The Berkeley Beyhive: Interpreting Beyonce

Weekender Ericka
Willow Yang/Senior Staff

According to Beyoncé, I slay. This was a much-needed reminder, courtesy of her performance of “Formation” at Levi’s Stadium in her September Santa Clara stop of “The Formation World Tour.”

A tumultuous start to the semester had left me feeling disoriented and a bit reckless. But rocking my metaphorical Givenchy dress, I let this recklessness talk me into indulging in a ticket five days before the concert. The impulsiveness of my purchase instilled in me a giddy glee that propelled each of my steps into Levi’s Stadium. This fairly unstable joy was replaced by the weight of a more substantial confidence when Queen Bey said to the audience, “If you are proud of who you are and where you come from, say, ‘I slay.’” I complied with a screeching affirmation of my own slayage and found myself believing it for the first time in weeks.

I call this phenomenon “confidence by proxy,” in which a badass has such an abundance of confidence that it spills over to settle onto anyone who allows it. And Beyoncé is more than qualified to be dubbed such a badass — she embodies sexiness, femininity, motherhood and Black pride as a pop culture icon, and she finally brings to the public eye a discourse that has long been contemplated in the relatively inaccessible circles of academia and social activism.

Of course, Beyoncé didn’t reach such a status and accomplish so much overnight. Over the course of an almost 20-year career, Beyoncé has gone from the girl who sang “Baby Boy” — a two-dimensional ballad expressing her sexual desires for a particular man, which is feminist in its own right — to the woman who brought us “Formation,” a more nuanced song that highlights not only her sexuality but also her power and success. Her most recent album Lemonade is a testament to the socially conscious woman into which she has blossomed. This development is in and of itself an important aspect of Beyoncé and the effect she has on people.

“The most important part of Black feminism is (the evolution) of our understanding of the world,” said UC Berkeley senior Kerby Lynch. Lynch identifies as a “Black lesbian gender non-conforming voodoo priestess” and is an African American studies major. Lynch said they are interested in Beyoncé because they grew up with her music, and they are keen on exploring Blackness through cultural studies.

One key aspect of Beyoncé’s personage, however, that has remained constant in her evolution is her shameless sense of sexuality. Whether she’s wearing the sequined crop tops and low-waisted jeans that defined sexiness in the early 2000s or the tight bodysuits that she favors these days, Beyoncé unapologetically puts her body on display.

Lynch pointed out the song “Partition” in particular as a work that is important for defying the long-standing objectification of Black female bodies. Beyoncé emanates sexuality, with the French portion of the song directly translating into, “Men think that feminists hate sex, / But it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love.” Meanwhile, the accompanying music video shows the silhouette of Beyoncé performing what can only be described as sexy acrobatics on a chair. In doing so, she subverts white patriarchal attempts to control her body.

I complied with a screeching affirmation of my own slayage and found myself believing it for the first time in weeks.

According to Lynch, “sexual agency” is the “root of Black feminism,” and in this way, Beyoncé has always been a Black feminist. Lemonade is her tour de force, a bold exhibition of Black feminism.

As an Asian American woman, then, I began to wonder what to make of my going to her concert and drawing confidence from her by proxy. I feel the empowerment that Beyoncé seems to be looking to convey in all of her songs, but maybe I’m just overstepping my boundaries and appropriating a culture that’s not mine. I don’t entirely understand what the lyrics to “Formation” mean, but I still sing along (omitting any words that I definitively know aren’t my place to say), feeling my teeth clench and the left side of my upper lip curl up in an involuntary sneer directed at all my haters. Am I allowed to have such a reaction when I’m not the Black woman that Beyoncé encapsulates in her works?

When I expressed these sentiments to Lynch, they said, “If you resonate with Beyoncé’s message, you are a Black feminist and you should join the cause.”

There are certain areas of Black feminism that I know I could never understand and shouldn’t impede upon, but Black feminism as a whole is meant to empower everyone and, as Lynch noted, encourages constructive comments from all groups. And Beyoncé is emblematic of this welcoming nature.

“Beyoncé has cultural capital because of the relevancy she holds across many groups,” Lynch said.

