Culture Clash: Lessons from Beyoncé at Coachella

Coachella, the annual music and arts festival held in California, was renamed “Beychella” — to the sound of air horns — by DJ Khaled last weekend when Beyoncé headlined with a two-hour performance. Not only did she become the first black women to headline Coachella, but she brought the HBeyCU theme, a play on HBCUs and “Greek life”. Beychella is arguably her best, most talked about performance to date, possibly rivalled by Superbowl 50.

The Beyhive has been endlessly posting on social media about its blackness and feminism. The commentary almost mimics that of the Superbowl 50 performance, but this time it is more accurate. This might not be because of Beyoncé’s dedication to black feminist politics, but a reading of the market, from its interpretation and reaction to Formation — and, more broadly, Lemonade — and understanding the benefit of feeding this narrative. Beyoncé, as we all know, is a businessperson first, and strategy is key.

Beychella brought some of the most celebrated aspects of African American life and culture. There were more than 100 dancers, a live marching band, a drumline led by Don P Roberts with members from Florida A&M University, Alabama State University, Norfolk State University, Bethune-Cookman University and Tennessee State University among others, and step segments. There was baton twirling, a crane, guest performances, and outfit and nail polish changes. Beyoncé presented a fictional sorority — Beta Delta Kappa — and for part of her set, wore this sorority’s sweatshirt with short shorts, cheeks out. She told the audience she had been dreaming of this performance since she cancelled on Coachella due to her pregnancy with twins, and everyone could tell.

There is no question about the work that went into Beychella. Not just the lighting, choreography, musical arrangement, or auditions, but the imagination. How many hours must have gone into the planning and orchestration of the performance? What fears had to be overcome to see it as a possibility? Is this an ability that comes with money and fame, knowing that whatever you dare to envision can come to life because you can pay for it and your fan base will sing your praises in response?

Beyoncé lives a life of tremendous privilege. She has one of the largest, most loyal fan bases that dedicates copious amounts of time and energy to celebrating her, following her every move, predicting her next steps and defending her at all costs. Who needs a PR team? Whatever she does is well done in the eyes of the Beyhive. It has been interesting to read responses to Beychella on their own, but also to compare them with the rhetoric around other women of colour.

Beyoncé brings other people to the stage with her and she is gracious, kind and a team player. Another artist brings other people to the stage and she is tired, lazy and knows she cannot carry the show on her own. Beyoncé drops unexpected expletives in her music, and she is righteously angry, turning a new leaf and keeping up with her audience. Another artist sings or raps explicit lyrics and she is unintelligent, attention-seeking and stereotypical. Beyoncé wears booty shorts and she is empowered and empowering. Another artist wears booty shorts and she is an unladylike embarrassment.

Everyone has a favourite. There are people we want to excuse, no matter what. We find it easy to explain away their (perceived) wrongs and manage to find good reasoning for actions that go against our own values. We find ways to align behaviours with values that, in our minds, would not otherwise match. What is the difference between the defended and the defenceless? What makes us want to support one person while maligning another, and for similar behaviour?

Video clips of Cardi B’s Coachella performance have been shared on social media over the past few days – the responses have been a far cry from those to Beyoncé’s performance. The two performances were, of course, quite different. They are different genres and different personalities. It is easy to believe all that exists between Beyoncé and Cardi B are differences. It is easy and expedient to deny obvious truths and ignore commonalities.

They are women of colour. They are performing at levels no one could have predicted. They each have their own following. They have their own social media strategies and regularly make decisions about how much of their lives they will share. They are in control of their image. They use profanity. They wear, say and do things that make them feel like themselves or, at least, the people they want to be. They have presence. They demand attention for more than their talent.

Cardi B’s 30-minute Coachella set included Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, G-Eazy, YG, and Kehlani and four acrobatic dancers on scaffolding, seemingly an homage to her past as a stripper. While the crowd enjoyed the show, social media jumped to conclusions and judgments.

Why is Cardi B performing while pregnant? Does she have all of these guest performers because she can’t hold her own? How dare she twerk while pregnant?

People simultaneously lambaste Cardi B for twerking-while-pregnant, but reference guest performers as insults to her stamina. This is a perfect example of the impossibility of pleasing everyone. The same people who went wild over the booty shorts worn by Beyoncé — mother of three — and raved about how empowered they felt came down hard on Cardi B for daring to wear all white, highlighting her pregnancy, while unapologetically doing what she does.

