Leeds School of Business
Beyoncé performing during The Formation World Tour in Raleigh, North Carolina on May 3, 2016. (Kristopher Harris/Wikimedia Commons)

Opinion: Beyoncé is our era’s most important artist, Grammy or not

I remember Beyoncé performances like most people remember the births of their children. I can tell you where I was when she sang “Love on Top” and announced her pregnancy with Blue; I remember the night she performed Lemonade — including the poems — with a nod to Trayvon Martin and several other black lives we have lost in America; and now I remember watching her most recent Grammy performance on my computer screen, so enthralled that a stranger had to ask me if I was okay.

My parents, having lived through the 1960s and experienced some of the best years of modern music, often criticize this generation for lacking timeless performers. They raised me on Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack and the list goes on, and yet, still, they list Beyoncé among these names as one of the greatest musical artists of all time.

In Alice Walker’s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” she discusses the black women who may have been great artists — our ancestors — had it not been for their enslavement and systematic oppression both historically and in modern times. When I read Walker’s piece, I pondered what it means to be an artist and what Walker meant when she said, “To be an artist and a black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be.”

Though she made this statement in 1983, it still unfortunately stands today. There is a pressure within the black community for children to resist being an artist or an athlete or anything that could be construed as “stereotypical.” White people continue to view black athletes especially as “naturally talented,” code for less hard-working than white athletes. Black people have been stereotyped as musicians from as early as the 1830s and are depicted most commonly as musicians in modern paintings.

Walker’s essay was discussed in one of my classes on gender, and, inevitably, white students went around the room describing their experience visiting a black church and how much “soul” they felt in the singing. It’s no wonder my friend’s mother discouraged her from becoming a dancer — she would be pigeonholed with stereotypical words like these.

Black women are stereotyped as it is, but poets can be seen as the nurturing “mammy,” dancers can be sexualized and strong singers or activists are often called “angry black women.” But Beyoncé embodies the latter part of Walker’s assertion — despite all the obstacles she has faced as a woman, a black American and a black American woman, Beyoncé is still arguably the most groundbreaking artist in modern popular music. And she sits on this throne with grace.

Beyoncé has become somewhat of a meme, transcending average stardom with her persona of Queen Bey, but this is not to say that she is a joke; Beyoncé’s acclaim is rooted in her messages. This woman has stood in front of the word “FEMINIST,” challenged the societal roles of a mother’s sexuality, made a political statement on one of the nation’s biggest stages — the Super Bowl — advocated for the LGBTQ community and drawn attention to black activism in her digital album Lemonade.

This year’s Grammy performance manifested Walker’s words. Delivering fellow black artist Warsan Shire’s poetry with chilling emotion, Beyoncé spoke about motherhood and the connection women have through our bloodlines to the artists Walker declares have been lost. She sat, adorned in gold cloth, with her mother and daughter — three generations of black women. She performed even while pregnant, presenting pregnancy and motherhood as an asset rather than an adversity to careers and success. She was strong, and eloquent, and sexy — a wife, and a mother, and a businesswoman.

Beyoncé was nominated for nine Grammy awards, breaking a record as the first person to be nominated in four categories. In her acceptance speech for winning Best Urban Contemporary Album, she explained the importance of representation and encourages children of all races to dream to become Olympians, presidents and artists. Beyoncé said that Lemonade is an album that “[captures] the profundity of deep Southern culture” and “[gives] a voice to our pain” and went on to speak about today’s social climate, stating, “It’s vital we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.” Her speech was a commentary on beauty standards, the stifling of voices and the struggle women of color face.

In spite of this win and her incredible album, she was not awarded Album of the Year. Many see this as a testament to Adele’s talent, voicing a similar argument that was made about the 2016 Oscars, which nominated zero non-white actors: that maybe Beyoncé — and the actors of color — did not measure up to their white counterparts. But for anyone who listened to Beyoncé’s album and watched its accompanying digital album, her loss speaks to not a lack of talent, but the systematic exclusion of black artists from high art and acclaim. This is the same reason the Grammys continue to nominate the same artists over and over for its hip-hop categories — they’re not really sure what to do with black music.

Adele recognized this, calling Lemonade “monumental” in her acceptance speech. Adele went on to break her Album of the Year Grammy in half to give to Beyoncé — a clip the Grammys did not show on television — and said later that night backstage, “What the f— does [Beyoncé] have to do to win Album of the Year?”

But still, Beyoncé persists. Beyoncé gave and continues to give a voice to the lost artists that Walker brought to our attention decades ago. She uses her platform to shed light on the lives of the trans community, the black community and women in general. Alongside her risk-taking, intelligence and musical talent, that is the reason Beyoncé challenges and rejects how black female artists are seen by society. This column isn’t simply about my personal love for Beyoncé. I mean, it partly is — I’m listening to Lemonade as I write this, so I guess you could say I’m obsessed — but it’s more than that. Beyoncé exemplifies everything an artist and activist should be, and for that, I think Alice Walker would be proud.

Contact CU Independent Opinion Columnist Lauren Arnold at lauren.arnold@colorado.edu.

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