Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming
Author(s): Kimberly Fain
Dr. Kimberly Fain is a Visiting Professor at Texas Southern University and a licensed attorney. She holds a Ph.D. in Technical Communication & Rhetoric from Texas Tech University, a J.D. from Thurgood Marshall School of Law, an M.A. from Texas Southern University, and a B.A. degree from Texas A&M University. Dr. Fain teaches writing, technical and professional communication, and literature. Her research interests include Black Feminist Rhetoric, African American Rhetoric, Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Social Justice, and Legal Communication. She’s the author of the following books: African American Literature Anthology: Slavery, Liberation, and Resistance, Black Hollywood: From Butlers to Superheroes, the Changing Role of African American Men in the Movies, and Colson Whitehead: The Postracial Voice of Contemporary Literature.
Abstract: With past projects, such as Lemonade (2016), Beyoncé has embraced her language practices as an African American woman to evoke agency and empowerment both for herself and her community. Here, with Homecoming, Beyoncé communicates similar rhetorical intentions. However, as the first Black woman to headline Coachella, she communicates her role as a culture maker and trailblazer to shift her audience’s thinking, promote activism, and shape social movements. Meaning, Beyoncé’s rhetorical intentions stretch beyond her 200 performers. As perhaps, the most successful woman performer in the world, she aims to influence both the Coachella audience and Netflix audience. During this Homecoming film, Beyoncé performs various songs from past albums to convey various rhetorical messages of Black womanhood and sexuality. When Beyoncé merges African American Women’s Language practices with her Southern Black identity, she represents the complexity of intersectional identity. By featuring positive images of Black women, Beyoncé demonstrates knowledge and resistance to negative stereotypes. In other words, Beyoncé’s Homecoming reflects emotional and personal experiences of Black women that are also inherently political. Beyoncé employs Black feminist themes to transform our cultural appreciation of ourselves with Homecoming, which emphasizes how Black Women’s rhetorical practices are culturally impacting the world.Tags: activism, African American Women’s Language, agency, Black womanhood, Coachella, empowerment, healing, Homecoming, inclusion, Intersectionality, Lemonade, sexuality, social movements
With respect to Black women’s rhetorical practices, in terms of agency, empowerment, intersectionality and inclusion, Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019) communicates theories of Black feminism. For the two-hour and seventeen-minute musical/concert film, behind-the-scenes narration of rehearsal footage, spoken quotes from African American icons, and Beyoncé’s narration are interweaved in between Coachella concert footage (Homecoming). As the black and white scene footage features Beyoncé’s narration of her process, as both the headline performer and primary creator, Beyoncé’s high energy singing and dancing foregrounds Homceoming’s band, drumline, choir, and dancers. As the writer, director, and executive producer, Beyoncé plays multiple roles conveying her impact as a rhetor to convey powerful messages to her various audiences. Furthermore, she is a socially conscious rhetor that is aware of the social impact of her discourse, as a Black woman celebrity, in private and public spaces.
Scholar Melissa Harris-Perry is useful for understanding the hypersexualized and asexual stereotypes that are used to shame celebrities and everyday Black women in politics and media. Due to those types of negative categorizations, multi-faceted aspects of Black women’s sexual identity are flattened into one-dimensional stereotypes. Like scholar Melissa Harris-Perry says, “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political” (5). In other words, Beyoncé’s Homecoming reflects experiences of Black woman that are also inherently political. Thus, her aural/visual production reflects those internal, emotional, and personal experiences. According to Harris-Perry, Black women’s experiences “are political because black women in America have always had to wrestle with derogatory assumptions about their character and identity” (5). For instance, Beyoncé subverts the Black inferiority trope by featuring talented Black performers chosen to represent the Historical Black College and University (HBCU) annual homecoming experience. By featuring dancers and a band that reflect HBCU students, Homecoming exhibits Black pride by centering Black people and making Black culture visible. Additionally, she subverts the Black Women Are Ugly trope by featuring herself, performance ensemble, sister/singer/songwriter Solange, and best friends/former Destiny’s Child members in her legendary performance. Confidently, these women express their provocative dance moves with their diverse hair textures, skin tones, and sizes. By elevating diverse images of Black bodies, Beyoncé rejects negative notions of Black women’s visual appeal and sexuality as ugly, hypervisible, or invisible.
Unapologetically, Black women’s diverse appeal and sexuality is another means of expressing Black womanhood, which emphasizes Black women’s self-acceptance as a form of inclusion within the Black community. Within the production of Homecoming, inclusion does not reflect a desire for white or male acceptance. Instead, I argue that Beyoncé stresses that defeating marginalization is about including diverse and talented Black bodies, in public and private spaces. Beyoncé is an acutely aware rhetor, in terms of understanding that the liberated movement of Black women’s bodies represents both resistance to white social norms and nonconformity to Black men’s standards of beauty. With Homecoming, Beyoncé compels Black women to accept their own discursive practices and rhetorical expression. By scripting, narrating, directing, and executively producing Homecoming, Beyoncé exhibits rhetorical control over how Black women’s bodies are portrayed and the language used to portray them. Beyoncé’s epic agency and empowerment over the intertexual relationship between the behind-the-scenes commentary, narration, famous quotes, and performance lyrics communicate this message of self-acceptance (Homecoming).
Homecoming also features a message of community acceptance via the visual and emotional appeal of the HBCU experience. Beyoncé’s rhetorical style involves multiple texts, working in conjunction with one another, persuasively, to sway her audience that the Black Homecoming experience, as representative of HBCU greatness, impacts lives by transforming culture. Based on the empowering messages of Homecoming, Beyoncé demonstrates that her songs are for more than popular consumption and enjoyment. By using her rhetorical agency to feature black and white narrated, behind-the-scenes footage, Beyoncé connects themes of Black womanhood, sexuality, and empowerment to Black feminist rhetoric via her song lyrics and dynamic performance at Coachella. Thus, since Beyoncé seeks community change, the Black feminist rhetoric of Homecoming is about more than individual empowerment. Beyoncé seems to have every intention of modeling Black feminist rhetorical practices, in an effort to inspire the entire Black community to resist negative messages of disempowerment.
