The Black Bill Gates
Beyonce offered me escapism in my childhood. But now I see the contradictions and shortcomings in her claimed radicalness.
Beyonce’s more recent posturing as an emancipatory force in the global Black community has caused a stir in many circles. She has long been deemed an icon of her time for her record-breaking musical feats. Her recent offering, Black is King, sees her continue this tradition, in addition to openly embodying the role of radical global cultural leader. Black is King asserts in the American cultural imagination the idea of an Africa rich in talent, wealth and beauty. It offers a much-needed intervention to the use of problematic tropes that writers, such as Binyavanga Wainaina in his essay How to Write About Africa, have long complained about. The visual album’s release coincided with the global resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its themes were felt to speak poignantly to the moment we are in. Beyonce’s representations of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) culture in “Homecoming” (as a headline act at Coachella), and the political subtext of “Lemonade,” are just some of the reasons why she is felt to be a radical cultural worker, especially in the global Black community, and even more so now.
However, between her history of questionable private performances, and her ties to labor exploitation in Sri Lanka through her IVY Park fashion brand, there remains a continued dissonance in the pro-Black cultural component of her work; a component that has garnered her the kind of political attention that gets her a reputation as an activist. This dissonance was once again seen in her decision to collaborate with Disney, a notoriously culturally exploitative corporation, in what she endearingly calls her “love letter to Africa.” Perhaps the air of suspicion that surrounded her latest release was in response to this confusion, one that accompanies many of her grand (expensive and profitable) political statements. That is because Beyonce has never stood in opposition to capitalism, instead calling herself a “Black Bill Gates.” So it is easy to see how incoherencies like Beyonce performing as a headline act at the Super Bowl in Black Panther inspired uniforms while the National Football League blackballs players such as Colin Kaepernick or Eric Reid who criticize American racism and the NFL’s complicity in it, are allowed to thrive. Instead, she foregoes ideological integrity in her ode, to offer an aesthetically pleasing, vaguely politically referential moment. It is too vague to even hold her ideologically accountable, and she now rarely gets interviewed anyway. This allows her to settle in a comfortable grey area, where fans are expected to celebrate her wealth with her, as she benefits from the continued speculations and projections about her politics.
As someone who was a girl child at the height of Destiny’s Child’s fame, Beyonce has played an instrumental role in my own life. Back in 2007, when “first CD albums” bore a more profound significance, Beyonce’s “B-Day” deluxe edition album took this prized milestone in my life. I had already been a fan, but the “B-Day” album dropping at the height of my pre-pubescent years is what cemented her place as a cultural icon in my world. As a long lover of music, Beyonce offered me representations of people who kind of looked like me, and doing things that felt so unattainable. I loved that Beyonce was cool, and Black, and beautiful and talented… and rich. I wanted to be rich. Beyonce offered me an escapism in my childhood, a portal into a make-believe world where I was rich, American and happy—American being an important qualifier, as I was certain that the existence of a Black girl child dancing to “Beautiful Liar” somewhere in the Western Cape province of South Africa in 2007 was unimaginable to my kinfolk in the global North. I just knew it.
I knew what living in an already economically precarious country, clumsily constituted a mere 20-something years before meant: that mine was a role of resigning to the inundation of American culture, even where I was interacting with the work of creators who looked like me. But the resentment of feeling deeply invisible is something hard to shake off, and calls into question how I felt a deep yearning to be seen by the global North. Why? Because that is how imperialism works. Relying on an already fragile sense of nationalism, and a quietly brewing South African exceptionalism, I turned to America as the standard for our local cultural offerings. Discontented with how obvious resource depravity was in our entertainment world, I felt an even deeper despair at how hopeless it all felt.
The amazing thing about the cultural empire is how it fabricates sensibilities from experiences far removed from your own. In most of my childhood interactions with American culture, long before information was a click away, I felt my veneration of American culture chip away at my sensory experience. I felt that mine was that of being a mere member of a cultural commonwealth that reports to Hollywood to measure its own success.
Now, none of this is Beyonce’s fault; she is only one (very powerful) artist operating in an entertainment industry geared at profit making, and at the expense of many disempowered communities. That she relies on this regime and its affirmation of her talent and worth (sometimes literally) through accolades, coupled with her clear commercial ambitions, makes it difficult, however, to characterize what she does as radical. It is deeply satisfying to watch Beyonce do what she does, especially because she is so talented, but to conflate entertainment value with the kind of political merit needed for the role of radical cultural worker is ill advised.
When I look back at my Beyonce crazed 12-year-old self I see the confidence and fun her musical presence encouraged. But I also see the prevailing dominance and overrepresentation of Americanisms in my life, as well as how the absorption of an imperial sensory experience of the world lent itself to delusions and nurtured exceptionalisms that being born South African leaves you vulnerable to. This is why I see these contradictions and shortcomings in Beyonce’s claimed radicalness as a product of the imperial framework that her career sprouts from. These areas of concerns ought not be understood as oversights, but rather reflective of the demands of Hollywood and Beyonce’s own commercial interests. Her cultural impact is significant, and she is immensely talented, and appears to care deeply for Black people. But all of these things are rarely culturally actualized in a way that truly threatens the status quo of the American-led global entertainment industry.