Beyoncé’s Black Lives Matter Tribute Defies the Laws of Celebrity Activism

When it comes to taking a political stance, Beyoncé is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. But in standing up for Black Lives Matter, she’s outsmarted the media’s trap.

02.10.16 2:42 AM ET

It’s becoming a tradition that the Super Bowl halftime show generates orders of magnitude more discussion than the game itself; this year, thankfully, there was something more substantive to discuss than the unknown identity of a surprisingly uncoordinated shark.

This time the big news was Beyoncé utterly stealing the show from Coldplay as the “special guest” with a performance that simultaneously paid homage to Michael Jackson and evoked the Black Panthers, making millions of people who’d slept through the release of “Formation” earlier that weekend aware of the song and of the video, which visually references Hurricane Katrina and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The fact that Beyoncé is on the side of #BlackLivesMatter activists isn’t really news, considering her and her husband Jay Z’s past donations to bail out activists in Ferguson and Baltimore and their streaming site Tidal donating $1.5 million to the movement this weekend.

What is surprising is Beyoncé using her art and her celebrity to send the message instead of letting her money do the talking behind the scenes. Beyoncé, up to this point, has been “Queen Bey” on the strength of her tightly controlled public image, her media silence in an age of Twitter oversharing, and her carefully managed public neutrality that allows other people to project themselves onto her, old-school Hollywood It Girl style.

You just have to look at Beyoncé and Jay Z standing next to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to see the contrast—look at, for instance, Kanye’s blatant repeated attempts to start a beef between Beyoncé and other musicians at an awards ceremony and Beyoncé’s gracious skill in backing out of any such beefs.

Look at how Kanye’s talent as a musician, the reason we all pay attention to him in the first place, gets repeatedly ignored by the cultural chattering classes (yours truly included) in favor of outrageous off-the-cuff statements he makes to the camera or drops on Twitter, how it becomes headline news when he says something we’re all thinking about the Bush administration after Katrina or when he goes on an ill-advised tweetstorm about his ex (or Bill Cosby).

Beyoncé seems to have better instincts than that. She’s known—always known—that the media is hungry to push celebrities into a box and brand them based on the latest juicy tabloid tidbit about their personal lives. She’s always known that black celebrities get hit with this twice as hard as white celebrities, women get hit with this twice as hard as men, and black women therefore get exponential impact from it—that if she slipped up during her reaction to Kanye West upstaging Taylor Swift on her behalf, the blowback would be worse for her than for either of them.

Beyoncé knows, most of all, that cultural and social capital is a finite resource and, if anything, more quickly and easily spent than financial capital—you can protect your money by socking it away in diversified assets, but you’ve always and forever only got one reputation, one brand, one you.

This is what I find frustrating about the endless calls to “draft” celebrities into becoming front-line warriors for a cause. See the kerfuffle over #BeyBeAHERO, the uncomfortable sight of LGBT activists in Houston fighting to protect an anti-discrimination law, playing Kanye West and trying to draft Beyoncé as their spokesperson because Houston is her hometown and she’s popular there. See the spectacle of a small minority of the protesters melting down after the law went through, blaming Beyoncé for not speaking up as though she singlehandedly could have stopped it, turning a decision that was actually the fault of thousands of voters in Houston into somehow the fault of Queen Bey.

It’s frustrating that people project power onto celebrities that, in all honesty, they probably don’t really have. Kanye West did start a conversation about FEMA and George W. Bush after his comments, but the far greater impact his comment had was on the media perception of Kanye West. Celebrities’ public statements have much less impact on politics in general than they do on their own careers. When we make fun of the self-serving posturing of openly “political” celebrities we remember this fact, but we seem to forget it again when we flip to attacking celebrities for staying silent.

One of the things that’s hard to remember about “Queen Bey” is how young she is—at 34 years old she’s already treated as a matriarch, having first soared to fame as a teenager in 1996 with Destiny’s Child. She’s lived her whole life knowing how ridiculous, volatile and, yes, dangerous the world of celebrity can be—she’s married to a guy who comes from a world where business disputes over record deals erupt into violence.

And she knows that, to a degree, you can’t really win when you try to leverage celebrity for social causes. Whenever Beyoncé and Jay Z have taken political stances in the past they’ve been blasted from left and right, for using their money and fame to speak out in the first place and for not going far enough when they do so. After raising millions of dollars for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, Jay Z and Beyoncé got to hear Harry Belafonte call out both of them for not being politically committed enough and therefore less “black” than Bruce Springsteen.

Beyoncé has had the pleasure of spending two decades hearing people complain about her skin tone, her costumes and her dance moves and whether the public perception of her beauty sets back feminism, reinforces colorism and generally hurts black America—all while white performers like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus play far more aggressive games with their public sexuality. Beyoncé stood in front of a giant rendering of the word “Feminist” in a year when the word was under public assault, despite being called out as a “terrorist” earlier that year by bell hooks for the sin of posing in a racy Rolling Stone cover.

Even now, it took less than 24 hours for angry tweets and hemming-hawing thinkpieces to churn out evaluating just how “radical” the “Formation” video and halftime show were. Activists pointed out that “the best revenge is your paper” is a lyric that problematically celebrates capitalism and brought up transgressions like her participation in a music video with orientalist tropes and her endorsement deal with Pepsi, which sells sugary drinks that harm people’s health.

