Your Musical Guide to the Blackness of Beyonce's 'Homecoming'

“When I decided to do Coachella, instead of pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella.” - Beyoncé

Last April, Beyoncé staged a headlining set at Coachella unlike anything the audience had seen before. Well, unlike anything most of the non-black audience had seen before: The Queen Bey presented her show as an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) Homecoming experience. Specifically, the energy of an HBCU band performance, which is the highlight of black college football games.

Though Beyoncé didn’t go to college herself, her father is an HBCU alumnus and a member of a BGLO (black greek letter organization), so she grew up attending homecoming games and legendary HBCU battles of the bands, and probably watching Mathew Knowles and his fraternity brothers of Omega Psi Phi hop (a form of stepping) and throw up their signs and calls. I’m the only member of my immediate family who didn’t attend an HBCU (my final school choice involved a boy), and I also spent my childhood attending college games with my family, and my college years hitting HBCU homecoming weekends at friends’ schools (to the afore-mentioned boy’s chagrin). I even passed a few years post-graduation traveling to “the Mecca,” Howard University, the college home of both of my parents, my step-father, my younger sister, and the founding chapter of my beloved Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, for the school’s legendary homecomings.

Beyoncé’s been purposeful in the expression of her blackness for the last several years. Crossover success can be precarious for a black artist: For most of modern music history, hitting pop stardom meant diluting black sound and imaging, and moving away from black-centered spaces to choose platforms with maximum exposure. But Beyoncé is one of a handful of black megastars utilizing their platforms to put our cultural heritage on full display, without apology. The negro-mixed-with-creole, Texas-Bama Beyoncè might be surprising to fans who came on board somewhere around “Independent Women,” or the Crazy in Love album, but the collective black “we” knew all this was in there.

We knew because we know her story; we know where she’s from. We know Ms. Tinas, who own beauty salons in our community. We know the Knowles. We know Bey. But it’s still magnificent to watch her boldly and proudly make it clear to those who think of her as pop star first, black woman second, if at all. Lemonade was a rich and beautiful tapestry of black iconography and imagery, and rightfully celebrated as such. But while Lemonade was almost literary, Homecoming’s offering is more direct and accessible. It’s a veritable black culture buffet, rather than a formal dinner. Lemonade examined our complexities, but Homecoming is the distilled essence of the most universal parts of us; of black people when we’re in safe spaces, surrounded by others who look like us and have shared experiences. When we’re at home.

On Wednesday (Apr. 17), Beyoncé released Homecoming, a Netflix documentary offering complete footage of her Coachella performance, behind the scenes looks at the preparation leading into the ambitious production, and commentary from the entertainer about her thoughts, intentions and reasons for the show’s concept. The release was accompanied by a surprise live album on Spotify, and not only does the show’s energy translate perfectly to an audio format, it provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the musical angle for this unique live experience.

Ethnomusicologist and HBCU alum Fredara Hadley noted in her Beychella recap for Billboard, “She re-imagined her entire catalog through the lens of HBCU musical culture by allowing the HBCU band tradition to do what it does best: serve as a distiller of Black popular music.” Most performers take the opportunity of a live show to mix up their set list with covers, transitions, interpolations; things that will provide the audience with something new yet still familiar. Beyoncé is no exception. But for Homecoming, these choices were made specifically with the band in mind. HBCU Band repertoires are a mix of classic, “old school” funk and soul hits and contemporary R&B and hip-hop. While Beyoncé had an orchestra in her band configuration for Homecoming, the typical marching band’s stars are brass and drums, so selections need to have a strong, recognizable melody and a hard bass line. Aside from a handful of tracks, all of the songs on Homecoming have been punched up with horns and rhythm, giving them an even bigger sound with more energy than Beyoncé songs already have.

The Homecoming tracklist also highlights Beyoncé’s goal of bringing black culture – and her southern black culture, specifically – to Palm Springs and the masses. As she expressed in the documentary, “I wanted it to feel the way I felt when I went to the battle of the bands.” The visual points were easily noticeable, but musically, the touchpoints are like easter eggs scattered throughout the 40 tracks. Here, Billboard highlights some of the key musical additions and moments, and how they were instrumental in executing one of the greatest displays of blackness the mainstream has ever seen.

THE ROOTS

“Welcome” x “Do What You Wanna” -- Rebirth Brass Band

“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” x “I Feel Like Funkin’ it Up”  -- Rebirth Brass Band

“Welcome” and “Single Ladies” both celebrate Beyoncé’s Louisiana roots with selections from Tremé natives and New Orleans favorites, the Rebirth Brass Band. The songs are also modern brass band standards, so they’re perfect for this theme and setting. For several years, Bey has taken “Single Ladies” in a vintage soul direction for the back half of her live song performance, invoking the gospel-tinged call and response of “Shout.” Rebirth Brass Band, however, is “nice and stanky.”

Rebirth’s music immediately conjures New Orleans, the French Quarter and Tremé -- one of the characters in HBO’s critically-acclaimed series of the same name is based on a member of Rebirth, and the band was frequently featured on the show. While Tremé is known for brass band music and the second line tradition, it’s more importantly one of America’s oldest black neighborhoods, and was one of the first areas where free people of color could purchase and own property. To evoke Tremé is to also evoke its history.

THE ANTHEMS

In addition to excellence in education, HBCU’s emphasize tradition and community.

