Made in Our Own Image: The Gospel According to Beyoncé
Ever since Destiny’s Child disbanded and Beyoncé Knowles, the lead singer for the group made a go for it as a solo artist, she’s had hit after hit after hit. We all looked up one day, and she had somehow become this artistic juggernaut who couldn’t seem to fail. She was the epitome of what it meant to be a pop star, a veritable icon. Between the debut of her single “Formation” and the performance of it at the Super Bowl two days later (and for all intents and purposes upstaging the headliner Coldplay and diminishing the still large presence of Bruno Mars) and the two months or so until her album Lemonadewas released this past weekend, her star power has done nothing but intensified exponentially.
As someone who lives well outside of the BeyHive, it’s just always intrigued me what about celebrity, and specifically Beyoncé’s, that attracts so many people and people so passionate. When she performed “Flawless” the word “FEMINIST” as a sign as big as the stage was illuminated and Nigerian writer Chimimanda Adiche provided a voice-over from her essay “Why We Should All Be Feminists.” Mostly what fueled this curiosity about Beyoncé’s celebrity isn’t that people are talking about it, but it is often who is saying what about it. For the first time in my recollection, I saw the black public intellectuals of the day proceeding to create the meaning out of her artwork, and begin the process of parsing lyrics and images all across the span of black consciousness.
Making Meaning ex-celebritas
Celebrities from time immemorial function as the target of unadulterated glorification to unmitigated hate. And this celebrity is not relegated to the world of art–music, literary or visual–often times its in the political realm (think Barack Obama, to Hillary Clinton, to Donald Trump and even other international leaders), sports figures or even when it comes to celebrity preachers to prominent activists. In the case of Beyoncé, her celebrity has transcended some of the realness that many of our other celebrities have. In the way that Oprah, and the behemoth that Harpo Studios became, was someone we invited into our living rooms for 25 years, or even Barack and Michelle Obama truly have embodied what it means to be America’s First Family, Beyoncé is not real like that. Beyoncé is tangibly intangible. She inhabits what postmodernity would call a type of hyperreality existing beyond our reach in many ways. She rarely gives interviews and rarely offers commentary in the way that many other artists have chosen to wade into the political arena or take a stand for various causes.
The phrase of ex-celebritas is a play on the theological notion that tribal deity YHWH (Yahweh/Jehovah) of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament created the world ex nihiloor “out of nothing.” In the sense, much of God’s sovereignty is attributed to the idea that meaning was made out of nothing. Applying that same knowledge, as a society we create meaning out of celebrity. And as we do that, we ascribe meaning to people, places and things that may not have endeavored to have such meaning. As two of my blog essays back-to-back focus around the image of Beyoncé, a first ever, it’s not hard to automatically see that in turn we ascribe meaning to the individual celebrity too. It’s as if there is a reciprocal dance between the two poles of creation and projection in which one party might not be a participating member.
When clergy of the early Church, prior to the fourth century, supported the creation of icons, it was literally artists and patrons of the church creating the holy in their own image and then in turn giving meaning to that icon. The finished artwork had zero agency in what it was fashioned to look like, and then had to be subjected to the interpretation of others.
In that way, Beyoncé is an icon.
The historical genesis of an icon is inherently theological and of Greek origin. Icons at the beginning of the first millennium of the Common Era were considered holy images either as a painting or wooden images. So yes, as Beyoncé’s celebrity has risen to that of an icon, it is accompanied with a particular type of sacredness. Celebrity, as a concept, usually invokes meaning that is secular, but for Beyoncé, her image has become sacred for many–especially black women. It should come to no shock to anyone as to why she is iconic to so many black women. One might would have to go back to Diana Ross to find a black woman celebrity who has the wide-reaching appeal of a pop-star outside of the black music world. This is not to discount musicians like Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston, but beyond the shadow of a doubt, Beyoncé has surpassed these women in many ways. To put it another way, Beyoncé functions as a text. Text, as a word, comes from the Latin textere which means to weave. That suggests that much of who she is and what we say she stands for is in turn personified in who she is.
Canonizing Beyoncé as Sacred Text
The first time I ever entertained the idea of Beyoncé as more than a pop artist was watching the now-canceled Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC on a Saturday morning and I heard the conversation that enthroned her as a feminist. I remember at the time as I was wrestling with my practical definition of feminism because so much of my conversation with black women were offering such different variations of not just a working definition, but what constituted feminism: who could effectively be called a feminist and what were considered feminist practices. But even more specifically I was hearing a divergence of conversations about black feminism. Actually, a former student of mine helped me out when she offered up Patricia Hill Collins understanding of having a “unique angle of vision” to suggest that Beyoncé’s entrée into [black] feminism may not, nor is required to look like everyone else.
