With the accolades rolling in for Spike Lee’s “smart” allegory about the Trump presidency being the ultimate mainstream iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, it prompts one to ruminate on the pinnacle of the modern black klansman, Beyoncé, who has somehow managed to insidiously infiltrate the foremost beacon of whiteness: the pop music scene.
Beyoncé Knowles was the whitest black woman in the game.
Like Ron Stallworth before her, Beyoncé has used one of the most blatantly racist institutions for her own gain and success, a megaphone for her to speak out against bigotry, injustice and misogyny. And while by no means as “flawless” as her legion of fans known as the Beyhive would like to believe, to deny that Beyoncé hasn’t done something truly unthinkable in America–be a black pop star–would be egregious.
Starting out as gradually and “non-threateningly” as Stallworth in the criminal records room, so Beyoncé began as an “innocent” member of “R&B” girl group Destiny’s Child (1990-2006), always the Diana Ross of the outfit no matter what incarnation it was in (fans will remember there used to be LaTavia Roberson, LeToya Luckett and Farrah Franklin before Michelle Williams came along to save the day and fill the void of all three).
With her standout “look” and siren song vocals, Beyoncé was quick to draw more attention than the others, making her the obvious choice for an eventual breakout into a solo career, an inevitability that came with 2003’s Dangerously in Love (2003). On the heels of “‘03 Bonnie and Clyde” (2002) featuring Jay-Z from the previous year, “Crazy in Love” (2003) proved to be the track that brought all the white listeners to the yard, with nary any soul being able to leave the house that summer without hearing it blasting from someone’s car. This, however, was but the beginning of Beyoncé’s domination, both nationally and internationally, her grand start as the Uncle Tom of the R&B/hip hop-cum-pop world that characterized so much of the early and mid-00s. If she had to endure skin lightenings both literal and Photoshop-oriented, so be it. One must do all that’s necessary in order to fight the power by infiltrating it, subtly subverting the norm over the course of a twenty-year period.
Her systematic release of albums increasingly “black” in nature reached a certain zenith with I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008), which was (not coincidentally) her least critically acclaimed record. The public were not ready for this much BLACKNESS until Lemonade (2016) despite the fact that it featured her most Caucasian-tailored singles, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” “If I Were a Boy” and “Halo.” It was, however, offerings from “Sasha Fierce” like “Diva” that left non-black listeners less interested (even though “Single Ladies” was from the Sasha perspective). But with the average white ear already re-trained with singles from I Am… Sasha Fierce being successful on the charts, Bey didn’t hold back on blackness with her fourth album in 2011, 4 (very original, yes), which found her at her most Aretha Franklin in terms of exuding “declarative independent (though married with a baby then on the way) black woman” overtones. Tracks like “Love on Top,” “Best Thing I Never Had” and “Run the World (Girls)” served to make her an even more cagily dangerous pop star for not only suffusing the airwaves with BLACKNESS, but also–gasp!–the promotion of feminism (fast feminism, but feminism nonetheless).
Soon, Bey had even managed to penetrate the whitest land in all the world, Scotland, by becoming the first female solo artist to headline the Pyramid stage in over twenty years in June of 2011 at the Glastonbury Festival.
Her gradual removal of her klansman’s hood to reveal her “true identity,” increased even further with the surprise release (always attack your enemies with the element of surprise) of her self-titled album in December of 2013. The trifecta of blackness (this just means when something is too “funky” for the blanco register to process) is most evident on “Blow,” “No Angel” and “Partition,” with Beyoncé unleashing her vocal and narrative power with no holds barred, especially by being the scariest thing of all to white people: sexual (e.g. the lyrics, “Can you eat my Skittles?/It’s the sweetest in the middle/Pink is the flavor/Solve the riddle” and “Turn the cherry out”).
And yet, just when the pop music klan didn’t think Yoncé could get any more threatening, 2016 came along (maybe she got so threatening, in fact, that that was the year they had to insert Trump into a puppet government). More than the year of Trump’s “election,” it was the year of Lemonade.
With Saturday Night Live parodying the sudden “revelation” on the part of white people that Beyoncé is black after the impromptu release of her “Formation“video (which yes, she did rip off), it became clear–too late–to the white folk of the music industry just how much power they had ceded. But then, you know what they say: the capitalist will sell the noose to hang himself. And so the suits at Elektra, Columbia and Music World did, leading to Bey’s pure autonomy. Because, fuck it, a dollar is a dollar. But now all the dollars–and with it the black and white power–belong to Beyoncé. And “Formation” was the apex of that sudden grabbing and owning of power, of that “surprise, I’m black and I don’t give a fuck if you have a problem with it being undiluted” unmasking. Already so far up the ranks of the ladder of success well above any white lady, Taylor Swift included (Kanye made sure of that at the 2009 VMAs), there was no longer any need for her to hide herself from the klan called pop music tastemakers. The hood was off, and it’s never going on again. But for a while there, one Beyoncé Knowles was the whitest black woman in the game. The black klanswoman who has definitely had the last laugh.
photo credit: unknown