A seminar analyzing how Beyoncé’s work relates to race, gender and sexuality.
People all over the world love Beyoncé’s music, but no one has dissected it more than Professor Kevin Allred, who has made a career out of analyzing Beyoncé’s music and her celebrity. On Thursday, Oct. 13, the Feminist Student Activist Collective (FSAC) hosted an event titled “Politicizing Beyoncé.” Allred, the night’s speaker, has taught a class of the same name at Rutgers University since 2010.
Around 50 people were at the seminar, which took place in The Whole at Coffman Memorial Union. One audience member, Harry Steffenhagen, decided to attend because of his affection for Beyoncé. “I just love her!” he gushed. Another student, Bailey Hutson, was at the seminar to delve deeper into the subject matter. “I already know that Beyoncé is politicized. I want to find out some more details about how she is politicized,” she said.
Professor Allred began his talk with the question, “Are any of you Beyoncé fans?” Heads all around the room nodded. “Good,” he said. He was wearing a sweatshirt from Beyoncé’s athletic wear brand, Ivy Park. Allred’s job was, he said, to bring issues to the forefront rather than try to speak from experience. He recognized at the beginning of the seminar that as a white male, he had no jurisdiction to say certain things. “I’m a white guy so I have no knowledge of a black woman’s experience,” he said.
Allred continued by analyzing two Beyoncé songs titled “Partition” and “Jealousy.” He said that it is important to be aware of how the separate music videos for “Partition” and “Jealousy” tell one narrative. Focusing on the video for the song “Partition,” Allred explained that even though it can come off as inherently sexual, Beyoncé is actually making a statement against her own sexualization. In the companion video, “Jealousy,” she shows her more authentic, vulnerable side. “Once you understand that the two videos have one storyline, it makes sense,” Allred said. “A lot of people critique the video for ‘Partition’ without really understanding its true meaning.”
Focusing on the video for the song “Partition,” Allred explained that even though it can come off as inherently sexual, Beyoncé is actually making a statement against her own sexualization.
However, Allred was interrupted thirty minutes into his presentation. One black student, who was not participating in the seminar, came up on stage and took the mic. “A white guy is talking about Beyoncé to a group of mostly white people? This is not why Beyoncé made ‘Lemonade’,” she said. Then, the student threw the mic down, which landed on the stage with a loud thud, and she scurried out of the venue. She was, of course, referencing Beyoncé’s latest album, “Lemonade,” which unabashedly embraces black culture much more than her previous albums.
This brief but potent disruption of the seminar created many topics for discussion. Alaina Desalvo, a second year Master’s student and the advisor to FSAC, addressed what had happened after Allred wrapped up his presentation. She understood the student’s reasons for speaking out, but at the same time believes that the only way for white students to grow is to allow them to be a part of a larger conversation about race. “Talking about Beyoncé as a cultural icon is something that is important, especially in a school where white students are the majority,” she said. “Our goal at FSAC is to provide a space where students can feel safe to grow and develop while also being inclusive to everyone, especially those who have been historically alienated.”
When the seminar organizers opened the floor for questions, the topic of Beyoncé’s “blackness” came up and fueled a new conversation. Allred explained that Beyoncé concocted a marvelous strategy; she downplayed her own blackness at the beginning of her career to gain power and a platform. “Beyoncé has broken a lot of rules. Record labels actually don’t like her because she does what she wants to do creatively instead of what they want her to do,” he said. This idea was particularly illuminating for one black female in the crowd, Bailey Hutson. “The fact that she downplayed her blackness to rise to the top so that she could begin making political statements is amazing!” Hutson said. Gwin Harrison, another audience member, agreed wholeheartedly. “Beyoncé is a person in the industry who can do whatever she wants now,” she said.
Allred explained that Beyoncé concocted a marvelous strategy; she downplayed her own blackness at the beginning of her career to gain power and a platform.
Themes of race, gender, and sexuality were at the core of the “Politicizing Beyoncé” seminar. “I think it’s important for white people to talk about race and it’s important for men to talk about feminism,” Allred said. First year student Joe Becker agreed. “These are discussions that everyone needs to be having, so long as they don’t overstep any boundaries.”