance notice, imagine what would happen if she mobilized for a cause beyond her own record sales? Or even if she smacked her husband upside the head for not wanting to make “snap judgments” about the situation at Barney’s instead of calling a spade a spade (as he’s done in the past with Cristal, before his money level changed exponentially anyway.)
As for the debate about her feminism or lack thereof, Beyonce is not a feminist. That opinion has nothing to do with black versus white versions of feminism or opinions about modern sexuality. Aside from all the lyrical contradictions in her music (because we all contradict ourselves) in my opinion, Beyonce cannot be a feminist because feminism is a political term that requires action and engagement (not simply the quoting of feminist scholars). Yes, she is a wife, mother, and businesswoman who inspires even me with the notion that I can “have it all,” but again, that’s not enough.
Do I want her to run for political office? No. Do I want her to sing a song about freedom from political oppression? If she wants to, although I’m not sure what amount of concrete good it will do. I want her to use the King Bey worship that she elicits from so many for the benefit of the greater good. How? I don’t know, but I’d like to see an effort. George Clooney does it. John Legend does it. Alicia Keys does it. Bey can too. I want her to pick a cause, educate herself about it, get people to pay attention to it, and to act on it. And to all the people who are screaming through their computers at me that she does, if I don’t know about it, that’s proof that she hasn’t promoted that cause nearly as well as she’s promoted her surprise album.
Yes, this stirs up the age old question of what, if any, responsibility celebrities owe to society. Obviously, my answer is that they owe everything to society. Yes, they are role models. Beyonce didn’t drop her album without promotion. WE are her promotion. We are the ones who allow her to live the powerful and extravagant life that she lives. So, if we’re going to follow her, then she, and every other celebrity, has a responsibility to actually lead us somewhere.