RnB superstar Beyoncé surprised everyone last month with a politically-charged performance during the halftime show at the NFL Super Bowl. Flanked by dancers dressed in a highly sexualised 21st century twist on the Black Panther Party uniform, Queen Bey delivered perhaps her most relevant performance ever.
In a performance that must have generated as many column inches as record sales she has taken the Black Lives Matter movement directly to the heart of American popular culture — the Super Bowl, watched by 111 million US viewers and during which a mere 30 seconds of advertising costs $4 million.
This performance follows the release of her latest single, “Formation”. Clearly about racism, it references the failure of the state to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina, police brutality, and notably shows graffiti saying “Stop killing us.”
Beyoncé’s performance came against a backdrop of accusations of racism at the Oscars, and questions over diversity at the Brit Awards. Just a week later hip hop giant Kendrick Lamar performed at the Grammys. Wearing a prison uniform and surrounded by dancers wrapped in chains Lamar sang, “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.”
Pop music has an important role to play in not only reflecting political ideas but also shaping them. There is a long tradition of music both challenging and changing public consensus. Band Aid singing about famine, NWA rapping about racism or Sinead O’Connor attacking the Catholic church all have an impact.
Of course, real change will not come from an individual singer but from the masses of ordinary people demonstrating, protesting and organising. But equally we cannot ignore the significant shift that has occurred that allows pop stars to engage in these debates on a world stage.
Beyoncé’s performance represents somewhat of a shift for her as she has never made “political music”. It shows a degree of mainstream acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement that Beyoncé — a multi-millionaire and holder of lucrative advertising deals with Pepsi, L’Oreal and Topshop — feels compelled to engage in these debates.
Some have criticised Beyoncé’s right to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement. Her considerable wealth means her likelihood of suffering directly from police brutality is low. However, she has been subject to both racism and sexism throughout her career. Socialists should be arguing that she has every right make a positive engagement with these political ideas.
There is a momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement that means popular artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar can engage with these issues without fear of ostracisation.
Of course, Beyoncé’s critique of police brutality does not come from a revolutionary socialist analysis of the state. But if that is the starting point from which we regard popular culture we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.