In this article, I address how Beyoncé, a Black woman with a celebrity platform persuades audiences to transform their concepts of Black women, Black people and Black culture. As a matter of experiencing Black womanhood, the Homecoming audience relates to Beyoncé’s truthful acceptance of diverse Black bodies via visual storytelling. Therefore, Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It and “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop” inform my discussion of the use of storytelling or truth telling to evoke change in personal and social circumstances. By applying Pough’s theories of storytelling and truth telling in Beyoncé’s Homecoming performance, this explains how Beyoncé impacts her audience even though her storytelling and truth telling is rooted in the Black woman’s experience.
In the process of building on Pough’s theorization of storytelling or truth telling as rhetorical methods for Black feminist expression, I look to Charlene Carruthers’s Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Woman Discovers Her Superpowers. As I interpret the ethos of Beyoncé’s Black feminism, Carruthers and Cooper assist with my analysis via a queer lens. Both Carruthers and Cooper theorize the term queer and express the significance of trans inclusion within the meaning of Black feminism. Their discussion deepens our understanding of the Janet Mock and bell hooks “Are You Still a Slave?” panel debate. When interpreting Beyoncé’s impact on audience members—such as Mock and hooks—Carruthers and Cooper remind us to widen our Black feminist discussions beyond centering cisgender women. By including a queer lens within our interpretation of Black feminism, we resist internalized homophobia and transphobia.
With respect to Homecoming’s Black feminist impact on the world, I look to Elaine Richardson and Gwendolyn Pough’s “Hip Hop Literacies and the Globalization of Popular Culture.” According to Richardson and Pough, hip-hop’s expression of Black language, identity, and culture have a global impact. Hip-hop has influenced the “freedom movement, human rights, and social inequality” due to “the globalization of Black popular culture” (131). Beyoncé’s Homecoming represents how liberatory messages from hip-hop have a worldwide reach. Since the African diaspora includes Black people around the world and Black feminism is expressed by women around the world, global impact is not determined by a white male gaze or audience. Even though Homecoming centers Black women and the HBCU experience, the film has been a monumental global success. Homecoming was “No. 1 in over 40 countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Spain, and Turkey. Talk about star power” (Carter, “Surprise!).
Due to the global reach of the Netflix streaming platform, international attendees of the Coachella performance, and Beyoncé’s unprecedented notoriety as a performer, she embodies how Black Women’s rhetorical practices are impacting the world. Homecoming symbolizes a social and cultural movement beyond local California and national implications. Since Beyoncé experiences worldwide popularity, it’s unrealistic for her to create a text that does not receive viewership from diverse audiences. Especially, since the Homecoming film is featured on Netflix’s international streaming platform, Beyoncé’s audience shares her message with the world. As a cultural icon, Beyoncé has both a Black audience and a non-Black audience. Even though Beyoncé is aware of the white male gaze, as a Black feminist, she is not preoccupied with it. Thus, this article’s analysis reflects the same audience that Beyoncé centers and prioritizes—Black women.
Homecoming is an exemplar text in terms the theoretical and methodological application of the impact of Black feminist rhetoric. To discuss Beyoncé’s expression of Southern Black womanhood via her behind-the-scenes narration, I refer to past studies—such as Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin’s Lemonade Reader to emphasize Homecoming’s Black feminist social impact. Brooks and Martin’s text features interdisciplinary contributors, including Alexis McGee’s “The Language of Lemonade: The Sociolinguistic and Rhetorical Strategies of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” McGee’s analysis functions as the framework for Beyoncé’s use of African American Women’s Language (AAWL), as a Southern Black woman in Homecoming to shape and evoke change in private and public spaces, navigate multiple discursive communities and communicate Black feminist theories of agency, empowerment, intersectionality, and inclusion. According to McGee, “the public presence of Lemonade makes space available for Black women to evoke change and validate collective struggle and identity” (55).
Ultimately, Homecoming builds on the social impact of Lemonade by communicating Black feminist rhetorical themes of Southern Black womanhood, empowerment, agency, and sexuality. As a result, Beyoncé demonstrates how Black women’s rhetorical expression transcends entertainment to promote activism, healing, and shape social movements.
The Musicality of Impassioned Civil Discourse
Prior to interrogating the Black feminist rhetorical elements of Beyoncé’s Homecoming, it’s necessary to consider the rhetorical situation, such as exigence, audience, and various constraints. Based on the epic nature of Homecoming’s ensemble performances, Beyoncé is engaged in multiple rhetorical situations with multiple rhetors. However, my focus will remain on Beyoncé’s rhetorical effect as the main rhetor and producer of the primary messages. Although Beyoncé has wide-reaching popularity that reaches both a primary and secondary audience (non-Black), Beyoncé’s messages center Black women as her primary audience. Considering how media platforms and networks are realizing the connection between popularity and profit, I will explain how focusing on Black women audience members does not adversely impact Beyoncé’s global reach.
Homecoming represents the first film of a $60 million “mega three-project deal with global superstar Beyoncé Knowles” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). This deal with Beyoncé represents a “rise in demand for . . . exclusive access to African American content creators” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Between 2017 and 2019, Black women creators—such as Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, Courtney Kemp, Oprah, and Tiffany Haddish—have inked deals with Netflix, Showtime, HBO, STARZ, or Apple (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). In fact, there have been “recent launches of new networks targeting specifically African American women” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Cleo TV, OWN, “BET Networks, TV One, and traditionally non-black TV networks” are beginning “to realize the profit potential of that historically underserved market” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Since content produced by Black women for Black women audiences is seen on both Black and non-black networks, Black women’s rhetorical practices have a global impact due to a non-Black secondary audience viewership.
