Beyonce: A syllabus supplement from a 60-year-old

Attending Beyonce’s concert event was – for me – a trip to another world. Some of her doing, some even larger than her all-encompassing reach. I was enthralled by the mix of humanity that came to Ford Field on a perfect June day to bask in the power and glamour of the force that is Beyoncé.

Now before we get too deep, though, the opening act was disturbing to me. DJ Khaled is, by all accounts, an amazingly talented and successful music maker. He was joined on stage by — I learned their names later! — Detroit rapper Dej Loaf and Young Jeezy, who is from the ATL (if they still use the term) in the Dirty South. They was all dirty. Every other word that emanated from their mouths was foul. Flung foul. I paid too much money to get cussed out by these kids.

From my vantage point, I looked out over a vast assemblage of a reported 42,000 human hearts who were content to live in a world where such angry, base discourse was the norm. They rocked and swayed and hollered and screamed in delight focused on the beat and the anger being spit. I decided that – actually – music is the opiate of the masses . . .

That’s also when I realized the magnitude of being among a demographic whose denizens only believe that which they experience via video – so they *must* tape and selfie their entire day in order to capture their lives on their phones. How else will they know they’ve lived if they’re not holding the evidence in their hands?

So out she comes. The woman of their dreams. In the same room. In the flesh. But this entire crowd held up phones and taped her as if they were on assignment from CNN or were Federico Fellini exploring new genres of the film image. They were not. It was sad. It was automated. De rigueur not avant-garde.

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But there she was. Beyoncé. Hard-working, talented, shrewd. A woman of her time. A woman commanding her time in quite complicated ways. I don’t profess to “know” her music because I am a fan of her accomplishments more than anything else. Yet, I’ve never had a closer look at the elements that comprise the image. It was – for me – a complicated mix of talent realized, power wielded and opportunities missed. She is duality. And I noticed.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the amazingly nuanced Lemonade by the #LemonadeSyllabus that notes its African-centered “spiritual journey.” A Wiki moment reminds us that “Ase (or ashe) is an African philosophical concept through which the Yoruba of Nigeria conceive the power to make things happen and produce change.” We know that the ritual requires those gathered to repeat “ashe,” and that, as Wiki notes, “Ashe is the life-force that runs through all things, living and inanimate. Ashe is the power to make things happen. It is an affirmation which is used in greetings and prayers.”

So Bey stands there with music at mesmerizingly transformative levels of decibels, looking fierce in her bikini-bottomed costume. She intones “I slay” repeatedly. Rhythmically. Ritually. I wonder if she knows of what she does? Just what is she conjuring up in this crowd? Are they getting it? Or are they jest excited because they know those words and it all seems so . . . ahhhh . . . fierce.

Then there’s the smoke that bellows from the stage. Why does it have to smell like marijuana? Since I’m 60 (well, 59. But 60 sounds better for these purposes!), I’m no stranger to an herbed audience. And when the smoke comes from the audience, that’s the audience taking their chances and making their experience. However, when the multi-million-dollar talent tempts the audience to risk arrest with subliminal taunts of the pleasures of a good smoke I find it cynical. So, why was that element so carefully and carelessly inserted into this amazing production’s values?

Then there’s “Becky with the good hair.” God, how I wish that post-modern future-leaning visionary Bey had not given new life to this tiresome and loathsome canard. But she did. Over and over again, like a mantra. Oh, I know it’s ‘posed to be a powerful diss to Western constraints of beauty. But I will never affirm the stringy stuff as “good” no matter who is wearing (or weaving) it. So when you’re wearing a tsunami of wavy lace-front like Bey, with devotees following suit sweating under oceans of My Indian Hair to “affirm” their beauty, it’s a pretty difficult case to make that this in any way empowers African aesthetic. They have bought the “good hair” bullshit hook, line and sinker. Just admit it and let’s all move on.

When Bey first hit the stage this amazingly talented and hard, hard working sistah was the “dazed-and-glazed-over Bey” we’ve seen before. Don’t worry, she snaps herself out of it and gives her audience their money’s worth plus some.

She’s selling girl power and girls running the world in their power lingerie. She’s kicking unfaithful men and their side chicks to the curb. Lots. Maybe too much. Why all that focus on dissing side chicks – or maybe she’s speaking for her “powerful” panty-clad generation?

I’m clearly a prude. But just once I’d like to go see a great singer without having to participate in her sex life. Bey graphically humped a wall and a chair. At least she didn’t do a Janet Jackson and dry hump some poor dude who they strapped down on a humping table that gyrated up and down. Hey. Git a room.

If expressing your sexuality is powerful for you as an individual, I get it. Wouldn’t do it, but I get it. But are public demonstrations and displays of your “skill set” really the same thing? I’m not so sure.

The concert was a performance piece of moving sidewalks and wading ponds. There were diamond-encrusted mouthpieces formed over the face, like enslaved women were made to wear. There were pyrotechnics on a scale that magnified her and what her audience came seeking: a glamour girl with guts.

There was sincere gratitude expressed by a woman who sought out stardom and seems genuinely, refreshingly happy in the role. She reminded us to find our quiet place so that God could speak to us and fulfill our dreams as well. I loved that!

I didn’t love the fact that I saw more of Bey’s backside in two hours than I've seen of Tina's in a lifetime. Power sexuality costuming be evolving and devolving like that.

But then she took to that water – barefoot – and let lose a pure yell from the soul of Africa, and I softened.

Next she did what I paid $180 and endured this entire trip to youth-pop-cultureville to witness. That gorgeous girl got down on her knee in that water, remembered those gunned down by an angry madman in an Orlando LGBT safe haven, and she sang “Halo.” And she sang that song.

Alicia Nails is the director of Wayne State University's Journalism Institute for Media Diversity and an Emmy Award-winning television journalist with more than 30 years of experience in the media as a writer and producer. Nails serves on the BLAC Detroit Advisory Board.

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