For me her self-titled album Beyoncé was the marker that put Beyoncé in the stratosphere. It was an unknown and midnight album drop that immediately got the burgeoning Black Twitter collective further established in its presence online while much of Black America was still reveling in Obama having been re-elected again. She and her husband, hip hop rapper and mogul Jay-Z, were getting invites to the White House by now. She was just that big. That meant that whatever she said or did was worthy of being canonized. But, ever the smart businesswoman, Beyoncé kept her interviews to a minimum–if any at all–and her pregnancy was all but a private affair even after the birth. This meant that all the public had was her music–lyrics and music videos.
While Beyoncé’s music is obviously R&B, it’s also pop music. And pop music usually doesn’t lend itself to grand lyrics or lyrics with deep messaging; it tends to be in relatively surface and spell out exactly what it means. The depth of hidden meanings rests in sexual innuendoes such as “watermelon” and “cigars on ice” or downright explicit. Think “surfbort.” Nevertheless, her lyrics have been parsed by some as if they were found on the Dead Sea Scrolls and contained the key to unlock ancient lost languages. And it doesn’t stop there. The music videos themselves are part of the sacred text, where everything is thought to have a hidden meaning that must be unlocked.
“Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess”
The fact that so many people think that Beyoncé is part of the Illuminati has led to her actually incorporating a response to that in her lyrics. A YouTube search would prove that there are no limits to those who operate in the world of conspiracy theories and people who have too much time on their hands. Aside from claims of being in the Illuminati, there are YouTubers who have called her an agent of Satan. Not metaphorically, but literally. While I’m sure those that have created videos as such would never refer to Beyoncé as “sacred” anything, I would argue that they see her as a text of sorts, and one in which they have ascribed meaning. In the way that some may see her as a black feminist, others see her as part of the Illuminati and a Satan worshipper. Yet the Hoteps see her as anOshun, an orisha from Yoruba culture. Go figure.
Harris-Perry, now in a role as an editor at Ellemagazine, published a call-and-response dialectic that I think highlights to just what level Beyoncé operates as a sacred text for so many people, with so many unique angles of vision. Even if you don’t agree with the meaning being made, one has to admit and acknowledge that serious thought and more so, serious devotion has been given to this. It is cult-like. Cultic practices, even with their negative connotation, do appropriately describe what often functions as a religious following. In the way that hip hop teens and children of the 90s quote Tupac and Biggie with a cultic religiosity, there is a new generation of women of all ages who will quote Beyoncé for years to come. And even more so, reference her videos.
The early years of Beyoncé with Destiny’s Child produced music videos at times only two steps removed of the days of the video vixens that populated the majority of hip hop videos of the 1990s and early 2000s. And again, as she moved into a solo act, we began to see her, in effect, grow up and mature into an adult. An adult with sensitivities and proclivities appropriate for her age. We saw progression. However, with rappers reaching middle age, some artists resist the notion of evolution, still trying to hold fast to their so-called “glory days.” Certainly after her marriage to Jay-Z, her pregnancy and perhaps just the reality of just being over 30 years old, her videos took on distinctive artistic qualities. It was clear that these music videos were not meant to be seen as part of the same textural fabric as videos produced by Rihanna, Keyshia Cole and whatever else the cadre of urban hip hop has devolved to with the likes of Future, the Migos, 2 Chainz and Fetty Wap forming the group of Poor Unfortunate Souls from Ursula’s garden in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. From her fashion choices, to the choreography, to the way she wears her hair and even the costumes and design of the backup dancers all form text the same way one looks at sentence structure–complex sentences to simple ones–from parallel structure to verb tense to help form an image of the author who’s composed it.
In theological circles, the science of exegesis is far from perfect and more often than not one performs eisegesis. Ex- being the prefix for “out of” in this case, meaning what does one “pull out of” the text. The opposite being what is being read into the text. What put me at odds with a few professors in seminary was my proclivity to stand “in front” of the text and provide what’s called a reader’s response to the text. I’m very much okay and interested in what is being read into the text because we are the sum total of our experiences and to act as if we can so easily divorce ourselves from them in order to give a so-called pure interpretation is naive. Instead, I’d rather admit the bias up front and still offer a transparent opinion. So when it comes to the best of what one can even assume as pure in this context, is what what is known as the author’s intent: in what way did the creator of the text intend for the text to be interpreted.
