In the song ‘Formation’ Beyoncé raps: “You know you that bitch when you provoke all this conversation”. The American superstar is not only popular with the general public and the media. It is also a popular topic of conversation in science. Academics use it as a springboard to write about feminism, racism, gender, ethnicity, economics, fashion, music, film, literature, history, and religion. After five previous books (see box), the scientific book will be published this month Beyoncé in the world – Making sense of Queen Bey in troubled times edited by Kristin A. McGee and Christina Baade. McGee is Assistant Professor and Founder of the Popular Music Program of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Groningen.
Why this interest in Beyoncé on the part of science?
“It started in 2013. In the song ‘*** Flawless’, a special place is reserved for a text on black feminism by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Black feminism has been the subject of academic research and avant-garde art, but thanks to Beyoncé, it reached the general public for the first time. And it doesn’t stop there, because with Lemonade in 2016, she produced a visual album of high cinematographic quality. Other visual albums were created, such as Yellow submarine by The Beatles, but Beyoncé takes it more seriously, it’s crammed with references and meets the demands of so-called high art. She collaborates with several renowned artists on Lemonade and make one Gesamtkunstwerk of. A lot came together across Beyoncé over the years: visual culture, social media, Black Lives Matter, and feminism reached mainstream audiences. ”
And who makes Beyoncé more interesting to scientists than Adele or Lady Gaga?
“As far as I’m concerned, there are three main themes in Beyoncé. Integration of feminism, visual culture and discussion of the African diaspora. A chapter in our book deals with the latter subject, such as the importance of Beyoncé to the black population in Brazil, where there is still a lot of racism. You can also see her themes in Janelle Monáe and Lianne La Havas, but Beyoncé is of course more famous.
Read also : Beyoncé’s protest against Trump with babies, poetry and Botticelli
Isn’t science throwing too much on Beyoncé?
“Beyoncé very consciously gives a double message in her art. She chose not to give interviews and to determine her own image. It does not offer simple simple lines, but symbolism in images and texts.
Scientists aren’t entirely positive about Beyoncé. There is debate as to whether this would be liberating or oppressive.
“The criticism is that it goes too far with the demands of the media and of society. May it become a commodity in our neoliberal society. That it is easy for her to speak from a privileged position, that she lightens her hair for a white audience and that she appropriates a certain culture. But if you look at history, you see how black women have always had to sell themselves to get a place in movies or music.
Do you find this liberating or oppressive?
“If I had to take a stand, I would say liberating. She is a woman with so much power who nevertheless remains independent, dares to choose and empower her audience. By collaborating with African musicians and bringing in talented fashion designers, choreographers and directors, she has become a curator who gives others a big stage.
You have previously researched women in jazz and black women’s groups in film. Do you see any parallels between these women and Beyoncé?
“You see how black singers in the first half of the last century adapted their concerts to audiences. For example, in front of a white audience, they had to be hypersexual. We call it adjustment code switching. Beyoncé does this a lot too. In her videos, she shows herself as the male leader, then the sexual woman and when she shows her religious side, she adjusts her voice. We also saw this detachment of an identity with Nina Simone, who wanted to play the piano, but was obliged to sing, so she chose a very low voice. Hazel Scott and Lena Horn vied for not always getting the maid role in the movies. But Hazel Scott’s fight led to her being blacklisted. “
You end the introduction by calling to investigate other black women as well.
“We can also find these subjects in other contemporary artists. Plus, you can look back at what things have remained underexposed with older artists. There is another side to Josephine Baker and the way she was exploited in Paris. Or the role played by Ella Fitzgerald. We have access to an endless digital archive. Beyoncé is just the starting point.
Christina Baade and Kristin A. McGee (red): Beyoncé in the world – Giving meaning to Queen Bey in troubled times. Wesleyan University Press, 392 blz. € 27.99
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of July 8, 2021