These are all, let me stress, criticisms that come from a valid place. There are artists who are more “woke” than Beyoncé, more openly activist-minded, more discriminating about whom they ally with and whom they hitch their corporate wagons to. Global capitalism isn’t absolved of the blood on its hands just because it’s made Queen Bey rich, and beauty standards that mess up people’s lives and minds are not okay just because Queen Bey embodies them with grace, etc., etc.

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And yes, even the big radical statement “Formation” made is an example of Beyoncé practicing careful image management, threading the needle of how radical she’s allowed to get. The most radical statements in her media blitz have been visual—outfits that look kind of like Black Panther uniforms, an image of a drowned police car—rather than verbal, because that’s where plausible deniability lies. Her dancers held up a sign saying “Justice 4 Mario Woods” on Twitter, but not on national TV. There may even be some calculation involved in the much-remarked-upon choice to have Beyoncé billed as “special guest” behind Coldplay this year, even though it was clearly her show.

But all you have to do is to look at “Formation” to see why these criticisms are misguided. A song whose lyrics are a simple anthem of empowerment and success—something we’ve heard from Beyoncé dozens of times—has, because of that “radical” framing, prompted two Republican politicians to spend hours analyzing Beyoncé's performance and marshaling a right-wing outrage campaign against her work.

They’re trying, in other words, to do what was done to The Dixie Chicks in the Bush years—to pull the focus onto her “radicalism,” to make her politics the story, and to redefine her as a political rabblerouser whose beliefs eclipse her talent (her talent, again, being the thing that made us want to listen to her in the first place).

The fact that it’s so far not working is because Beyoncé has built up years of cultural capital by repeatedly, insistently pushing the conversation back to her talent and her politically “neutral” public image, by amassing a horde of fans who look up to her because of her accomplishments first and the political meaning of those accomplishments second. Because, in other words, she hasn’t let them turn her into Kanye.

This is what people don’t seem to understand, and is a difficult paradox at the heart of all celebrity endorsements of causes. If Beyoncé hadn’t spent years putting music first and crafting a public image centered on flawless performances and technical excellence, she wouldn’t be Beyoncé. She wouldn’t have the cultural capital to spend. She would be one of the many, many artists who are more outspoken and controversial and raw and, as a result, don’t sell billions of dollars worth of tickets and don’t get to perform at the Super Bowl.

If Beyoncé’s principles entailed ignoring all modern beauty norms and not doing photoshoots with Rolling Stone and refusing endorsements with morally compromised corporations—which is all of them—and refusing to participate in global capitalism, she wouldn’t be there for you to criticize. She would be playing underground shows in New York and selling T-shirts and CDs to get by, and thinkpiece writers would be analyzing the problematic semiotics of Bruno Mars instead.

So yes, maybe there shouldn’t be celebrities in the first place, maybe there shouldn’t be a music industry, and maybe what Beyoncé says and does shouldn’t matter the way it does compared to what everyday activists and organizers and educators say.

But as long as we live in the real world I think we have to evaluate people’s choices by real-world standards. As a Clevelander I got instinctively defensive of LeBron James when he got called out for not speaking up about Tamir Rice. I remember how quickly and viciously LeBron’s fans turned on him for making a personal decision to leave the city and play elsewhere, and how rapidly those emotions switched back when he returned to Cleveland. I can observe firsthand how the normal ups and downs of a basketball season inflame reactions for and against Cleveland’s supposed “favorite son.” You just have to look at what happened to Cam Newton after the Super Bowl to see how rapidly “narrative” can turn against someone in the world of sports or entertainment, how frighteningly quickly fans can go from wearing your jersey to torching that jersey on YouTube, or from cheering at your concerts to sending you death threats demanding you “shut up and sing.”

I’m never going to fault a kid who grew up in poverty in Akron and attained wealth and celebrity through incredible hard work and incredible luck who understands the basic, obvious truth that “celebrity endorsement” of causes is a dangerous game.

Just like I’m never going to stop being impressed that, in an age of media fragmentation and political polarization, there’s someone both talented enough as a performer and savvy enough as a businessperson to be Beyoncé—and, for all the justifiable criticisms of the limits of her activism, I think it’s amazing she’s spoken out as much as she has and contributed as much as she has while continuing to be Beyoncé.

Chris Rock’s “rich vs. wealthy” bit is one of the comedy clips I keep on repeat because it’s still the best pop-culture explanation of the difference between perceived power and real power I’ve ever heard. LeBron James has the most perceived power of any celebrity in Cleveland, sure, but trust me, he does not “run Cleveland”; the people who run Cleveland aren’t anyone you’ve ever seen on a magazine cover, they’re people who have no public reputation to lose.

Beyoncé has “power” in the form of Twitter fans and album sales and column-inches, but that power is frighteningly fragile, especially for black women in our society. It wouldn’t take much for the media to start chipping away at the credibility they’ve given her, to start pushing her into the “angry black woman” box that other celebrities have been pushed into, thus giving us permission to start ignoring her.

To begin to speak her mind about police violence and structural racism and the fucked-up things our society does that infuriate her and drive her to tears, and to continue to be the universal pop icon we call Beyoncé, Ms. Knowles-Carter from Houston has a very difficult tightrope to walk. So far, she’s walked it with grace and style and turned her few almost-stumbles into triumphs.

For that and that alone, whether or not she ever becomes the feminist civil rights hero people want her to be, she deserves our respect.