Sukhraj Bassi, a campus senior majoring in psychology and social welfare, expressed admiration for Beyoncé as both a role model and artist. His interest in Beyoncé stems back to her Destiny’s Child days.

Bassi, who identifies as a Punjabi and Sikh male, said Beyoncé became a strong female role model for him.

“My relationship with women changed and I saw them as strong people rather than (as) the hetero-patriarchy does, (which is to say), as objects,” Bassi said.

Lemonade further strengthens her status as a role model for Bassi.

“It’s so rooted in reclaiming her Black identity that I can parallel that claim to my own identity,” Bassi said.

He also mentioned his appreciation for her “flawless vocals” and rich performances, the latter of which he especially admires as a dancer himself.

“I can still incorporate who I am into my artistic endeavors and my life, and I can build something out of my identity that means something,” Bassi said.

That being said, not all media attention has been as keen on her as that of Lynch, Bassi and myself.

Yvonne Dorantes, a UC Berkeley junior who studies political science and lives in the Cloyne Court co-op, raised issues with the seemingly contradictory nature of the messages that Beyoncé conveys in different songs. Dorantes identifies as female and Chicana. She pointed out that while Beyoncé extols feminism in “Flawless” from her earlier self-titled album and includes a definition of the word that emphasizes equality, the lyrics in “Formation” seem to go against this definition. Specifically, Dorantes found issues with the line, “I’m so possessive, so I rock his Roc necklaces.”

“I don’t think being a feminist should strive toward possessiveness,” Dorantes said.

Dorantes also noted how although Beyoncé acts as a beacon for many marginalized people, she doesn’t directly use her work as an artist to actually bring attention to them.

“I don’t see her using her fame to reach out to her fans to promote awareness for the LGBT community,” Dorantes said.

“My relationship with women changed and I saw them as strong people rather than (as) the hetero-patriarchy does, (which is to say), as objects,” Bassi said.

That isn’t to say that Dorantes doesn’t acknowledge the importance of Beyoncé in our culture. It’s precisely because of her role as a leader that Dorantes holds her to such high standards.

“I don’t see any humbleness throughout her songs,” Dorantes said. “I think humility is important for me in any position of leadership, power or fame.”

There is also the issue of “colorism politics,” Lynch said. “What does it mean for Beyoncé to (have) a lighter complexion and (be) the head of Black feminism?”

Lynch explained that this question represents a tension in Black feminism, in which someone like Beyoncé — who is of lighter complexion — has the privilege and power to choose how to represent herself, unlike Grace Jones, a famous Jamaican singer-songwriter and model who has a darker complexion.

Another common accusation made against Beyoncé is that she’s something of a sell-out. Her immense popularity and wealth seem to portray her as someone who has conceded to and become part of the dominant, capitalist system that has always benefited white males. Take, for instance, her much-hyped performance at the Super Bowl in 2016. Football is a traditional American sport, so eyebrows could certainly fly up at her decision to participate in this pinnacle of Americana when considering the racially charged history and present of this country.

Yet it was at this very event that she first performed “Formation,” that contemporary anthem of Blackness in America. There is a subversive element in her choice to showcase a song full of references that white America could never even begin to understand.

“She is part of the white supremacist matrix, but it’s up to us as people who listen to her music to see what she’s trying to do,” Lynch said.

These issues should not be seen as detracting from the significance of Beyoncé as an icon of our generation. Rather, these points of contention prove that, despite her public image and her fans’ near idolization of her, she is only human. And these examples of her humanity are essential to Black feminism.

To see her as a goddess would be a subscription to the unfair idea of Black women as superhumans, which extends back to the days of slavery. According to Lynch, Black women were expected to perform labors in both the field and the house and were consequently seen as “indestructible.” To expect Beyoncé to be perfect would be an extension of this concept.

“This is the Black continuum of slavery and slave notions, and people will try to deny it over and over again, but this is the reality,” Lynch said.

Undeniably, Beyoncé is an important symbol for our generation, but we can’t take her importance for granted. Being part of the Beyhive means finding the balance between revering her and not relegating her to the status of a mere symbol.

Contact Ericka Shin at [email protected]