Beyoncé’s question of culture

Art, education and culture collide in ‘Homecoming’, a documentary that is unavoidably rooted in black politics and raises unique questions about South Africa.

“Education must not simply teach work – it must teach Life.”

These words by writer and activist WEB du Bois appear on-screen in Beyonce’s new Netflix concert documentary, Homecoming. They find their unlikely echo in the lyrics of her 1980s-inspired, upbeat R&B track, Schoolin’ Life:

I'm not a teacher, babe, but 
I can teach you something
Not a preacher, but                        
We can pray if you wanna
Ain't a doctor, but 
I can make you feel better

As the horns blare and snares sound, Beyoncé’s cheeky vibrato asks: “Who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life?”

Culture can teach life.

As drummer Venzella Joy’s marching snare drum solo signals the beginning of her iconic 2018 Coachella music festival headline performances, it launches a popular culture moment that transforms the sentiments of Schoolin’ Life into the lifeworld of Homecoming, a space where themes of art, education and culture collide.

In two hours of striking visuals, with insights into Beyoncé’s intensive process, remarkable artistic prowess and arresting vulnerability, Homecoming reveals that questions of power always exist in art, resting alongside narratives of resilience, creativity and deliberate consciousness – in constant dialogue with and forming what we know as “our culture” or even “the culture”.

Beyoncé operates through global events. From albums to imagery and performances, each release occurs in an orbit of immense gravity. As soon as the concert-film was available on Netflix, Beyoncé released her Homecoming Live album, which made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts without any marketing beforehand. And she re-released Lemonade, her sixth studio album that was initially only available on Tidal, on all streaming platforms, reintroducing the three-year-old album to the charts. In doing so, her releases became not individual elements of pop artistry but a body of work rich in meaning, deserving of study and interpretation, shimmering with symbolism and politics.

Popular culture as political text

As Rutgers University academic and teacher Kevin Allred describes his Politicizing Beyoncé course, it’s not about politicising Beyoncé as a person, rather politicising the gaze through which we see her as a performer and artist. The way we imagine, think about, write about and position Beyoncé as an artist is never without politics. Popular culture is a political text that invites questions about power and different players can be understood as legitimate within that domain.

Image and control

Beyoncé wrote, directed and is the executive producer of Homecoming. It is roughly a two-hour meditation on her labour, both as an entertainer and as a new mother. The documentary combines her two weekend performances from Coachella 2018, and the gruelling eight months of rehearsals for the festival, with intimate footage from the months it took to retrain her post-pregnancy body.

While providing a rare glimpse into her life, it remains critically and importantly just that – a partial image, a brief glance as opposed to a stark image, completely rendered for our viewing and voyeurism.

For many, Beyoncé is myth: an idea and its execution. Homecoming is a rare insight into Beyoncé as process, performer and person – intersected layers partially unravelled and always curated. As writer Jake Nevins comments: “Beyoncé lets us see as much of the sweat as she’s willing, and some will perhaps want more. But she’s less interested in unravelling the mythology than letting us plebeians revel in it.”

Beyoncé keeps a tight rein on her image, famously giving no interviews and carefully curating her messaging. This level of control, while frustrating to some, in an era of constant content on multiple mediums and greater insight into the lives of celebrities, can also be read as a note on black women’s ownership of their bodies and image; a choice that becomes powerful when thinking about those who have been, and continue to be, denied the full ownership and meaning of their bodies in the world.

Rather than provide totalising insight into her private life, what Beyoncé elevates is her purpose and intention as the documentary moves from movie to “mission statement”.

Intellectual tradition

Homecoming is positioned within black intellectual and artistic tradition. At Coachella – a music festival in Indio, California, where being the headliner is a measure of immense success – Beyoncé’s set was a celebration of African-American culture and traditions, created within the college experience. As the first black woman to headline Coachella, she states, in a voiceover in the documentary:

Homecoming is not just for alumni, or returning students. It is a community event. You’ll find a multitude of many different kinds of people there.”

Onstage, dressed in pops of pink and yellow, Beyoncé and her team draw visual references from this tradition, including the majorettes and marching bands of historically black colleges and universities, the popular dance styles of the streets, and the songs and statements that have been created by and speak to African-American life.

Related article:

Expounding on this in the documentary, as the words of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone and other icons momentarily occupy the screen, it becomes clear that the production “is as much a celebration of black intellectual history as it is a concert film”, as Atlantic writer Hannah Giorgis comments. She continues, saying that Beyoncé “broadens the artist’s accomplishment by contextualising it within a larger body of work from black artists and theorists who toiled in – and often against – hostile, all-white institutions”.

With the body of work that Beyoncé is currently creating, from Lemonade to her Black Panther-tinged Super Bowl performance, Homecoming and beyond, it is not an overextension to say that she is positioning herself as an intellectual of the black artistic tradition. While Beyoncé has largely allowed audiences to infer the meaning and messaging behind her artistic intentions, through Homecoming it is clearly revealed to be unavoidably rooted in politics. Black politics.

As Beyoncé intones in the documentary: “Instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture.” With this choice, Homecoming can be read as presenting us with questions of cultural power, inviting us to consider who gets to make and participate in “culture”, and what it means to claim space for oppressed and minority cultures in places of historical exclusion.

An openness to questions

There are a range of questions that Homecoming opens up and extends, of history, self, community and freedom, among other themes. They echo across multiple dimensions of the black experience and are able to touch the shared aspects of what it means to be black, even as our contexts create particular and unique realities.

Homecoming is the product of dialogue between artistry, the self and community. Through a unique kind of openness – perhaps enabled by its focus on the communal – Beyoncé invites us to participate in a questioning all our own.

In South Africa, perhaps Homecoming provokes unique questions. Asking us to elevate and celebrate artists preserving our diverse cultures and traditions; asking what it means to position social dance forms like the gwara gwara, tsipa and vosho as forms of artistry and culture; and acting as an invitation to question the state of and inheritance we owe to our own historically black institutions, including the University of the Western Cape and Fort Hare University. In an era in which the cries of Fees Must Fall still echo, the state of education simmers below the surface of a film made miles away.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.