Opinion | Beyoncé and the End of Respectability Politics


It would have been reasonable to assume Beyoncé would perform the entire show in a glamorous couture number, like the Nefertiti-inspired costume she came onstage in. Respectability is also imagery: Black people are told, when we gain power, and are under the gaze of the public, we must always wear our most formal and elegant attire.

Instead, with millions of people watching in the desert and online, Beyoncé reappeared in w blue distressed denim shorts and a hoodie advertising a fake historically black college. Success does not need to have a preferred style; a black person does not have to wear a glamorous gown or a tailored suit to captivate the imagination of the public. Beyoncé shows that talent and discipline are enough.

She follows in the tradition of black performers like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, but she is unique in imagining blackness as something so big. To Beyoncé, attending a historically black college is more than a niche experience coveted only by students and alums. Instead, it’s something thematically paramount and worthy of an enormous stadium.

You might think that Beyoncé’s promotion of historically black colleges and their intellectual traditions also might have conflicted with her sexually charged songs like “Partition” and “Drunk in Love.” We’re taught that an intellectual being can never be sexual one. This is especially true for black people who have been hypersexualized in media and daily life. So it wouldn’t have been odd for her to edit her sexuality to fit society’s ideas of what it means to be proud, black and smart.

Not at Coachella. Beyoncé performed her sensuality proudly in those songs making political statement that a person can be both intellectually rigorous and sexually expressive.

We know Beyoncé can sing and move, and that she treats stadiums as if they are her living room. But it wasn’t clear whether, after Clive Davis called her “the first lady of music,” she would adhere to respectability politics, especially on a stage like Coachella, where she may have alienated large portion of her audience. The easier route would have been cultural ambiguity. But excellence is found in risk and Beyoncé has proved to be an artist most interested in excellence.

All black people should follow her lead and refuse to shrink blackness. Black people often negotiate how much of ourselves we should show to make others comfortable. Black people often feel the need to edit parts of our culture and upbringing for the sake of appearing respectable — that is, of course, until our music and style are appropriated by the very people we were attempting to not alienate.

Beyoncé’s Coachella performance suggests that, as black people’s power grows, we should intentionally amplify the culture that nurtured us. This anti-respectability politics that Beyoncé brought to the stage is what transformed her performance into a political statement.

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