To address why it’s important to consider the interaction and shared feelings between Beyoncé and her audience, I apply Biesecker’s analysis of the rhetorical situation to Homecoming. Based on Beyoncé’s method of addressing Black women that share her intersectional identity, Homecoming is rhetorical because of the engagement that occurs between Beyoncé and her audience (Biesecker 113). Thus, when she encourages her audience to express themselves via her lived experience and personal narratives, her rhetorical engagement becomes evident. Through Beyoncé’s songs and narrative interludes, she inspires her audience by expressing Black feminist ideology. In other words, it is not enough that her audience responds to her messages by singing along and dancing. Based on Biesecker’s analysis, Beyoncé as a rhetor motivates her audience to act on their similarly held beliefs, as opposed to changing their beliefs.
Hence, I’m building on that rhetorical engagement between Beyoncé and her audience by using “‘She Made Angry Black Woman Something That People Would Want To Be’: Lemonade and Black Women as Audiences and Subjects” (Toone, et. al.) to discuss the relationship between the rhetor, message, and audience. For Beyoncé’s Homecoming, the exigency is created by the need to communicate the everyday struggle of Black women regardless of celebrity status. Despite her notoriety and awarded talent, it does not shield her from the pain of living while Black. Toone et. al. notes this distinction by citing Alice Walker. In Walker’s “groundbreaking discussion of Womanism, Black women often bring entirely different problems, concerns, and interests to the table from White women and other women of color” (Toone et. al. 207). Hence, the urgency of Homecoming reflects the divergent life experiences of Black women and White women due to intersectional oppression. Since Black women are impacted by multiple sites of oppression—such as race, gender, and sexuality—the urgency of their issues may differ. Womanist rhetoric (e.g., Black feminist rhetoric) strives for “the freedom and wholeness of an entire people—male and female” (Pough 69). Pough reminds us that womanist rhetoric is about “saving a life, a people, or indeed the world. And it is always linked to an activist project and agenda—that is, it is about change” (Pough 70). By drawing on Pough’s discussion of womanism, this expounds on how the concerns of Black and White women may differ due to Black women’s experiences with intersectional oppression. Furthermore, this explains why Black feminist rhetorical messages of healing are concerned about both the individual and the community.
When Beyoncé features healing songs in Homecoming, she’s speaking directly to Black women. Regarding the change that Beyoncé wishes to evoke, Beyoncé features scenes of her rhetorical process via the struggles she faces as a mother, in terms of finding time for her newborn twins and elder daughter. Despite her need to fit into her costumes for the upcoming Coachella performance, she hopes to heal and inspire everyday Black women who struggle, too. Brooks and Martin state how Beyoncé expressed similar rhetorical intentions with Lemonade: “The urgency of the moment—the multivalent dialogues about black women’s emotional labor, joy, and healing in love—relationships—propels us toward . . . numerous paths along black feminism” (1). For Beyoncé, joy and healing is about personal and communal Black feminist expression. As a result of Lemonade’s “trailblazing visual text,” academia is compelled “to reconsider how black feminists engage in the popular world and scholarship simultaneously” (Brooks and Martin 1). To thoroughly address Beyoncé’s rhetorical messages, this Homecoming analysis is a continuum of interpreting similar Black feminist themes explored in Lemonade.
Since Beyoncé’s messages target Black women, her style of communication resonates within the Black community. For instance, since Beyoncé’s unapologetically Black belief in self is rooted in her Southern Black womanhood, the traditions and images of HBCUs Homecoming may primarily create a change in those who support Black women empowerment. As audience members, people of color often negotiate their standpoints based on being “underrepresented and overly stereotyped in popular media, Black audiences often work within the dominant structure of representation to read and understand media on their own terms” (Toone, et. al. 207). Therefore, Beyoncé’s Black feminist expression and healing subject matter is relatable to her target Black women audience. With “complex projects like self-help,” rhetors “advance African American communities” (Richardson, “Carey, Tamika L. Rhetorical Healing” 401). Theorizing “African American rhetorical traditions as a set of action-taking, knowledge-making, and community-sustaining resources is to figure out how we can put projects such as Black women’s healing into everyday, critical use” (Carey 146). Mainly, because those messages of love as a method of healing resonate with an audience that’s not accustomed to seeing themselves accurately depicted in an aural/visual manner. With Homecoming, Black women see themselves and their stories centered as a method of healing the community.
Although the accessibility of the Netflix platform may place constraints on Homecoming’s message of self-healing, I will explain how Beyoncé persuasively communicates with her audience. Audience members must have access to a free trial or subscription to access Beyoncé’s message. Since Homecoming is a filmed production of a live performance, the excited utterances and unexpected discourse from the audience members comes from people that attended the live production. However, even with the excited utterances and discourse from the concert attendees, the film audience views recorded and edited images. As a result, the call and response method of communicating with her audience occurs at the live concert site only. Since the Coachella audience is present with Beyoncé, the immediacy of the moment creates awareness for the rhetor. However, upon circulation, Beyoncé’s awareness of the rhetorical impact from the Homecoming audience occurs in the following ways. Based on Beyoncé’s consistent expression of Black feminist ideology in her work, her awards, critical acclaim, Netflix film ratings, and continued appeal, this provides a level of awareness that her multi-layered messages evoke positive and impactful change on her audience.
