As Beyoncé makes history at Coachella, freelance writer Daniellé Dash explains why every detail of her performance is so vitally important.
On Saturday 14 April 2018, Beyoncé became the first black woman in Coachella’s 19-year history to headline the Californian music festival. The much anticipated performance was streamed live on YouTube, ensuring fans in the BeyHive around the globe were given access to the historic event. Beyoncé was originally due to perform at Coachella last year, but was forced to pull out following the advice of her doctors during her pregnancy with twins Rumi and Sir. Of course, the delay only gave Beyoncé time to further perfect the nearly two-hour long medley of her greatest hits.
Beyoncé took the opportunity to pay tribute to America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), transforming Coachella’s main stage into bleachers during a halftime show and game, and renaming the festival Beychella. Accompanied by a full marching band, including horn, string and drum sections, alongside a dance troupe that even boasted a Nigerian baton twirling majorette, Beyoncé was unambiguous about her commitment to celebrating blackness during what has traditionally been an almost exclusively very white, very male space.
After collaborating with Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s Creative Director, every one of Beyoncé’s five looks was custom made and designed specifically to add greater depth to the black empowerment theme of the performance. Egyptian Queen Nefertiti inspired the opening outfit, composed of an elaborate headdress, body suit and cape, worn by the singer as she strutted down the stage using a bejewelled cane to emphasise her arrival. For the next two hours, those watching her were in her thrall.
Her next outfit was a collegiate-style, embellished yellow hoodie with the letters BAK written boldly across the front. Continuing with her theme of celebrating HBCUs and campus culture, BAK refers to the BeyHive’s very own sorority – Beta Delta Kappa Incorporated. Sororities at HBCUs are part of what’s known as The Divine 9 Black Greek Letter Organisations and have names like the AKAs – Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.- or the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
During the opening numbers, Beyoncé took time out for a charged rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the song that civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People adopted as their official song, which became widely known as the Black National Anthem.
For the next 100 minutes, Beyoncé barely broke a sweat as she powered through outfit changes and a set that reminded the audience, both at the festival and at home, that her body of work stretches back over an impressive two decades. Beyoncé’s performance begs the question of why she is the first black woman, and only the second woman of any race, to headline the popular festival (Bjork headlined the festival in 2002 and 2007).
During the celebrations and outpouring of praise, we must take time to understand that there remains a disparity in the representation of women at the top of music. While many other women, including Madonna, have performed at the festival, it is important to acknowledge that Beyoncé’s identities as both black and female meant it took over a decade for her to grace the stage after the first female headliner.
As The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi explains, “Beyoncé’s Coachella performance wasn’t just pure entertainment. It was a historic cultural moment.”
Beyoncé is clearly the icon of her age, and one who inspires her peers. She even had fellow Grammy Award winner Adele dancing at home along with the rest of the BeyHive. However, it is galling that she had to work this hard to gain a spot alongside her contemporaries, made up of an almost inexhaustible list of men and all-male bands, including Drake, Calvin Harris, Kendrick Lamar, Oasis and Coldplay.
Beyoncé understood she was making history, stopping mid-way through her set to acknowledge the accomplishment by quipping, “ain’t that bout a bitch?” before her all-female band stormed ahead with an experience that was arguably created for the viewers at home. Beyoncé has long understood the power of social media and has marketed herself in a way that promotes inclusivity. Coachella’s predominantly rich, white environment might not have been accessible to the majority of her fan base, so Beyoncé and her team at Parkwood Entertainment worked to build a visually engaging, sonically rich performance that would also benefit those at home.
Christiana Mbwake, a British journalist living in America, was at Coachella and tweeted, “the crazy thing about the Beyoncé show is the crowd had no idea what was going on. All the references went over their heads.” Twitter, however, was alight in a race as to who could be the funniest and decipher the references the quickest.
While not everyone at Coachella understood what was going on, the BeyHive was appreciative of the level of detail that went into every facet of the display. Britni Danielle identified that the crest Beyoncé wore in her fourth outfit was made up of symbols of black power and liberation, including Nefertiti’s bust, a black panther, a Black Power fist and a Bee.
And aside from her personal aesthetic choices made during Beychella, fans noticed that Beyoncé created a space to celebrate black women’s bodies in all shapes and sizes, both in her main troupe and deliberately during the popular Baby Boy/Dutty Wine breakdown.
As one Twitter user wrote, “One of the critiques with Lemonade was that fat black women were not present. The fact Beyoncé has fat black women on stage… is proof that [the] woman listens to her fans. She learns.” It is this ability to take criticism and enact visible, considered changes that sets Beyoncé apart from her peers.
Beyoncé’s politics are deliberate, both on stage and in real life. Together, the Knowles-Carter family donated $1.5million to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016. Malcolm X’s speech Who Taught You To Hate Yourself, about the vital importance of protecting and respecting black women, appeared in the first act of Beychella.
Beyoncé understands, appreciates and celebrates the musical acts that paved the way and came before her. Throughout her set she honoured both Nina Simone and Nigerian legend Fela Kuti. And just when the audience thought it couldn’t get any better, she welcomed her husband and long-time collaborator Jay-Z to the stage. Next, she brought the internet to a complete stop by joining Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland for a Destiny’s Child reunion.
The hope going forward is that Beyoncé’s performance will open doors at Coachella, and other music festivals, for musicians who are not white men. Beyoncé’s performance is proof that they too are empowered to speak directly to their core fans and uplift them through song, dance and entertainment. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk, borrowed by Beyoncé for Flawless, speaks of creating equality between the sexes. That work is nowhere near complete.
Beyoncé brought the world along for a ride that did the very necessary labour of smashing glass ceilings, while also effortlessly proving why she is the one living artist who brings the entire world to a complete standstill.