Beyoncé’s SUPERPOWER as a Love Letter to Black Radical Insurgency

A still from Beyonce’s Superpower video via. Entretenimento

By Guest Contributor M. Shadee Malaklou, cross- posted from JesusFuckingChristBlog

In her December 13th article for The Raw Story, A Plea: Remember Beyonce’s Record Is Art, Not A Political Treatise”, freelance journalist Amanda Marcotte — who writes on feminism, national politics, and pop culture — tackles the accusation that Beyoncé’s album is “anti-feminist” (referencing reactions to lyrics like “bow down, bitches”) by reminding us that Beyoncé has produced for us a work of art, not one of politics. …Because if we look closely, her politics are flawed, or so the argument goes. Marcotte faults Beyoncé for “reinforc[ing] the same beauty standards she decries on the records”, but ultimately concludes that Beyoncé is still a feminist because, you know, feminism is messy. Marcotte ends the piece in (what she claims is) a “plea” that not only fails to understand Beyoncé’s feminism, but also functions to silence the Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work:

I want to remind everyone that music is not a polemical or a campaign pamphlet. Music is art. Art can—should—be messy, contradictory, raw, and emotional. I love that Beyonce openly struggles in her music and in her image between the push-pull of both wanting to embody this kind of feminized perfection and seeing it for the trap that it is. It’s much more honest and human and humane than some kind of bland feminist treatise set to a beat. Beauty is a painful trap to ensnare women, but beauty is also pleasure and it draws you in. Denying these contradictions and presenting ourselves as people who have it all figured out all the time is tempting, but it’s not honest. And it’s certainly not art, which is supposed to reveal, not conceal. Just a small plea from me to remember that we’re talking about an art form, not a political treatise, as we tear into the lyrics, beats, and imagery that Beyoncé just turbo-launched into the public.

In one short paragraph, Marcotte manages to remind us why white feminism fails (still) to address the experiences of Black women as women; and in the same stroke, disaffects us — as a viewing public — from our identification(s) with Beyoncé as a woman of color. As an ideology, (white) feminism demands that women identify (and rally) as women first, and as bodies of color second, or better yet, last. Marcotte forecloses on the overdeterminacy of Blackness in an anti-Black world, and underestimates Beyoncé’s commitment to (what I am going to suggest here is) an insurgent, Black political future.

Beyoncé’s Black radical politics are perhaps best expressed in SUPERPOWERthe music video for a song she sings with Frank Ocean.In it, Beyoncé leads a diverse band of fearless, violent women — veiled women, Black women, as well as several women who present as gender ambiguous or trans — to commit acts of arson and property damage. The women are joined by their male comrades and a cadre of Black musicians — Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, Luke James, and Pharrell — and together they march to meet the swat team that awaits them. The affect produced by the video is telling: the men and women who make up the crowd are wearing baseball caps that read “LEGAL” and (in graffiti) “CHAOS”. The beautifully-produced music video is cut with grainy black-and-white camera footage invoking first-hand accounts of a street riot. And the closing scene is haunted by Beyoncé’s lyrical reassurance that, if they stand together, “they [the state] can’t break us down”; as well as an insurgent appropriation of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes, we can!”. Hers is a call for global insurrection on all fronts; and better yet, a violent insurrection with Black musicians at the helm.

Marcotte is wrong to dismiss the politics of Beyoncé’s music, because it is precisely the political nature of Beyoncé’s art that makes her Black feminism unintelligible to a white audience in the first place. To quote the folks over at The Crunk Feminist Collective,

Academic feminism ain’t the only kid on the block. …Newsflash – everybody didn’t go to college. So when women of color start waxing eloquent about how our grandmothers and mothers were the first feminists we knew and many of them would “never” use the term, I wonder then why we don’t understand Beyonce’s homegrown brand of feminism – one that honors female friendships, one that recognizes and calls out sexism and domination in her industry, one that celebrates the power of women. No, it ain’t well-articulated radical social justice feminism, but if you need a Ph.D. to be a feminist, then we’ve got bigger problems, folks. AND I’ll take a feminist that knows how to treat her homegirls before one who can spit the finer points of a bell hooks to me all day erry-day.

The differences between “white” (or academic) feminism and “black” (or homegrown) feminism matter: Beyoncé’s politics entertain the dream of a Black insurgency that might change everyone’s lived conditions; while white feminists are (usually) only interested in agitating for issues that affect them directly. The concerns of mainstream white feminism fail (still) to address the fact that Black women are being gratuitously killed by the state. Or that they are being criminalized, imprisoned, and forcefully separated from their children. Or that their children are being stopped, frisked, and interrogated like criminals and, if need be (or the wind blows in the right direction) shot and killed with impunity. Or that Black women and their families are being starved out by the War on Poverty and the newest bout of rants in Washington about ‘freeloading’ Black welfare queens. Or that Black lives were never worth a damn in the first place.

Beyoncé’s insurgent aesthetics map seamlessly onto the otherwise-soulful, romantic lyrics she offers, suggesting that the music video is intended as a love letter to Black radical insurgency. This metaphor is reinforced by Beyoncé’s love interest in the video — a masked freedom fighter — who she shields from violence with her embrace, but whose face and identity are never revealed.

And I thought the world would move on
I thought the world would move on
Without us, without us, without us
But nothing I know could slow us down
Couldn’t tow us down

…And just like you I can’t be scared; just like you I hope I’m spared. But it’s tough love, I know you feel it in the air; even the babies know it’s there. Tough love. Super power. The laws of the world tell us what goes sky, and what falls; it’s a super power. Super power. The laws of the world never stopped us once, cause together we got plenty super power.