The Rhetoric of Black Womanhood
Despite her empowering message of Black women’s sexuality, within the video arrangement of Lemonade’s “Formation,” critics wondered if Beyoncé was “becoming too political—especially after her tribute to the Black Panther Party at Super Bowl 50 in 2016” (B. Johnson 236). Beyoncé’s critics did not dismay her. She proudly features “Formation” in Homecoming. Perhaps, some critics are unable to widen their lens beyond the grown ass woman who is now aware of her sexuality. If critics had paid attention to her integration of hip hop within her R&B lyrics, they would have realized that Beyoncé was keeping it real by constructing her Black woman identity, while sending social-political messages about Black woman empowerment and agency alongside her sexuality for some time.
In the midst of difficult circumstances, truth telling and keeping it real is emblematic of hip-hop, as a representation of this rhetorical music genre. Pough writes in Check It While I Wreck It that African Americans truth telling is rooted in slave narratives such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks and other autobiographies (104). In fact, Pough refers to this desire to evoke change in society with narrative storytelling as an illocutionary force. Other narratives such as “Malcolm X’s autobiography, Angela Davis’s autobiography, and Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide” exhibit this illocutionary force (Pough, Check It 104). Like in the past, the purpose of these personal stories was to evoke change in racial, cultural, and political circumstances. Since hip-hop is rooted in the struggle of the Black experience, inevitably this genre shares similar intentions. However, Pough stresses that in the past, hip-hop commentary centered males writing from a male perspective. Yet, when theoretical analysis omits Black women, this is not the full picture of the hip-hop genre.
Like Pough, I wish to analyze the socio-political elements of hip-hop from a Black feminist rhetorical perspective. By taking into account rejections of preconceived notions of Black womanhood, audience members will interpret hip-hop from a Black feminist lens that incorporates the complex nature of Black women. Pough refers to this as the “rhetoric of Black womanhood” by examining how Black women “use the language of the past and present to construct their identities as Black women and create a rhetoric of wreck that claims agency and encourages self-definition not only for themselves but also for contemporary young Black women” (Check It 105-106).
While Beyoncé narrates her story leading up to Coachella and reads the quotes from African American icons in Homecoming, this is clearly a strategy to express how she utilizes her agency to construct her identity and engage in self-definition. As Beyoncé narrates her story as a performer, Black woman, and Black mother, she’s centering her life experiences as she brings the story of HBCU Homecomings to Coachella and Netflix. Ultimately, she is hoping to inspire transformative change in Black women’s feelings about themselves, and the socially oppressive milieu in which Black women must live. Beyoncé does this, in part, by including brief narratives of her dancers, some of whom are also mothers. Despite Beyoncé’s celebrity privilege of having access to caregivers, she makes a racial-gender connection to her performers. By featuring their stories as Black mothers, despite class differences, their intersectional status establishes a communal connection between them. Thus, like Pough says, Beyoncé as a Black woman, “claims agency and encourages self-definition” as both a personal and communal act (Check It 106).
With another text, Pough theorizes the rhetoric of Black womanhood in terms of the dual messaging of storytelling as truth telling. In Pough’s text, “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop,” she provides a framework for examining how Black women in hip-hop communicate messages. Pough states that there are some rappers who “articulate community issues and concerns via their lyrics” (“Personal Narratives” 111). Furthermore, rappers could be considered “self-designated tellers of the people’s suffering and deliver messages that otherwise might not be heard” (“Personal Narratives” 112). As previously discussed in Check It While I Wreck It, Black women’s experiences are oftentimes invisible or omitted from hip-hop discourse. Grounded in Pough’s discussion in Check It While I Wreck It and her chapter on personal narratives, I’d argue that Homecoming is in the Black autobiographical tradition of seeking revolutionary change in Black women’s thinking about themselves and how society responds to their revelatory thinking.
Based on the rhetorics of Black womanhood, performers that create autobiographical texts for a societal change, they seek to subvert “stereotypical images and constructions” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). During the behind-the-scenes narration, Beyoncé expresses how she is aware of society’s negative viewpoints. Thus, I argue that she presents her Coachella/Homecoming production as tangible proof that those misconceptions of Black womanhood are in error. Beyoncé engages in the politics of #CiteBlackWomen, when she makes a point of quoting Black women icons, which are spoken in their own voice during Homecoming. During these scenes, where Beyoncé includes quotes from African American iconic educators, writers, and activists such as Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou, in between her narration, Beyoncé uses “language of the past and present to construct” her identity as a Black woman and creates “a rhetoric of agency and self-definition” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). In the process of creating rhetorical agency and self-definition, since these stereotypes don’t mirror their lives, Black women hope to replace viewpoints that are harmful to them and their communities.
When Black women “tell their stories,” they’re able to offer “social commentary” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). By providing social commentary intertwined with their life stories, Black women further reiterate how the personal is political. The personal experiences of Black women impact the community. And the community’s experiences impact the Black woman. As result, Pough states that these “texts serve dual functions as life stories and message texts, with each author attempting to uplift and heal others through the telling of her story” (“Personal Narratives” 112). Within this process of reconstructing Beyoncé’s identity, she attempts to empower other Black women by inspiring feelings of positivity. Furthermore, based on the empowering messages she sends, Beyoncé reshapes her image and how other Black women are perceived. By changing how one sees oneself, one can redefine themselves for themselves. Ultimately, Beyoncé is an aware rhetor that realizes her uplifting messages have the power to transform Black women’s thinking and feelings about themselves and their community.
The Ethos of Beyoncé’s Black Feminism
In the process of interpreting how Beyoncé communicates with her audience, it’s imperative to address her ethos as a credible Black feminist rhetor. Unsurprisingly, Beyoncé’s dance lyrics and seductive movements have led to problematic readings, which cause some critics to miss the Black empowerment and socio-political elements of her message. To express how Beyoncé’s rhetorical messages impact Black feminism beyond a heteronormative lens, I include commentary from Charlene Carruthers and Brittney Cooper to theorize the importance of queer body inclusion. Charlene Carruthers’s Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements writes that the term queer “represents a continuum of possibilities outside of what are considered to be normal sexual or gender identities and behaviors” (Carruthers 10). It’s important to note that “even black cisfeminists who want to be transinclusive can fail to make room for trans sisters” (Tinsley 158).