Myles E Johnson wrote about Beychella for the New York Times, hailing the performance as “[writing] the book on black respectability politics.” While exciting and gratifying to think about, the assertion could not be further from the truth. He is clearly heartened by Beyoncé’s refusal to “divorce herself from black culture,” which is certainly debatable, but even if we take this as fact, there must be consideration to platform and stature. Beyoncé can afford to do that. Light-skinned, rich, and quite literally untouchable, she does not represent the most oppressed among us. Her performances do not change our reality, or even revolutionise the way we treat one another as black people, as women, or as black women in particular. In one weekend, we have seen Beyoncé celebrated for the same things that bring Cardi B and other “regular degular schmegular” women ridicule and disgust. Respectability politics remain alive, well, and reinforced by systems from white supremacy to internalised racism.

Beychella seems to have meant the world to black women, but not enough to change the narrow-mindedness the world has about blackness, womanhood, and sexuality. We cannot get any further ahead or do any better if we continue to change the rules based on who we put on the stage or under the microscope. If we are going to celebrate, encourage, and live a black feminist politic, we need to do it all day, every day, without exception. There has to be room for everyone. Single, married, child-free, and parent. There has to be room for people of different religions, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, and locales. There has to be room for various forms of expression and ways of living in our bodies, refusing to be stifled or made invisible due to misogynoir and hypersexualisation.

In the words of Beyoncé, “Are we smart? Are we strong? Have we had enough? Show ‘em.”

Published by The Tribune on April 18, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Playing Follow the Leader

When we talk about leadership, we usually point to government as an example. The Prime Minister is seen as the ultimate leader. There is no one with more control. No one with greater power. No one with more responsibility. No one in a more important position. No one more unquestionable or beyond reproach. No one more silencing, domineering or undoubtedly correct. The prime minister is synonymous with leadership.

If you have managed not to rip this page to shreds, which of those statements made you uncomfortable? In which parts did you find irony? At which point did you think I could not be serious? What does this tell you about the way you feel about leadership in The Bahamas, and the positions and people we typically view as leaders?

Who’s in charge here?

It is interesting that we view politicians as leaders, even more than we see members of parliament as representatives. When we talk about leadership, it is often in ways that validate and celebrate dictatorial practices. One makes the decision for many. Consultation, if it exists at all, is at a minimum. The attitude is: “you put me here, so let me do my job”. This, however, only seems to work in one direction.

Members of parliament manage to say or demonstrate this to constituents, but ministers can not say this to the prime minister. It seems everyone is a leader until they have a leader, and in the presence of a high-level leader, all other leaders are stripped of the title.

Those who dare to behave like leaders, rather than subjects of the high-level leader, are scolded, belittled and threatened. The firstborn loses all authority when the parents get home from work.

What kind of leadership are we practicing if it is threatened by anyone else – even on our team – asserting themselves, offering criticism and developing solutions?

Leadership of a different kind

Minister of state for legal affairs Elsworth Johnson has been one of the only a few people to dare speak on even mildly controversial issues with any degree of honesty and both personal and professional understanding and obligation. In November 2017, he spoke strongly in support of proposed changes to citizenship law. Without pressing for people to adopt his position, he implored the Bahamian people to “come up to a higher level and accept certain truths as they exist in our society.” He encouraged respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

In March 2018, Johnson spoke to the issue of marital rape, noting people are not property. He encouraged a consultative process, accountability and transparency. He said: “It is accepted international standard that information maintained by the government is vital to civil society. That information when properly dispensed to members of civil society undergirds a democracy to give life to it and it allows people to properly involve themselves in the governance of the country.”

This is what we should expect of a leader. Willingness and ability to state positions on issues. Pushing the government to make information accessible to the public and provide opportunities for engagement.

Encouraging the public to participate in the process, access information and come to informed decisions. Johnson has demonstrated and exercised the ability to think for himself, challenge his colleagues and invite public discourse.

This flies in the face of the unspoken mandate of Bahamian ministers and members of parliament who are to tow the party line. The only opinion is the party’s opinion, the only challenge is to the Opposition, and the only reason to engage the citizenry is for votes.

Compare Johnson’s leadership with that of the “leaders” who refuse to take positions on hot button issues, sit small until their names are called, shy away from any forum giving citizens the opportunity to address them. Which do you prefer and which is most expedient for the head leader in charge?