Icons and Iconoclasm
I’ll admit, up until this point in the essay I’ve been trying to keep my bias at bay, and I’m sure I’ve not done such a good job, but in all intellectual transparency I want to admit that I do have one. Part of the paradox of Beyonce is that her icon status seems to have created a type of bullet-proof veneer that insulates her from criticism. For quite some time, I find myself interested in critiquing the critical, not simply because I want to disagree with people but partially because I understand that as individuals and as a society we are motivated by a multitude–much of which we fail to recognize or at least admit out loud. For what it’s worth, I appreciate Harris-Perry saying unabashedly that she’s part of the BeyHive because it contextualizes her response.
Another part of my bias, again in intellectual transparency, is that I’d like to think myself to be an iconoclast–at least one in the historical sense. In response to the icons that the Church had fashioned in their own image, the Eastern Church (not the Western Church that eventually became the modern day-Roman Catholic church under Constantine) began practicing the physical tearing down and destruction of the holy icons. For me, I consider this to be deconstructive work that attempts to make meaning of those that make meaning. In other words what’s driving people to create a sacred text out of Beyoncé.
Finally, what has been a driving force of my bias, wrapped in this particular personage of Beyoncé, is the ways in which I see many people cherry-pick and self-select the Gospel of Beyoncé. Often times when I hear [legitimate] critiques of hip hop writ large toward black men and it’s prevalent misogyny and mistreatment of women in both lyrics and videos, the sourcing of those texts–lyrics and videos–span the entire career of many of the artists. However with Beyoncé, it’s as if her first song, video and performance was “Flawless” because that was considered her declaration as a [black] feminist. As big of an icon as she is, I consider it intellectually irresponsible if those that ascribe meaning gloss over the fact that when she was with Destiny’s Child she was someone who wanted a man to pay her “Bills, Bills, Bills” and presumably she was going to “Cater to [him]” and without a doubt she thought it not robbery to define black masculinity when she said he would be a “Soldier.”
Those songs were my introduction to Beyoncé as a young black male in high school and eventually in college. And I shall never forget my professor in my Introduction to African American History at Fisk University, declaring from the front of the class that Beyoncé, not Destiny’s Child, was single-handedly setting black women back with the song “Cater to You.” Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but feel excluded from the “soldier”-motif created simply because I was a college student, not the token roughneck of the ‘hood. In much the same way that feminist theologians reject Pauline passages of 1 Corinthians because Paul doesn’t affirm women preachers, and the way that black liberation theology rejects Paul’s letter to Philemon considering the enslaved man Onesimus or the haustafeln passages throughout the New Testament epistles because of their reference to “slaves obey your masters,” I think its perfectly fine for us to not hold Beyoncé to old lyrics, but I think we have to acknowledge that it’s part of the corpus of her text. By most accounts, we’ve shuffled off this proto-Beyoncé in favor of a deutero-Beyoncé in which we apply reader-response eisegetical techniques for the sake of society’s meaning making.
Notwithstanding white gaze toward all things Beyoncé, I am interested in the narrative that doesn’t emerge as the dominant narrative. I wrote about this to some extentlabeling part of that narrative being shaped by the black syndicate media in my previous blog essay about her and Kendrick Lamar. Let me say up front, I’m not interesting in hearing black men co-sign together in favor of mounting some anti-Beyoncé campaign for the sake of retreading white masculinity blowhards, but rather the notion that perhaps Beyoncé’s angle of vision is cast more toward capitalism than activism. Again, my bias is heavy when it comes to conversations around capitalism and that’s often informed by my personal politics. At what point does the dominant narrative allow questions around the way that we make all things fit into a positive narrative around Beyoncé and instead offer serious criticism to the merchandise that capitalized on the perceived activism around the “Formation” music video and Super Bowl performance; the exorbitant prices of ticket sales for her world tour; the Ivy Park line of clothes not including plus-sizes. These are all minority reports that get shoved into the same dust-bin of forgetfulness of proto-Beyoncé.
