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Honey and Haterade: for Obama’s Beyhive

 

This summer, Avidly is periodically shifting to a mode better described as Rabidly. This series is curated by Brian Connolly and Lara Langer Cohen, who describe their philosophy of rabidity here.

Can’t I criticize what I love?Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

    1. At Last

In 2009, after Beyoncé performed Etta James’s signature tune at the Inaugural Ball, the late soul singer tossed an ice-cold bucket of Haterade™ on the President and the younger diva. Introducing “At Last,” at a concert, James declared, “he ain’t my president. He might be yours; he ain’t my president. But I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song—she’s going to get her ass whupped.” While it would be easy to dismiss James’s words as the rant of an eclipsed star, it’s important to remember that she was onstage, inhabiting her persona of rough and tumble blues woman. But beyond questions about whether James was sincere or kidding, jealous or justified, her comments draw attention to Obama’s strategy of substituting Beyoncé for James and—at his second inauguration—for Aretha Franklin. What does it mean that, in the words of the song, “At Last,” Beyoncé “has come along” for Barack Obama?

Until very recently, Obama’s political promise to the nation has been a sunny reprieve from an unpleasant reckoning with the persistence of racial inequality. Pairing with Beyoncé allowed Obama to perform the arrival of a post-racial era. These events offered a respectful nod to Aretha Franklin and Etta James—so associated with the politics of civil rights and Black Power—then ushered them offstage as a symbolic farewell to Jesse Jackson (who appeared on Aretha’s 1987 gospel album at the height of his own political career) and, with him, to “old” black politics.

But the crucial substitution is not that of Beyoncé for Etta or Ree but, rather, the Beyhive for the constituency. I have come to suspect that part of the alliance between President and pop star is a request that black voters adopt the increasingly unreciprocal relationship to their highest elected representative that fans have with Beyoncé.

 

    2. Protecting the Brand

If Beyoncé can appeal to people of varying ages, sexes, genders, and ethnicities with one gesture—the side view of her sculpted behind—then no profit-minded corporate board is going to object. But, when these virtual consumers, downloading music in isolation, actually show up in the same space and someone insists a transwoman should not be in the women’s restroom… or a white fan can’t resist grabbing a black fan’s hair or behind (just to see if they’re actually as different as legend has it)… or a male fan challenges a butch lesbian with a femme that he thinks should be his alone—when a decision must be made, which fan base will Beyoncé risk losing?

So far, the answer seems to be: none. Beyoncé (like any other number of stars) has been circumspect so as not to limit the wide appeal of her brand. For example, she and Jay-Z showed up to a rally on behalf of Trayvon Martin’s family in July of 2013, yet they did not grant interviews and sidestepped requests not to perform in Florida while the Stand Your Ground law remains in force there. Many black stars at the height of their fame have performed, or refused to do so, as a form of protest. Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, and Harry Belafonte, to name a few. The excuse of “new tactics for a new generation” rings hollow to me, because Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, and other performers of the Carters’ generation have been far more principled with far less of an economic cushion.

While Beyoncé’s feminism and anti-racism cannot interfere with sales, Obama’s anti-racism (in particular) cannot be seen to interfere with electability or, indeed, with his legacy.[1] Of course, Obama’s unresponsiveness is much more troubling, because we are supposed to be constituents and not just fans.

His campaign against being seen as the President of Black America has led him to speak of racial inequality less often than any President since 1961. Instead, he and the First Lady balance pro forma acknowledgments of pre-existing racial barriers with admonishments for audiences in black churches and at Historically Black Colleges to stop making excuses and take responsibility.[2]  While claiming to help bring about the country that Dr. King envisioned, the Obamas ignore that King flatly rejected the idea that black people possess a pathological culture, stating unequivocally that conservatives “exaggerate” the amount of “crime in the streets” in order to distract from the “towering presence of discrimination and segregation.”

If second-term Presidents and artists as established and well-paid as Beyoncé are loathe to take a risk—as few had before the grand jury non-indictments of Ferguson and Staten Island—then the political/artistic movement that cleared the space for their lives and mine seems to be if not dead then certainly in danger of fading. I fear that a relationship based on a collective movement of individuals is being replaced by a politics in which the only way we can hope for any relief is by pretending to be the star we gaze upon so fervently. I know that Divas Need Love, but what about regular people?

 

    3. We Are the Ones She’s Been Waiting For

beyConsider the “Pretty Hurts” video, in which Beyoncé is marked up by a plastic surgeon, loses a beauty pageant, and goes on a destructive tear to protest the physical and emotional scars the male-run beauty industry inflicts. There’s no doubt that the beauty industry has harmed women physically and psychologically, or that Beyoncé’s rebellion serves as a much-needed catharsis. But why is Beyoncé, who has won life’s beauty pageant, positioned as the loser in the video, the one to feel sorry for? Where are we in this picture, fans who are far more victimized by the beauty industry or, at least, receive far less than Beyoncé gets for what we pay into it?

bey2There were other ways for the relationship of fan to diva to play out. Remember the videos for Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and TLC’s “Unpretty,” in which the stars serve as sort of guardian angels, crying for surrogate fans’ pain and cradling us, like the Madonna.[3] There is no such reciprocity in the “Pretty Hurts” universe. Instead, we are the ones she’s been waiting for. And that emotional dynamic extends into the economic: we have not only three hundred dollars a ticket to see Mr. and Mrs. Knowles’s “On the Run” tour but also an endless store of sympathy for the costs she bears.

 

    4. POTUS Hurts

The dynamic of “Pretty Hurts” pervades Obama’s appeal to black Americans. Recall the 2012 re-election campaign. Rather than demonstrating his record of delivering on matters of urgency to black Americans, he asked on posters that had high circulation in black neighborhoods: Do you have the President’s back?