Last week, Johnson went too far out of bounds. He dared to call for a chief justice to be appointed. Following the Bahamas Bar Association’s characterisation of no appointed chief justice as an “existential and constitutional crisis”, the former president of the Association spoke up. He said: “the right, transparent and accountable thing to do is for the PM to exercise his constitutional authority and appoint a chief justice”.

If a Minister disagrees and no one hears it, does it make a difference?

This is not disrespect. This is not unreasonable. This is a thought-out and explained position. Johnson said, rightly, that the vacancy should be filled. This is obvious. Without directly referencing the current state of the office – where senior justice Stephen Isaacs now serves as acting chief justice – Johnson challenged the self-loathing we all know exists in The Bahamas, and suggested that a foreign appointee would be properly compensated. Where is the lie?

Better yet, what is the problem? It is not what was said. It is where it was said, and who could hear it.

This must have made Prime Minister Hubert Minnis uncomfortable. Making this appointment was not on his agenda. He is busy balancing people’s-person and man-in-charge. It is not easy.

How can you be seen as a nice guy, but also have the respect of the people – especially those you consider to be beneath you? Having already called for a resignation and fired someone else very recently, we can only imagine the action taken to elicit the apology Johnson issued last week.

An apology for stating publicly what some say should have been a private conversation. A private conversation about a public matter.

We have grown so accustomed to being in the dark, to electing people and walking away, to being told our business is none of our business that anyone who attempts to involve us in the conversation is seen as out of order. We forget that they are employed by us. We, the people.

Who will lead next?

We have had a leadership crisis for some time now, and it continues. There are many new faces in the current administration, but has there been any real change? Can there be any substantive change within the same system that recycles not only people, but form and function?

The Bahamas is being governed using the same tactics we look back on and criticise, believing ourselves much evolved since the ‘70s. The play is the same. Same script, different cast. The actors of today learned from those of yesterday. They study and follow the notes left behind. They have bought into the same values, and have the same single-mindedness we rebuke and swear off with every election season. They are worn down. They join the cult.

Look at the ages of the people in positions of leadership, then look at the ages of the people in tomorrow’s obituary.

Look at the ages of the people locked out of the system or, when let in, are either silenced or brainwashed.

The leadership crisis continues. The crisis of representation continues.

We know public life is not easy, but do not often acknowledge that it is without reward for those determined to participate differently. Those who do not follow script. Those who speak out of turn. Those who do not bind themselves to convention or tradition, and do not feel indebted to the people or systems that brought them in to the point that they must become puppets.

We need to concern ourselves with the development of a new generation of leaders. In 20 years, who do we want to be at the helm, and how will we prepare them?

Watching Bahamian governance and listening to commentary would not encourage many people to be different. To speak up. To object. To demand better. To use positions of power to create change. We make leadership about popularity and longevity; not authenticity in the process of visioning, charting a path and equipping people for the journey.

Until we redefine it, it will be practiced in the same way, and we deserve to see change in more than time and faces.

Published by The Tribune on April 11, 2018.

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Culture Clash: We Need to Disagree Better

Physical violence is an undeniable issue in The Bahamas. Reported events bring shock, fear and disappointment, filling us with questions, self-righteous proclamations and rebuke. In disbelief and grief, we look at the world around us, shaking heads and shrugging shoulders. We see physical violence as separate from us, and completely unrelated to the way we speak with one another. We do not want to make that connection, and that is unfortunate. It exists whether or not we acknowledge or choose to address it.

While it is exciting to finally have platforms — like social media and talk radio — allowing various levels of control, monitoring and contribution, they reveal a societal problem that presents an opportunity. We do not know how to disagree well, and we need to learn.

Disagreement is not inherently bad. It does not need to be rude, unproductive, or life-threatening. It is unreasonable to expect complete consensus on any issue. Even when we agree on the what, we are bound to butt heads on the how. Again, this is not an insurmountable problem. It only requires that we have conversations about points of disagreement and find courses of action to cure the disease we have already diagnosed.

Over the past few days, I have observed activity on a few Facebook threads. I considered the amount of time and energy wasted on arguments that really had nothing to do with the matter raised, and almost seemed to intentionally detract from the valid points being made. This happens every day, multiple times per day, but for what reason? Do people just love to argue? Do we like to make each other feel stupid? Is it a game for some of us, trying to see how quickly and easily we can derail a conversation?