Black feminist theorist Brittney Cooper also rejects a narrow understanding of Black feminism that is limited to cisgender women. Cooper refutes arguments that exclude trans women from the “general category of woman” (29). Cooper says it’s important not to exclude women based on race. But, also to consider that while “cis, gender nonconforming, trans, queer, bi, or straight might have different experiences,” they are all women (Cooper 29). To Cooper, this is an area that Black feminism needs to clarify. Unless all women’s concerns are addressed, “particularly the most marginalized women’s concerns, aren’t taken seriously,” the spirit of feminism is not fulfilled (Cooper 29). By incorporating Carruthers’s and Cooper’s theories of trans inclusion, we deepen our analysis of Beyoncé’s Black feminism via a queer lens.
On a panel with trans woman activist Janet Mock, bell hooks expressed her issues with Beyoncé’s performance in a discussion from The New School “Are You Still a Slave?” in 2014. In response to bell hooks previous criticisms of Beyoncé, Janet Mock explains how Beyoncé influenced her to feel more positive about her body. Mock notes, how in this rarefied space of sexual freedom, Beyoncé exhibits power and independence from the patriarchal influences of her father, Matthew Knowles, Destiny’s Child’s creator and her husband, rap mogul Jay-Z. Mock states:
But also having ‘Partition’ come out . . . when I’m writing about . . . issues with my body my sexuality it was freeing to have Beyoncé showing her ass and owning her body and claiming that space that meant a lot to me . . . it gave me the okay as someone I look up to since I was fifteen to have that . . . but I do think there is power in her leaving her father and I don’t think she’s going straight to Jay-Z’s hands . . . but that documentary [Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream] was about leaving her father and saying I will not let you give this distilled image of me of me anymore and that resonates with me on so many levels, too.
(“bell hooks – Are You Still a Slave?” 46:33-47:15)
Here, Mock communicates the power of Black feminist rhetoric to have authority over one’s bodily expression and the spaces a Black woman inhabits. Mock’s response to Beyoncé as a viewer, Black woman feminist, and trans woman activist emphasizes Beyoncé’s wide-reaching impact on her audience. Not only does Beyoncé’s musical freedom impact cisgender Black women. As she expresses her sexuality, Beyoncé’s claiming of sexual freedom in various spaces is also an inspiration to queer Black bodies. Meaning, when claiming space, Beyoncé’s lyrics and movement affirm the inclusion of queer bodies in both her personal and communal quest for Black women empowerment and agency. Instead of delving deeper into Mock’s insightful interpretation of Beyoncé’s agency over her own body, despite strong male celebrity influences in her life, hooks’s commentary takes a problematic turn.
Without blinking an eye, hooks states “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist. That is assaulting. That is a terrorist . . . especially in terms of the impact on young girls . . . I actually feel like the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media” (“bell hooks – Are You Still a Slave?” 47:37-47:59). And, perhaps, there is value in hooks discussion of the media’s assault on feminism. Yet, she does not justify her argument for interpreting Beyoncé’s rhetorical expression as anti-feminist and terroristic. Quite frankly, this response to Mock’s expression of sexual-gender inclusion is removed from both Beyoncé’s message and Mock’s response to that message as an audience member.
In Roxane Gay’s article entitled “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image Belies the bell hooks ‘Slave’ Critique,” she responds to hooks unbridled criticism of Beyoncé as destructive to the concept of feminism. According to hooks, Beyoncé’s presentation is contradictory and is devoid of expressing a “liberatory image”. hooks claims, “This rhetoric of women ‘enslaving themselves’,” becoming ever more beholden to the patriarchy when they present themselves sexually, is common” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). However, this interpretation of Beyoncé as having a lack of agency over her own image demonstrates a lack of acknowledgement of Beyoncé as a cultural producer. Gay notes, Beyoncé has “long acted as her own manager, produced and directed a documentary about her life and made many a lucrative business deal” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). Meaning, Beyoncé exhibits behind-the-scenes agency, which is far removed from hooks likening Beyoncé to a slave beholden to the patriarchy. Embracing one’s sexuality includes liberation from divergent generational interpretations of sexuality. If the goal is to improve the lives of other women, there is no one-way to be feminist. Thus, without evaluating Beyoncé’s positive impact on Black women and the community, for the purpose of drawing negative conclusions, hooks’s second wave feminism narrowly interprets Beyoncé’s rhetorical expression.
In fact, feminism is the freedom to embrace one’s own sexuality, under her own terms. As feminists, “[W]e have to trust that women can be feminists, good role models and embrace sexuality. We have to believe that we can hold different points of view without labeling each other bad feminists” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). Gay and Mock’s intuitive response to hooks’s narrow view of feminism reflects Black feminist rhetorical principles. As a manner of communicating sexual freedom and authority over one’s body, the language Black feminists use to speak of each other should demonstrate a belief that sexuality may be expressed differently. Exposing or hiding one’s body does not necessarily denote acquiescence to male patriarchal influences. In fact, when a woman such as Beyoncé determines how an audience will see her and has intention behind the delivery of her own messaging, she is exhibiting how Black feminist rhetoric leads to agency. Judging by the various roles that Beyoncé plays, such as managing, producing, and directing her own documentary, Homecoming, she demonstrates rhetorical control over how her own image and the messages she distributes, while impacting her audience.