Just a quick walk into any Roman Catholic church building and any non-Roman Catholic church building, one immediately sees the images of the sacred and the holy fall away. In most modern megachurches, at most one singular cross may hang from the center and the brilliant stage lights cast beams onto blank pulpits and altars, walls and windows in which the parishioners are free to project their own meaning. While it was a breaking away from what was to become the state-corrupted and sponsored Roman Catholic church, it was also a breaking away from tradition and ultimately spawned many other reformations itself. The creation of each new denomination and tradition–Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist–all let us know that there is room in which a multiplicity of meanings can be had. When Martin Luther tacked his 95 critiques on the church door at Wittenburg, and it was the beginning of an iconoclastic movement. This breaking away is more commonly referred to as the Protestant Reformation.
The Beyoncé Re-“Formation”
I paid $17.99 for the Lemonade album on iTunes because I refuse to get Tidal for a plethora of reasons. And this was my first ever Beyoncé album or track purchase. I bought it because I saw it as engaging contemporary culture. And I must say, even from a musical point of view, I was quite pleased with what I heard. I felt it showed the broad range of Beyoncé’s vocals as well as her choreographic skills.
However, it was sensory overload.
If you read that to mean overkill, then allow me to expound because that’s certainly not what I mean. Overload in the sense that there was no rest for the weary; the metaphorical imagery was legion. Having not just a theological, but a God-centered spiritual approach to the album, I don’t at all feel qualified to offer what would look like a comprehensive response to everythingthat transpired in the midst of the 65 minute visual album not even one week after its release. In the video, there were interludes that weren’t included in the tracks, where Beyoncé through voice-over intoned words that vacillated between prayers of supplication to jeremiads and laments all the way to a theology of anger and frustration displayed as prose that had mystical and transcendent qualities that surpassed orthodox spirituality.
I personally can’t answer why Beyoncé is just that important to halt just about every news story about Prince’s death which was a pretty damn big deal. But let’s magnify this a bit: the typical news cycle has shrunk to about 7 days, and Lemonade didn’t even give the death of Prince the opportunity to last a full news cycle. This leads me to believe that within a week’s time, the country will have moved on beyond this. In fact, as I type this, it’s an election night–and a deciding night in which Bernie Sanders will undoubtedly watch the nomination slip from his fingers permanently, and the GOP will effectively haveto have a contested convention in order to prevent Trump from being the nominee. Even as I conclude this blog essay, I’ve turned away from the immediate topic at hand: the Gospel According to Beyoncé.
This gospel message that society has projected onto Beyoncé–made in our own image–is a message we have made her have. I’d rather us own the fact that we culturally make meaning and ascribe to persons and ideas and sometimes even physical artifacts like buildings, paintings and sculptures. Perhaps I’m being repetitive at this point, but admittedly no more repetitive that “I slay/okay.” Projecting meaning, whatever meaning that is, onto Beyoncé is fine, she’s a celebrity, an icon, but we ought not be pedantic enough to release ourselves from responsibility of that meaning and in turn beatify her as though these thoughts, these notions, these meaningsfrom the Almighty and Sovereign Beyoncé.
My hope is that in the cobbling together of this gospel sacred text, this re-“formation” of Beyoncé, that we put together a complete text. One that includes the frayed edges, the blended fabrics and even the attempts to weave pieces together that we know weren’t originally intended to be together, but it works together for the good of someone who needs disparate parts to make a whole. I’m not interested in a sanitized Beyoncé; one that erases her work with Destiny’s Child in favor of someone who baptized in the waters of cause célèbre.
What can’t be taken away from Beyoncé is that she has empowered a third-wave of feminism–especially black feminists and womanists–with a new text from which to draw a type of femignosis in which to create meaning. She also has required us to rethink the ways in which we see the production of black music–as entertainment or activism, and she certainly falls in the Oprah category in which we become free to question the ways in which blackness requires a certain type of aesthetic when it comes to what do you do for the race. Remember in 2012 when Harry Belafonte openly questioned the motives of both Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Hova actually dropped a diss lyric against Belafonte?
As I did read through the call-and-response dialogue from Elle, one male college students notes that the visual album made his girlfriend cry and that was the first time he had seen her cry. And I get that. I’m not interested in disconnecting or demystifying the possibility of emotional or intellectual liberation that may come as a result of performing a type of lectio divina around this last project, but ultimately I believe that it’s more about the individual illuminating their own liberation. But perhaps the woven text(ure) of Beyoncé is just the blank canvass in which liberation is possible.
If nothing else, Beyoncé lets us know that there can me more than meets the eye when a bottle of hot sauce can really be Hot Sauce. Swag.