beyoncé's coachella performance was a master class in black college life
The first black woman to headline Coachella was celebrating a specific experience.
It took four minutes from the time the horns started at the beginning of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance for her to say anything. In fact, in her initial appearance, the mother of three wasn’t even holding a microphone. While those are small details for the history making set, they put the emphasis elsewhere, namely on her co-stars, revealed to be a 200+ person troop including both a band and squads of dancers. For those familiar with the marching bands and traditions of institutions like Morehouse College, Spelman College, Benedict College, and Tuskegee University, those dancers dropping into a series of call and response 8-counts were instantly recognizable. Over the next almost two hours, the first black woman to headline Coachella in the festival’s history was going to provide the world a glimpse into experiences exclusive to historically black colleges and universities.
Though Mrs. Carter’s performance was a retrospective of her career, dismantling her many eras and reconstituting them, reworking them into a new body of work, it was just as much a 101 in campus social life at HBCUs, all threaded together with music. Started in the wake of the Civil War as an effort to educate freed slaves in the South, HBCUs have a long and important history in this country. They educated black Americans (and blacks in America overall), trained future community leaders who would go on to organize the civil rights movement like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and provided the upward mobility required for blacks to enter the middle class when few institutions would. The schools live on, continually providing a service. While other schools may have opened their admissions processes, these universities not only put black students as a focal point but are more likely to cultivate a culture and preserve a history that is familiar and particularly important for a subset of college applicants.
Those call and response eight counts, expanded to 16 counts at times later in the performance, are a style of dance known as J-Sette. Originating with the Jackson State University Prancing J-Settes, the style can be large and energetic, the dancers dropping low to buck, or soft and sexy, sliding through a series of slinkier, more sophisticated movements as the song requires. Case in point: contrasting the way that the first set of dancers went at it while Beyoncé changed from her Nefertiti-inspired opening look to the sweatshirt and cut off and jeans, with that of the style that Bey herself led the dancers in as she sang “Crazy In Love.” But the movements are always sharp and precise, words that can frequently be used to describe Beyoncé herself. Like the actual collegiate teams, the dancers threw “stands” or choreography specifically for performing while sitting in the stands of a football game.
This style of movement is a hallmark of majorette teams from black marching bands. In fact it’s such a hallmark that they have spurred entire communities, like the bucking subculture of black queer men chronicled in Jamal Sim’s recent documentary When the Beat Drops. But that wasn’t the only dance style on exhibit.
Step is a more known dance style that was incorporated throughout the show. During the Destiny’s Child reunion and requisite medley, the band’s instruments gave way to the sounds of stepping as the trio led the dancers in breaking down the Timbaland remix of their hit “Say My Name.” On campus at Howard University, this might have been a performance from one of the Divine Nine greek organizations at a step show. For the uninitiated it was the real life incarnation of Stomp The Yard.
In particular the Lemonade singer seemed to pull from the physical vocabulary of one Greek organization in particular. Though her usage of yellow could easily be affiliated with bees or even Oshun (the Yoruba goddess who she has alluded to in imagery before) it could also be tied to the Alpha Phi Alpha greek organization, which was widely credited as being the first of the black Greeks. For her “suck on my balls” step breakdown, she pulled from moves straight from that organizations courtesy of choreographers Jamal Rasheed and Joe Brown, who assisted Chris Grant and JaQuel Knight on the section. But stepping too can be found outside of fraternities and sororities, spurring it’s own communities like the groups of teenage girls from Baltimore that compete in the documentary Step.
But the Greek experience was delved into more. A line of Bey’s Bugaboos was called to make the queen laugh. They were pledges to her as master while we watched on. It was a gentle hazing if there ever was one but one all the same, to be later rewarded with a scene from a mock probate as the Bugaboos announced their names, all coincidentally song titles from Bey’s discography. It’s something that’s going to be happening throughout the spring seasons on a variety of campuses. It’s also an experience viewable in films like School Daze.
It continued to pile on. The chicken head, Milly rock, A-Town stomp and an iconic swag surf were slotted into a set that saw the star sample songs like C-Murder’s “Down For My Niggaz,” O.T. Genasis’s “Everybody Mad,” Safe’s “Set It Off” and Playboi Carti’s “Woke Up LIke This”. A group of guys krumped to a chopped and screwed version of her track “***Flawless” contorting their bodies as seen in the film Rize. It felt comprehensive in black movement, integrating African and dancehall moves as well as beats and artists. An entire Jamaican section includes samples of artists like Vybz Kartel, Mr. Vegas, Sean Paul, Dawn Penn, and Sister Nancy.
There is major importance here. There are many, before this performance, that may have believed to put these traditions on stage at Coachella would have been a mistake. The festival is, to be frank, a historically white space in terms of both it’s headliners and attendees. In fact, Beyoncé’s own mother believed that as evidenced by her recent Instagram.
“I told Beyonce that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and Black college culture because it was something that they might not get,” she wrote. The prevailing notion being that Beyoncé needed a more universal idea or theme to be on such a stage, to connect with so many onlookers. So many white onlookers.
As has lately become her habit, Beyoncé negated that, speaking to a specific experience, an experience that counts “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its national anthem. She brought her entire self as a black woman into the space, the black woman who, according to the Malcolm X sample she used, is the most disrespected and neglected woman in America. The result is a statement that says that her experience and the experience of people like her is worthy of the same level of acclaim and production as any other experience. That like any other culture, it can and should be celebrated with a heavily produced headline slot at a major music festival. That’s the sort of statement that’s been reiterated time after time lately with projects like Black Panther. And one that is unlikely to stop any time soon.