The Arrangement and Style of Beyoncé’s Homecoming
The Rhetoric of Social Activism
Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in Homecoming can be described as “a pep rally for Beyoncé’s imagined black college or university” (Kornhaber, “Beyoncé Masters”). However, a more introspective examination reveals that the message of Homecoming is far more than an aesthetic endeavor. Within “this portrayal of an African American educational tradition were call-outs to other legendary institutions of black excellence—the Nubian kingdom (the bleachers formed a pyramid), and Southern hip-hop” (Kornhaber, “Beyoncé Masters”). This use of hip-hop by Beyoncé represents “An artistic, social, and cultural movement, it is diverse and reflects the local histories, cultures and concerns of its worldwide practitioners, while adhering to hip-hop’s ideological and aesthetic imperatives” (Richardson and Pough 129). Meaning, Beyoncé’s use of hip-hop represents how the messages of Homecoming emerge from the African American community into global spaces. Beyoncé demonstrates her understanding of her audience’s history, culture, and concerns by interweaving the hip-hop tradition with her R&B lyrics, expressive movements, and costumes. With Homecoming, Beyoncé artistically, socially, and culturally moves the audience with images rooted in the African and African American community.
When Beyoncé’s Coachella performance opens, she walks the stage in her Queen Nefertiti outfit. By adorning this cultural homage to African royalty, Beyoncé exhibits Black feminist rhetorical principles because her Black body becomes a site of historical knowledge. In this stage outfit, Beyoncé reminds the audience of a real African queen who ruled Egypt. Thus, the representation of Nefertiti is simultaneously a site of historical knowledge and rhetorical agency because Beyoncé is sending a message of empowerment to Black women. Since Beyoncé’s “cape featured an emblazoned . . . image of Nefertiti” (Borge, “The Meaning”), the message is effectively communicated to her audience. Amid this cultural homage to African history and culture, she builds on this message: “Beyoncé’s larger-than-life hat is similar to one researchers discovered on the bust of Nefertiti in 1912” (Borge, “The Meaning”). Furthermore, “Beyoncé’s dancers wore catsuits that . . . had images of the Sphinx from ancient Greek lore” (Borge, “The Meaning”). With audience’s eyes on them, Beyoncé’s dancers perform sorority Greek-like steps, with Black Panther beret hats (Homecoming 2:15-2:30). Thus, this ideological message that Black power is knowledge of Black women leaders such as Queen Nefertiti is converged. By subverting notions of Black inferiority and elevating the aesthetic beauty of African history, Beyoncé is evoking an ideological sense of Black pride.
For the second weekend of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, she adorns “an all-silver take on the Nefertiti ensemble” (Borge, “The Meaning”). On the back of this epic outfit, are the Greek letters Beta Delta Kappa. This intentional nexus between Egyptian history and Greek sororities are a method of connecting African heritage with the rhetorical missions of HBCUs. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization argues for a reevaluation of the connection between Africa and Greece (Welch 46). Rhetorical historiography offers an opportunity to redress past absences of African and African American influence in academia. Beyoncé’s use of both Egyptian and Greek symbolism demonstrates her understanding of this connection. Her use of Egyptian and Greek imagery evokes community pride in the HBCU experience. Drawing a rhetorical historiographical connection between African and Greek history is symbolic of double consciousness. Effectively, Homecoming maintains an academic connection to Black historical figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois that theorized the duality of the Black American experience.
It’s fitting, then, that Homecoming is now an extension of this artistic double consciousness (and notably quotes W. E. B. Du Bois, who coined the term). Throughout the documentary, Beyoncé weaves in text and audio snippets from multiple black authors, historians, and public thinkers, most often culling from moments when they spoke directly to black audiences. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour production, which Beyoncé wrote, directed, and executively-produced, is as much a celebration of black-intellectual history as it is a concert film.
(Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”)
In other words, there is a rhetorical correlation between African history, HBCUs, and Black intellectuals. When Beyoncé pays homage to Queen Nefertiti, she evokes a Black feminist rhetorical message of Black women empowerment. However, when she introduces Greek sorority life to the audience, she’s sending a message that history and intellect represents an artistic, social, and cultural movement of advancement that is reflective of Black feminist rhetorical ideology. Knowledge of Black history equates to Black power. Meaning, the knowledge of self comes from knowledge of African history. Thus, Beyoncé’s homage to Queen Nefertiti is a site of knowledge. When Beyoncé promotes the rhetorical words of Black intellectuals who were educators, writers, and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Marian Wright Edelman, and Audre Lorde—she further transforms Homecoming into a site of intellectual and textual production.
In Homecoming, when Beyoncé discusses the nexus between her artistic endeavors and intellectual growth, her personal story connects with her Black audience. Even for Blacks who have gone to public white institutions, in terms of this African American intellectual-cultural tradition, they are generally aware of the HBCU Homecoming experience. Since W. E. B. Du Bois attended Fisk University, by Beyoncé stating in Homecoming that her father attended Fisk University, as well, she’s connecting her personal history to our African American intellectual history. Growing up, this “Houston-born singer” was raised “near Prairie View A&M University and spent much of her early career rehearsing at Texas Southern University” (Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”). Due to the success of her musical career, she was unable to experience college life at an HBCU. Since Beyoncé says her “‘college was Destiny’s Child,’” she “channeled the institutions’ distinct vibrancy” (Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”). Beyoncé says, “I wanted a black orchestra. I wanted the steppers. I needed the vocalists. I wanted different characters; I didn’t want us all doing the same thing” (Homecoming 18:12-18:22). In essence, Beyoncé sought to create the Black experience onstage for her fans. For those reasons, her band and dancers reflect the African American heritage of the average HBCU student. To accurately express the authenticity of the HBCU experience, Beyoncé creates a safe space for historically marginalized individuals. Not to mention, African Americans see a reflection of themselves onstage.