Have you ever witnessed a conversation involving people who are in agreement, but they don’t know it? One person says the sun is hot, and the other says they are hot because of the sun. They make the same point in different terms and somehow come to the conclusion they are on opposing sides. They argue about the importance of vitamin D, while you stand there wondering why this happened. You want to explain to them they are saying the same thing, but it is too far gone now. One of them is google searching alternate sources of vitamin D to prove it may be worthwhile to get sunburn because vitamin tablets are too expensive. You have to walk away.

On Saturday, someone posted about mosquito fogging. What chemicals are they using? Are they harmful to people? Is there a schedule so we can close our windows and plan to be indoors or out of the area? She explained the reasons for her concern and many people agreed. It was not long, of course, before people showed up to suggest we are all either ungrateful or confused.

Here’s a typical example: “I saw at least 20 posts last week complaining about mosquitoes. Now they doing something and there’s complaining about that. Can we ever please Bahamians?”

Some people on the thread figured we all just hate the government, and nothing they do will be right in our eyes. “It’s six of one and half dozen the other. Mosquito-borne illness or chemicals. Can’t win for losing.”

The original poster did not explicitly state she was against fogging. Her post made it quite clear she was not a fan of chemicals, but especially unknown chemicals. How is it that people decided she was completely opposed to fogging? Maybe she would like to be free of mosquitoes and be sure she is not being poisoned at the same time. Too much to ask?

As a person who does not like mosquitoes and would rather not be poisoned, I find her position quite reasonable. As someone who generally keeps the windows open and goes running, I agree a schedule would be helpful and the government should not have to be asked for it. This is not the same as ingratitude.

If no one asks the questions, clearly no individual, department, or ministry of the government will make this information available. They can please this Bahamian — and probably the one who asked the question on Facebook — by doing something about the mosquitoes and telling us what that is and how we will be affected. That is really not something to argue about, but if there is disagreement, it should be about that central point. Someone wants to know what is being used and, subsequently, inhaled by human beings.

In recent weeks, Paul Ratner’s article on Paul Graham’s “How to disagree” essay has been circulating on social media. It includes a pyramid that ranks the ways people engage when in disagreement. At the highest level is refuting the central point. Toward the middle are counterargument and contradiction, and name-calling is at the bottom.

Also included, near the bottom, is tone policing. This is a frequent practice, particularly when a member of a marginalised community speaks on an issue affecting them and their community. Dominant groups are quick to say they are angry or using the wrong approach. Suggesting the central point is of no import or consequence does not even make the cut.

Graham says, though it may feel like it, we are not actually getting angrier. Disagreement just gives us more room to talk and, quite obviously, we all want to be heard. Even if we truly disagree, it is important we do it well. If you have a different point of view, make sure you can refute the central point of the person’s argument.

Unless you have a problem with the government informing citizens of the chemicals used for mosquito fogging and have a counterargument, it does not make sense to post in disagreement. You may not like the tone of the post or the person posting. You may think the topic is silly. You may think something else matter more. None of these are valid arguments.

Sometimes people get into defence mode because they feel attacked, even when their names have not been called. They feel the need to set the record straight.

On Tuesday morning, I read a horrifying story by a woman who was given the run-around on the day she gave birth to her second child at Princess Margaret Hospital. PMH wrongfully forced her to go to the public ward when she told them she had already paid for private. This resulted in her private doctor not being able to deliver her baby, and her husband not being allowed in the room. In addition, she was not given anything for pain, so almost nothing went according to her birthing plan.

In her post, she pointed out the issues with PMH administrative practices and encounters with rude, uncaring nurses. While most people sympathised and encouraged her to take further action, a number of nurses felt the need to defend themselves and their profession. They said all nurses are not like that, most nurses are kind and caring but that a few bad nurses make everyone look bad. That may be the case, but is that what the original poster needed to read in response to her story? No. Could it completely derail the important conversation? Yes.

Everything does not have to be an argument. We do not always have to disagree, but when we do, let’s do it well. Let your argument stand on its own. Do not disrespect other participants in the conversation, or distract them from the central point. Focus on that central point, and take it down with supporting material. Communication does not have to be a problem, and disagreement does not have to end in violence. We have to argue better.

Published by The Tribune on April 4, 2018.