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The second image, of the President’s exposed back reminds us that POTUS Hurts; he is, undoubtedly, a target of racism. Yet, he still has more protection than do his black constituents, who are being gunned down by police and vigilantes without the shield provided by an imperfect Secret Service. While we have had his back—funding, voting, celebrating, defending—black employment, wealth, and health remain factors behind those of comparable white populations. This is not to mention the persistence of housing segregation, police brutality, and a school-to-prison pipeline. The hope that if we had his back, he would have ours, has not been satisfied. After all, the President has long stated that he would not pursue policies to help black Americans but, rather, all Americans. The statement has a lofty, impartial ring, but the point and effect of forces like racism is to distribute profits, pleasure, and protection unevenly. The end result of Obama’s race-blind approach is that if a particular social problem is seen as affecting black Americans (and not all Americans), then that problem simply cannot be addressed.

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But how could any constituency ever be persuaded to accept such ungenerous terms?[4] It seems that, during the centuries in which black people have been excluded from the highest echelons of society and locked into a low economic sector, we developed an even more intimate relationship with stars than the rest of our star-crazed culture. As with all fans, our favorite stars play out our individual pyschodramas in their performances. However, even when they are not performing, black stars lend hope that the cultural and economic barriers poor and discounted black fans face are not impossible to surmount. Obama, it seems, has translated this relationship from the entertainment realm to the political one.

At this point, we need to finally release the cruel fantasy that their victories trickle down or across. The fact that we identify with these success stories does not mean that their success materially manifests in our lives, too. And, in some cases, the return for our love is that the star does not embrace us but denies us—or, worse, stands in for us in a way that further blocks out the specificity of what we, who aren’t elite, need.

 

    5. Innervisions: From Icons to Kinetic Stars

It does seem to me, at least, infinitely more satisfying and more meaningful to be a fan of a star whose goal is not, primarily, the protection of a global brand, but, rather, the transformation of the world we live in. When Beyoncé and Obama fall (as one day, they must), only their statues fall. But when the force of black music and political movement gets co-opted, a whole way of seeing and living gets locked away.

In two interviews that I splice from 1981, Toni Morrison talks about the losses that came with the great victory of black music leaving the community and going global: “There has to be a mode to do what the music did for blacks, what we used to be able to do for each other in private and in that civilization that existed underneath the white civilization….[to communicate and debate] what in fact the dangers are, what are the havens, and what is the shelter.”

Stylistically, we might say that this music is unchanged from Aretha to Beyoncé: call-and-response patterns are still there in a song like “Single Ladies” or in the interplay between the organist and “Rev. President” Obama during the eulogy for pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney. Yet, the question is: what are we being called to? If the answers are coupledom and consumption—absent fundamental recalibrations of our relationships to each other, the goods we produce, and the planet we inhabit—then that call is impoverished.

And that’s why, hater or not, I won’t watch. I didn’t watch Ray or Ali, and I won’t watch the upcoming Nina Simone biopic, because such figures are not, in Jay Z’s words, mere “cultural icons.” An icon is a visual symbol to be looked upon, while those who have propelled black movements have been visionary and kinetic. Their goal has not been to occupy all of our vision but to be mediums that we see and move through toward a higher ground of mutual esteem and care. In exchange for our dollars and our adoration, they have been willing to put their careers and their bodies on the line. Though certainly not without sin, they have been loved not only for having attained money and status in a hostile, anti-black climate, but also for giving something back that could have cost them everything.

When I see this relationship weakened, I feel not hate but loss, a deep sorrow that the crack in the façade of this world, the product of both persistent pounding and clever insinuation, is in danger of being closed off again. When Stevie sang, “the law was never passed/ But somehow all men feel / They’re truly free at last,” I could see that innervision he and the guitarist painted. And I rage against anything trying to cut off its light.

So, when I hate on the mode of fandom we are asked to engage with Beyoncé and Barack, I do so not because of any individual failing on their part but because I fear the larger political projects that produced them are being downsized. In place of the innervision Stevie sang about, we are being asked to aspire only to the mundane: marriage and money. It seems to me that the Beyhive mode of fans’ relations to stars (and constituents’ relations to political representatives) represents the relegation of the massive public movements of the Sixties to the diminished sphere of the private home. One message of such wealthy, telegenic couples as the Obamas and the Carters is: the movement’s over. Just get married, go on tour, and make your money.

Yet, our inner worth and our destiny go beyond the litany of possessions in Beyoncé’s great, grungy hit “Flawless”: my diamond, my rock, my man. In fact, they also go beyond the pride of being able to call Barack Obama my President. After we have borne the weight to uphold these stars and found ourselves in their image, when that enjoyable encounter is over, the questions return: Who am I? What can be done to provide for my flourishing—and yours—so that every person can make their own unique and necessary contribution to the planet? We do not just have to settle for experiencing the joy-by-proxy of participating in stars getting theirs. So, in honor of Etta James, I say: Hive members, let’s dump the whole cooler of Haterade on ’em. And if they don’t like the taste, tell them the honey is reserved for reciprocal relationships.

–Miles P. Grier: isn’t sure whether to fear the NSA or the Beyhive more.


[1] Obama has been bolder in taking specific actions to relieve the discrimination suffered by women and by LGBT people, constituencies that don’t have the political liability of being all-black.

[2] Here’s a challenge: find a white politician suggesting an audience of white churchgoers or college graduates are irresponsible and full of excuses.

[3] Not Madge, the Mother of God.

[4] Ask Grover Norquist or the NRA if they would accept these results from elected representatives.

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