At the close of Homecoming, Beyoncé includes a rhetorical message of activism. A black background features the following words in white: “So many people who are culturally aware and intellectually sound are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including my father. There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected” (Homecoming 2:12:38-2:12:46). By featuring this message, at the end of Homecoming, Beyoncé creates a call to action for her audience. Through her performance, ensemble dancers, behind-the-scenes narration, and intertwined quotes from Black intellectuals, Beyoncé communicates the message that celebrating HBCUs is about generational legacy and saving African American culture. When Beyoncé requests a monetary response from her Homecoming audience, she exhibits her primary rhetorical intention, which is to highlight the intellectual, social, and artistic impact of HBCUs on American culture. Quite frankly, HBCUs have produced a significant number of Black activist-intellectuals and professionals.
Rhetorically, Beyoncé is aware of the power she has as an artist and Black feminist. Beyoncé fuses Black women language practices with her Black identity, which includes the use of hip-hop to communicate with her Black audience. More than likely, Beyoncé is aware that “hip-hop’s global impact is unequivocally linked to a rooted commitment to local language practices, identities and expressive cultures” (Richardson and Pough 130). This intertwining of music and intellectual production is a manifestation of Black feminist rhetoric in the hands of Beyoncé. Homecoming is Beyoncé’s opportunity to demonstrate what Richardson and Pough refer to as an “interconnectedness of the Black American feminisms” on a global scale (Richardson and Pough 131). Beyoncé’s Homecoming demonstrates Black feminist rhetorical principles by featuring how “hip-hop feminism” functions “as a politic of solidarity and mutual empowerment for Black women and girls throughout the Americas” (Richardson and Pough 131). When Beyoncé is the headlining performer at an international festival such as Coachella, she is centering Black women and our power to lead, in this case a musical production, on a global scale. Therefore, when Beyoncé makes her plea to support HBCUs at the conclusion of Homecoming, for the purpose of supporting future great Black leaders, she is using her rhetorical agency to evoke an emotional response that will lead to monetary support for Black intellectualism, history and culture.
Beyoncé’s Rhetorical Agency: Behind-The-Scenes Narration
Behind-the-scenes of the glittery costumes and ensemble performers, Beyoncé exhibits profound understanding of the relationship between herself, her message, and her audience. Within this cultural production, she creates a rhetorical atmosphere that evokes both emotions from her screaming fans and behind-the-scenes commentary revealing her profound understanding of the rhetor-audience relationship. However, the attendees at Coachella didn’t have the privilege of hearing the behind-the-scenes commentary. This is a message constraint that’s not placed on the Netflix Homecoming audience. Therefore, for the purpose of interpreting Homecoming, I look to Alexis McGee’s Lemonade analysis of Beyoncé’s communicative practices as a Southern Black woman navigating “multiple discourse identities” (56). Even though my discussion is devoted to Homecoming, Alexis McGee’s “The Language of Lemonade: The Sociolinguistic and rhetorical strategies of Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” provides a framework for interpreting the behind-the-scenes language of this aural/visual film. Intentionally, Beyoncé situates both Lemonade and Homecoming in Black feminist discourse and language mirroring the Black woman experience. McGee expresses how Beyoncé’s Southern Black identity is part of her intersectional identity as a Black feminist. Moreover, Beyoncé demonstrates in Lemonade how Black women evoke change with their expression of lived experience: “This rise of Beyoncé as a mother, sister, daughter, and unapologetically Black woman from the South who is also a worldwide performer and entrepreneur has shown us various sides of this Black woman music artist from Houston” (McGee 55). Therefore, Lemonade lays the groundwork for discussing how Southern Black womanhood is expressed in Homecoming.
In the process of analyzing the effect of Beyoncé’s rhetoric, as she addresses her Homecoming audience, it’s important to identify her discursive practices. According to McGee, “Beyoncé’s explicit inclusion of AAWL markers like codes-witching [sic], signifying, and nonverbal sonic rhetorics—’hush harbors’ or silence—shows her navigation of constructing intersectional identities” (61). Using McGee’s analysis, I explain how I format statements from Beyoncé’s behind-the-scenes narration. For instance, I use ellipses to represent moments of brief anecdotal pauses or silences by Beyoncé. In fact, even the commas separating clauses and periods separating sentences work in conjunction with moments of intersentence or interclause silences. As Beyoncé engages in code-switching, by enunciating each word and refraining from the use of Southern English, her pauses demonstrate her navigation of her intersectional identities. Moreover, as part of this nonverbal sonic rhetoric, she resists public and communal exclusion perpetrated by mainstream society, which negatively impacts Black women, as individuals, in the private sphere. Beyoncé knows that this rejection of self comes from society’s rejection of Black women’s communicative expressions. Thus, Beyoncé’s manner in which she delivers her message uses silence to address the systemic issues of marginalization experienced by her audience.
As Beyoncé narrates these words, she features images that support themes of Black feminist rhetoric; each visual image emphasizes Beyoncé’s agency, empowerment, and sense of inclusion. When Beyoncé says that it mystifies her that she’s “the first African American woman to headline Coachella,” (Homecoming, 1:07:18-1:07:25) located on a table, there is a humongous white binder with the following words on the cover: BEY – CHELLA 2018.
To center her experience, Beyoncé uses the name Beychella. As a result, when she expresses her behind-the-scenes commentary, she transforms Homecoming into a site of rhetorical agency. Within this site of agency, as a trailblazer, Beyoncé expresses her desire for visible cultural and social change. Since Beyoncé has the celebrity power and authority to write, direct and produce her Homecoming film, when she uses language to express this experience, she exhibits Black women empowerment and agency. According to McGee, “This agency through language describes her maneuvering of multiple identities, politics, and locations for our consumption and reflection” (58). In this behind-the-scenes moment, despite cultural politics that barred other successful Black women performers before her, Beyoncé conveys her position as a pioneering first. As part of her expression of agency, as a Black woman pop cultural icon, she has the freedom to use language that conveys the complexity of her multiple identities and discourse communities. The image of that BEY – CHELLA white binder expresses her behind-the-scenes agency, in the private sphere. And the Homecoming movie itself expresses Beyoncé’s agency in the public sphere.