Super power
A subtle power
Super power
A tough love
Super power
Like a shark
Super power
Like a bear
A tough love

Beyoncé’s music is a political treatise, just not one that Marcotte can understand. The music video for SUPERPOWER concludes with the insurgent rebels lunging at the swat team in what I can only describe as a righteous display of civil disobedience, only to stop dead in their tracks seconds before impact. The video abruptly ends there, before the moment of confrontation between the state and the bodies it has abandoned; leaving us to wonder what will transpire when the mass of bodies Beyoncé has collected actually meet the ruling fist of the state. But perhaps that’s exactly the point: to prod us into thinking about the impossible possibility of a radical confrontation between the state and its people; one in which the odds are always stacked against us, but we persist anyway. (It really is a tough love.) The “occult” nature of this ending refuses to provide closure to the story of a revolutionary violence that, to borrow from Frantz Fanon, is also a cleansing and a transformative violence; one that will even out the score of anti-Black racism to guarantee Black privilege in an anti-White world.

I have a “plea” for Ms. Marcotte that might rival her own:  Beyoncé is not a confused young woman struggling with body and self-image issues that she is working through in her music. She does not need your guidance or patronage in her efforts to come into her own. She’s already IN her own, and perhaps it’s time to entertain the idea that her arrival is what scares you, because — as Beyoncé made clear by the “secret” release of her new album — you can’t anticipate it.

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  • Niecy Taylor

    Whose role is it to define Beyoncé as a feminist? Her? Who is writing these songs? Her. The unsettling part about both sides of this argument is that Beyoncé is like a shell with a major machine behind her. Who knows whose views these really are coming through her art. I have a strong suspicion they aren’t hers.

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      @niecy taylor:

      Why wouldn’t they be her own views? Beyonce has been writing or co-writing songs for over a decade now—she’s clearly nobody’s mouthpiece, and she’s obviously worked out a balance bwt maintaining her stardom and using that to articulate her feminist views in a non-threatening way.

      And I’ve never liked how it’s always assumed that a female artist is just some puppet being led around by the nose,as if she can’t think for herself—-that’s never assumed to be the case with male artists. I like the fact that more and more female artists (especially in the pop scene) are taking charge of and gaining way more autonomy/control over their own careers—that’s been becoming the norm for years now. And in her Vanity Fair interview,she did talk briefly about how women are expected to look,do and be in the music industry, and the sexism within it—so she’s clearly aware of all that. That said, I still think it’s smooth how she snuck up and just dropped her new album out of nowhere—talk about a power move—big props to her for that.

  • Amanda Lynn Larson

    There’s nothing ‘feminist’ in obsessively critiquing Beyonce’s every movement and holding her to standards that you can’t meet and (95% of the time) have a successful career in music as a woman. Adele is an exception, but just that- an exception and I’m sure being white was part of that. That so many white feminists feel the need and think they have right to define whether she is feminist says more about their privilege than Beyonce. Critiquing the Anne Mae verse or the industry can be done without tearing Beyonce down and should be.

    There’s so many real issues and singers that are actually endorsing violence against women and other problematic things, why on earth are people still doing this with Beyonce? Marcotte’s not one to deal with racial issues anyway, as she tried to the defend the Onion’s Quvenzhane Wallis’ tweet as humor.

  • Colette

    I’m sorry, homegrown=black, white=academic? The comment below already set it up but that whole idea is beyond an oversimplification. It borders on white AND black racism. So black people have “real knowledge”: earthy, experiential and down home (of the body) and white people are intellectual fakes, base their feminism on hypotheticals and have no real knowledge because they rely on western/white philosophies (of the mind)? Seriously!? This is were we’ve…..umm…advanced to?! It basically states that black women are better and white women are less than. I know this wasn’t stated outright but that whole academic/homegrown framework implies some pretty troubled notions of blackness and whiteness.

    Not to mention that we are talking about BEYONCE of pop music, very carefully cultivated and created for and sold to the lowest common denominator (lets be real). Not to mention that you have to search for “feminist” statements and parse out nearly everything else. If you have to try this hard, its NOT feminism! Take it with a grain of salt, indeed.

  • TS

    My main problem with seeing Beyoncé as Black Feminist is that she still reinforces Eurocentric norms of beauty – her L’Oreal advertisement. She certainly won’t sing about colorism issues that affect Black Women – being that she benefits from that. On the other hand, I see her lyrics as emphasizing the sexual freedom of women in general. In general, I think the reception – by feminists (black, white, etc.) or discussions about feminism – make her album political more so than her. Overall, I can see the point some have made about political aspects of Beyoncé’s new album – but she needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

  • jen*

    I haven’t taken the time to watch all of the videos yet, and this makes me very excited to watch “Superpower”. But I have a small quibble with the reading of the divergence in feminism as academic=white and “homegrown”=black. I don’t think those lines are so cut and dried. It seems apparent that there is racial division within academic feminism. “Homegrown” feminism being what it is, I imagine it is more personal and less definable as one thing. My feminism is of the “homegrown” variety, my sister’s is academic, and we both find messages of solidarity and those we disagree with in Beyonce’s choices.

    One thing I wholeheartedly agree with, Beyonce knows what she is doing. She is not playing, and she has the platform to reflect on ideas that don’t get much attention in the mainstream (or whatever she wants – she is a grown woman). Marcotte’s “plea” comes off as an apology for Beyonce – “don’t judge her too hard – she’s an artist! she’s just being controversial and messy”. That is what irks me. Fierce shouldn’t (doesn’t need to) apologize for being herself . And if the personal is political, then Beyonce (the album) is both.