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Why Beyonce's now the face of American protest

Was the star's Super Bowl performance another clever career move by a savvy artist or a political awakening, asks Tanya Sweeney

Published 20/02/2016

Controversial show: Beyonce with Coldplay’s Chris Martin during the Super Bowl half-time performance
Controversial show: Beyonce with Coldplay’s Chris Martin during the Super Bowl half-time performance
Him indoors: Beyonce with Jay Z
Star role: strutting her stuff on stage
Girl power: Beyonce (right) with old group Destiny’s Child

Year on year, the Super Bowl has become less about touchdowns and more about its half-time performances. And last weekend, Beyonce put her co-stars Coldplay and Bruno Mars in the halfpenny place.

Hers was, predictably, a high-octane pop act, but Beyonce Knowles didn't just steal the show - she turned it into a political act.

It's not the first time Beyonce took to the hallowed pitch. Her 2013 performance became the second most tweeted about moment in the history of Twitter.

But there was something markedly different between the Beyonce of yore and the powerhouse that debuted her new single, Formation.

Critics, like Vox's Alex Abad-Santos, described Beyonce's new direction as "riskier, filthier, angrier and pulpier" than her usual fare. CNN lauded her as a "political superhero with rhythm".

Certainly, Formation, with its celebration of black femininity and overt references to the shooting of young black men, is certainly a palate cleanser (in the song's video, Beyonce sinks a New Orleans cop car while a little boy dances in front of riot cops. Bootylicious, it ain't). And her Super Bowl performance followed right in the video's footsteps.

Beyonce emerged, flanked by dancers with afros and Black Panther-style uniforms, and clad in a jacket of her own that echoed another iconic black performer: Michael Jackson.

Between her latest promo and her polarising Super Bowl stunt, Beyonce has left the Twittersphere gasping for more. Fans loved her renewed vigour and sense of purpose; others took exception to Beyonce's hijacking of a huge family event to, for all intents and purposes, aim a pot-shot at the police force.

Some cultural commentators have raised an eyebrow at this apparent volte-face, noting that Beyonce has been described as "too white" in her appearance and cultural output.

All told, the storm proved the perfect taster for Bey's forthcoming Formation tour. Thanks to the helpful shove generated by the previous week's publicity, tickets are selling briskly.

Yet before she kicks off her tour in Miami on April 27, Beyonce's political awakening continues apace. She's recently announced a new fund to help the children of Flint, Michigan, during the city's current water crisis. There has also been a reported $1.5m donation to non-profit social justice organisations like Black Lives Matter, as well as an attempt to pay for bail for dozens of jailed black rioters in Baltimore last year.

But for all her recent empowerment, she hasn't been impervious to criticism, either: Saturday Night Live famously ran a sketch in the aftermath of the Super Bowl entitled The Day Beyonce Turned Black.

On the surface, it certainly appears that Beyonce has become a central figure in one of America's most talked-about political movements. But is the move a carefully-choreographed one, designed to generate attention and propel her career? Or do black lives really, really matter to Beyonce, a girl raised in a comfortable, middle-class Texas home?

It's safe to say that Beyonce has always been racially-minded, and fiercely proud of her African-American heritage. Keener fans will likely be familiar with a Beyonce who has used the stage to highlight big issues.

At last year's Grammys, Beyonce performed an Oscar-winning song from the politically-charged movie, Selma, backed up by a choir of African-American men.

"I wanted to find real men that have lived, have struggled, cried and have a light and a spirit about them," Beyonce said at the time. "I felt like this is an opportunity to show the strength and vulnerability in black men."

Previously, in 2013, Beyonce's song Flawless sampled a speech by Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Of course, salience and controversy are two of the most potent currencies in pop, and after what can only be described as a strangely fallow couple of years for the singer, who can blame her for jumping straight out of the gate with healthy helpings of both?

Who can forget the strangely impassive figure who stood by in a lift in 2014 as her sister Solange infamously wildly kicked and swung at her husband, Jay-Z?

Last September, there came an even more shadowy episode. Beyonce graced the cover of the lauded September issue of Vogue magazine, but didn't sit down for an interview.

Some described it as evidence of her considerable heft as a celebrity power player; others observed a carefully orchestrated Press campaign that hasn't included an actual sit-down interview since February 2013 (with GQ).

Amid it all, there were faint whispers about megalomania. But image has always arguably been Beyonce's trump card; a beguiling mix of Southern down-home lass, sartorial chameleon and Amazonian sexpot.

Her work ethic - instilled into her by ruthlessly ambitious parents from an early age - is legion. Despite the lip service that Beyonce pays to being a strong, independent woman, there have been contradictions.

She and her husband Jay-Z, who married in 2008, have been besieged by rumours of marital strife; specifically, rumours that Jay-Z has been unfaithful with a handful of up-and-coming musical protegees. It all jars rather markedly with the fastidiously-crafted image of Beyonce as an unapologetically feminist pop powerhouse.

Yet Beyonce has kicked this criticism into touch in public, too, using samples of an Eartha Kitt speech during her live performances. "A man comes into my life and I have to compromise?" Kitt asks, laughing at the idea. "Stupid."

Yet there have been overt missteps, too, in this particular political awakening. In 2011, it emerged that the singer had accepted an eye-watering sum to sing for Muammar Gaddafi's family.

When asked on her stance on feminism, Beyonce shied away from deploying the "F" word, declaring instead, to the chagrin of many, "I consider myself a humanist". The move prompted Annie Lennox to brand the singer "feminist-lite".

Perhaps Beyonce has always been political, albeit in subtle, easy-to-digest ways. Maybe it has been her canny game plan all along; to draw a global mass audience in before delivering her political drop-kick.

Amid the pomp and splendour of her live shows, amid the eye-watering glamour and the newly-minted shroud of mystique, perhaps the political message has always been there, but has simply gotten lost in the shuffle. But there's little denying it now.

Beyonce has plenty to say on the serious stuff - it's just she's letting the artistry do all of the talking. Whether her fans will willingly join her for the ride remains anyone's guess.

Beyonce plays Croke Park in Dublin on July 9. For tickets see www.ticketmaster.ie

Belfast Telegraph

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