In the following black and white image, while wearing her Nefertiti costume, the Homecoming audience views Beyoncé in the public/private sphere. As she enters the side door of a building, holding her daughter Blue Ivy’s hand, her stage performers patiently wait for Beychella a. k. a. Beyoncé to enter first. The image further conveys Black feminist rhetorical themes of agency and empowerment. Beyoncé narrates the following words in this scene: “It was important to me . . . that everyone that had never seen themselves represented . . . felt like they were on that stage with us” (Homecoming 1:07:26-1:07:33). The audience is privy to the behind-the-scenes message of Beyoncé. Since she is a cultural producer, she wants to arouse feelings of Black kinship amongst members of the community. By wanting the audience to feel like “they were on that stage” with she and her dancers, Beyoncé redefines both herself and what it means to be a Black woman. Beyoncé exhibits rhetorical agency, in a manner that “enables us to redefine ourselves in order to work on behalf of self and community in the midst of our social realities” (K. Johnson 162). As Beyoncé continues to redefine herself, partially with renaming practices like the name Beychella, her Homecoming film also signifies a reframing of Coachella experiences, which were previously headlined by whites. Using her cultural power, she encourages her community to transcend their social reality within a system of oppression.
Beyoncé relates her Black feminist rhetorical message of community to her personal experience as a performer and to her communal experience with her ensemble cast of performers. Within this behind-the-scenes narration, Beyoncé’s language associates her with various discursive communities. According to McGee, Beyoncé’s “rhetorical use of AAWL signifies” how “Bey is more than a public pop-culture icon; she is also part of the audience, part citizen who is disproportionately misrecognized as other by a solipsistic nation” (59). Beyoncé’s discursive practices create a nexus between her and her Black woman audience. Her iconic pop-culture status does not exclude her from participating in this Coachella experience as both a rhetor/performer and an audience member. Beyoncé is a Black woman citizen that has a sense of equality by wanting her audience to experience what she and her stage performers are experiencing. Lastly, Beyoncé acknowledges that her personal experience is not isolated. As she and her dancers are emotionally moved, she hopes to redefine her audience’s vision with regard to their own possibilities. Meaning, the Coachella experience and the Homecoming film are a communal celebration of redefining Black womanhood and blackness for an international audience.
While the next rhetorical scene unfolds, prior to the big band performance, Beyoncé’s oral storytelling continues. Prior to the start of the dress rehearsal, Beyoncé stands in the foreground, at the base of the stage. Meanwhile, her dancers sit mostly in silence, waiting to be addressed. Beyoncé speaks the words, “As a Black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel . . . underestimated” (Homecoming 1:07:35 -1:07:43). When Beyoncé communicates these words of marginalization and invisibility, her figure is visible. However, she is intentionally featured as a black silhouette due to the lighting. Then, as she discusses further how to make those who are marginalized feel more visible than invisible, she continues to communicate her rhetorical intentions. Beyoncé says, “I wanted us to be proud of not only the show . . . but . . . the process. Proud of the struggle. Thankful for the beauty that comes with . . . a painful history and rejoice in the pain” (Homecoming 1:07:47-1:08:57). As Beyoncé speaks those words, the camera focuses on the performers, as they sit in the bleachers. Some fine tuning their trumpets, horns and violins.
However, when she speaks of the inclusion of Black bodies, the camera focuses on images of her Black women dancers in yellow leotards, white boots, and white gloves. As colorful images of her performers flash by, Beyoncé says “And I wanted everyone to feel grateful for their curves . . . their sass . . . their honesty, thankful for their freedom” (Homecoming 1:08:03-1:08:10). By expressing Black feminist rhetorical principles of inclusion of diverse Black bodies and forms of expression, she engages in the sociolinguistic and rhetorical strategies that McGee talks about. During this narration, Beyoncé’s Southern dialect is barely detectable. However, the tone and tenor of her speech still conform to African American Women Language principles. Beyoncé is “communicating meaning, agency, support, and resistance to normative practices and/or policies that may be in opposition to the betterment of one’s self” (McGee 61). In other words, Beyoncé uses her Coachella platform to subvert negative images of Black bodies. By including performers of diverse sizes, she’s expressing the importance of including all-sized bodies as part of our communal agency. When Beyoncé includes feeling grateful for our sass and honesty, she resists negative commentary of Black women’s attitudes and wants us to celebrate our honesty as truthtellers. Lastly, Beyoncé promotes the idea that resisting normative practices that seek to control Black women’s bodies and methods of expression is in the best interest of self.
As the camera flashes on the bleachers again, the focus becomes all of her performers, which includes both women and men. Beyoncé says the words, “It was no rules . . . and we were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized” (Homecoming 1:08:12-1:08:20). Beyoncé’s discursive practices and the language used to communicate her rhetorical intentions is how Black women “subvert power structures and assert or validate experiences through developing and sustaining particular identities, individually and communally” (McGee 61). As a cultural producer, Beyoncé uses her rhetorical agency and power to affirm the humanity of those who have been both historically hypervisible and invisible. Within this oppressive system that perpetuates dehumanizing images, Beyoncé creates a space behind-the-scenes and onstage that negates demoralizing images of Black bodies. Ultimately, Beyoncé uses her cultural power to include and demarginalize diverse identities for her dancers in both an individual and communal sense.
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