Beyoncé, Homecoming, and the Importance of Black Art
Photo credit: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter performs onstage during 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Field on April 14, 2018 in Indio, California. Kevin Winter—Getty Images for Coachella
Over the course of two weekends last year, with help from Jay Z, J Balvin, Solange, and the reunited members of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé took over Coachella with her historical Homecoming-themed experience. The instant classic known as “Beychella” was meticulously planned, flawlessly executed, and culturally groundbreaking. In other words, it was everything that has made Beyoncé one of the most watched and discussed artists of our generation. It was also unmistakably and unapologetically black.
As one of the faces of the Harlem Renaissance, the poet Langston Hughes often discussed the importance of black culture and creativity. More specifically, he highlighted the importance of the black culture as it relates to black artists. In his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he wrote, “But to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist… to change through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘Why should I want to be white?’ I am a Negro—and beautiful!” Almost 100 years later, the message of Hughes’s writing is still relevant: in a society that imposes whiteness as the standard, it is the responsibility of black creators to keep their culture and their art intertwined, not only for the good of their art, but for the good of their community.
During those two weeks, Beychella and the size and scope of its relevance were met with immediate and lasting praise. The fanfare that surrounds every Queen Bey production was inescapable. But what stood out more was the joy that many took in seeing black faces, black college traditions, and familiar cultural imagery brought to the mainstream. One year later, and Beyoncé is back to take us deeper into one of the most celebrated moments of her career.
In her new documentary Homecoming, Beyoncé brings us behind the scenes of those shows with a combination of concert footage and production diaries. These rare looks into her creative process are noteworthy, but more important than her choreography and pre-performance diet are the HBCU (historically black college and university) hallmarks that fuel the event. From inception to execution, Homecoming is a love letter to blackness and to the black college experience.
As rehearsal footage flashes onscreen, she reflects, “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella.” By bringing HBCU traditions to the stage, Beyoncé prioritizes and reasserts their lasting significance. Minutes into the concert, the sea of dancers and band members part so that she can rip through an a cappella rendition of the black national anthem. Later, she watches as the members of Beychella’s first black fraternity introduce themselves. At one point, she leaves the stage entirely as her own personal Battle of the Bands plays out in real time, constantly cutting to the black faces in the crowd. These glances at the crowd serve as reminders of the significance of black art within the community. At various points throughout the film, Beyoncé uses scenes like this not only to remind us what she is doing, but who she is doing it for. Seeing the culture depicted on stage and in the audience resonated with me. Most of all, it brought to mind my own experiences with the HBCU traditions that have influenced me throughout my life.
As a child, my understanding of the college experience was heavily influenced by images of black college life in media. Shows like A Different World gave me a glimpse of what undergraduate college life would entail. Years later, after watching Drumline for the first time, I spent a week pounding on every surface I came in contact with, only stopping occasionally so I could beg my mom for a drum set. When Stomp the Yard came out, my entire summer revolved around learning to step with my cousins and recreating the film’s biggest set pieces. Each of these stories took place on campus at an HBCU, but the similarities ended there. Whether it was a dorm room disagreement at Hillman College or a deep-seeded rivalry at Atlanta’s Truth University, they each displayed different portraits of black life while highlighting our potential for greatness. These stories didn’t just feature black faces; they looked to represent new aspects of the black experience. As we watch recordings of Beyoncé in the early stages of preparation, we hear her discuss this exact distinction. “I wanted a black orchestra, I wanted the steppers, I needed the vocalists. I wanted different characters and not us doing the same thing,” she explains. Black faces are not enough. Instead, Beychella showcases the wide range of talents present within the community.
With Homecoming, Beyoncé looks toward the future of black culture while remembering the impact of those who came before her. In the trailer, the late Maya Angelou’s narration reflects on the importance of reflecting one’s race. At several points in the documentary, quotes from the likes of Cornel West, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alice Walker, and more are placed amid concert footage and backstage transitions. Alongside these quotes are the names of the schools that these notable figures attended; all HBCU’s. Artists throughout the history of black culture have laid the groundwork for this moment and they are never forgotten. “Thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella!” she yells later in the film. Homecoming is a standing ovation for black culture those who have made it great, and that includes Beyoncé herself.
On the surface, Homecoming is a triumph. The direction and design flow seamlessly from beginning to end. The choreography and stage presence remind us why Beyoncé is consistently talked about in conversations with the best performers ever. The production is impeccable and musically, and the live album—released in conjunction with the film—is a victory on its own, as classic hits are given new life on stage with bold arrangements and renewed energy. But the true accomplishment of Homecoming is its ability to exceed expectations artistically while simultaneously reaffirming and uplifting black culture.
As the film winds down, it cements its significance with one final quote. It comes from the poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “Without community, there is not liberation.” The full quote reads, “Without community, there is not liberation… but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” The connection between identity and art has always been an essential aspect of black culture, and with Homecoming, Beyoncé continues the tradition.
About the author: Michael Miller is a Seattle Pacific University undergraduate student studying communication and political science. Outside of the classroom, you can find him watching and writing about music, sports, and culture.