How Beyoncé helped to engage viewers in black musical history during Coachella 2018.
You might be one of the few who will roll your eyes at this, thinking that it’s another fun time gone political or racial, but fact of the matter is, the now legendary Beyoncé performance at Coachella was all deliberately crafted to try to let us in on how amazing the history of black music is.
Writer Tomi Obaro delved deep into the elements that for some, might seem just as a fun theme for young people out in the desert for a good time: ‘Oh, a university theme! Marching bands! Yay! Thanks Beyoncé!’ But no, no, no, no, no. The entire performance was crafted using sound, imagery, and movements that have time and again been told was ratchet, unprofessional, or rebellious; yet appropriated time and again too.
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“Beyoncé sang the first half of “Drunk in Love” on top of the crane, and then, for those of us watching at home, the camera suddenly cut to two people, a man and a woman, onstage. As Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” played, they danced in kinetic motion, clearly trained as modern dancers, their muscles taut in tension and release. Bathed in white spotlight, they rendered the aching melancholy of Simone’s tear-fIlled voice in vivid, compelling physicality. And then, just like that, they were gone. Beyoncé made her way back onto the stage, and the sunflower-colored Beyoncé Delta Kappa marching band reprised the ‘surfboard’ portion of “Drunk in Love” before segueing into the rousing chorus of F.L.Y.’s 2009 single “Swag Surfin’.”
That transition from Nina Simone, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same night, to the silly, jubilant glee of that improbably durable 2009 banger encompasses so much of what Beyoncé set out to do at Coachella,” writes Obaro.
Then there was the use of imagery associated with historically black colleges or universities (HBCU). All of her musicians and background singers sported marching band attire with the initials BΔK, a “fictionalized nod to black Greek organizations,” Obaro points out too the performance wherein in the middle of performing “Sorry,” Beyoncé and a group of female dancers teased a group of black male “pledges” as the audience watched in what seemed like confused silence.
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Obaro said that the HBCU theme was both a homage to an “explicitly black education apparatus that is in many ways under siege while also preparing us for the knowledge she was about to impart: a black music history lesson for the masses.”
There was her a capella rendition of the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” horns playing shortly after her performance of “Deja Vu,” to her cover of Jamaican artist Dawn Penn’s “No No No” and the musical allusions to Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” Obaro writes that Beyoncé’s black music history lesson was “wide-reaching and diasporic.”
Her mom, Tina Knowles Lawson, has admitted in an Instagram post though that she was afraid the use of lesser-known black culture images and sound might alienate the predominantly white audience at Coachella, although she was of course proud of what her daughter wanted to do.
But why bring the discussion on race anyway, you ask?
It is because Coachella is heavily white, and it said so itself. Obaro points to data from a self-reported survey of Coachella in 2013 which revealed that only 4.9% of festivalgoers were black, while Nielsen data revealed that 69.2% of festivalgoers are white, a clear majority.
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This majority, like the minority there, are of course up for a good time; to get drunk or high or both, phones and outfits prepared to the nines, unapologetically shout the n-word along with the black artist they are watching.
Obaro opines that the fact it was the first time in the festival’s history to feature a black person, a black woman at that, as its headliner, points out to the fact.
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This platform must of course, be used to teach, and teach is what Beyoncé did. Because lest we forget, this amazing artist comes from the culture which is continually maligned, harassed, discriminated against, yet copied time and again, and we must never disassociate her from that fact.
“Her Coachella performance, sure to go down as the best in history, was her way of saying to those few brown hands in the audience, and the millions more around the world: I see you. I see you,” said Obaro.