Our stories are prioritized, our connections to one another encouraged. We work together, we fight together, and we celebrate together. In this spirit, there are songs and events that permeate black culture widely, deeply and oft times permanently. Nobody sent an email, there was no update posted at the annual meeting, we just knew. This is the case with our unofficial cultural anthems, several of which were woven throughout Homecoming. Beyoncé started, however, with the official Black National Anthem.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Negro National Hymn)” -- James Weldon Johnson

Black viewers knew something special was happening when Beyoncé sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in front of a crowd of hipsters and influencers in the middle of the desert. Blackness exists in duality. There’s one version in the world at large -- careful, restrained, and edited; and another version when we’re among ourselves -- free, expressive and proud. With this message to the Coachella crowd, Bey was breaking the fourth wall. A storm of “They have no idea what’s going on” tweets peppered the timeline from those of us watching from home -- the audience this performance was actually for.

“Lift Every Voice…” was written in 1900, and was at one point the NAACP’s official song. Later, it was a core anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. For decades, black people sang the hymn at community meetings, in church, at assemblies, rallies and events; in almost any organized black spaces. Most non-black people don’t know there’s a Black National Anthem, and now, fewer black people know than in previous generations. The tradition of teaching and singing the song is fading.

Writer and educator @anthokness conducted a timeline poll in 2016 about knowledge of the song, and the largest number of respondents had no idea what he was talking about.

People who went to an HBCU did. No one spends more than a year at an HBCU without knowing “Lift Every Voice...” The anthem opens ceremonies, is sung at convocations, and yes, is part of football games. Beyoncé’s placement of the song was thoughtful: immediately in between “Freedom,” a rousing declaration of liberation on her own terms, and “Formation,” an anthemic call to action celebrating her power as a black woman. If there was confusion about Homecoming’s direction up to that point, “Lift Every Voice…” is the definitive moment. Beyoncé (and then Blue -  Beyoncè made us witness to her passing this tradition to her daughter before the set's encore), only sang half of the first stanza. The full weight, sadness, hope and beauty of the hymn is felt through the full lyrics:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the list'ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers died
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forgot Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.

“Before I Let Go” -- Maze and Frankie Beverly x “Candy” -- Cameo

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the official Black National Anthem, “Before I Let Go” is the unofficial black national anthem. Frankie Beverly and Maze’s soul classic has been played at every gathering of more than 35 black people for over three decades. Every cookout, wedding reception, birthday party, baby shower, family reunion -- maybe even a funeral repast, it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

The song has also long been the designated track for the Electric Slide line dance. No matter where you are, if there are multiple black people gathered and those opening notes play, some type of line dance is about to happen. I was once in a crowd of about 40,000 people doing the electric slide in the New Orleans Superdome during a Maze performance. I felt as though I knew every single person in the stadium during that moment.

In 1999, ensemble comedy The Best Man staged the Electric Slide over funk band Cameo’s ‘80s classic “Candy,” and DJs throughout the black community followed. Now there are two designated songs for line dancing.

Beyoncé paying homage to both classics through one of the two new studio songs on the album brings her Homecoming celebration to a proper, festive and communal close, because HBCU homecomings are a family gathering. As a plus, she released the album just in time to have her version added into summer event rotation.​

“Crazy in Love” x “Back Dat Azz Up” -- Juvenile

For the last 20 years, the words “Cash Money takin’ over for the nine nine and the two thousand” have served as a four second warning to get your ass on the dance floor… and then back it up accordingly. The hit from Juvenile’s debut 400 Degreez helped break hip-hop’s regional sonic barriers down for good, adding a new entry into the mix between east coast boom bap, west coast G-Funk, and southern crunk and bass. “Back Dat Azz Up” is high energy, catchy, instructional, and relatively safe for an intergenerational audience, as far as songs about ass go --- all the necessary factors for a party anthem.

As with “Before I Let Go” and “Candy,” this is a must-have for any DJ playing a large black event. Or a medium-sized black event. Even a small black event. At least three generations of people will immediately drop forks and conversations -- but not drinks --  to then drop it like it’s hot. Beyoncé’s infamous “Crazy in Love” choreography already involves a dedicated level of booty bounce; it’s an easy natural transition to crank it up a few notches with Manny Fresh’s production.

“Drunk in Love” x “Swag Surfin’” -- F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz)

In the last decade, “Swag Surfin’” has become the HBCU anthem. Again, black people love a communal dance moment, and “Swag Surfin’” requires an intimate, familial embrace to get everyone started together in the same direction -- a manifestation of us all being in it (whatever “it” may be at the time) together. The Swag Surf is a ceremonial opening of sorts: it sets the tone and energy for the event ahead. It’s done at homecoming yard fests and graduations. Howard University students recently broke one out at a special screening for Jordan Peele’s Us. It even occurred during student protests last year. Had Beyoncé not utilized the surfboard references in “Drunk in Love” to transition into a swag surf, the entire homecoming concept may have been nullified.

THE DIASPORA

Homecoming is about the celebration of black culture, but not just Black American culture. Although HBCU’s are a Black American institution, they draw students from around the world, and offer education in the context of our larger diasporic ancestry.

Beyoncé incorporating elements of music from other genres and cultures into her live show isn’t new, but within Homecoming’s setting, those additions take on greater meaning.

“Mi Gente” -- J Balvin

Genre: Reggaeton

“Mi Gente” would probably have been in the show no matter the creative concept -- Beyoncé’s featured on one of the song’s remixes -- but it fits here well. Reggaeton evolved out of reggae and dancehall music’s adoption in Latin American countries, eventually mixing with Latin music, Caribbean music and hip-hop to emerge in its current form. In the format’s early underground phase, before it was a recognized genre, it was called “musica negra” -- black music.

“You Don’t Love Me (No No No)” -- Dawn Penn

Genre: Dancehall

The dancehall classic has been part of Beyoncé’s live repertoire since the I Am… World Tour, but again, it hits different for Homecoming. One of the best social aspects of the HBCU experience, especially before digital streaming and social media, was the collective exchange of music, fashion, dialect and other cultural elements students brought with them from their home regions to campus. For someone from New York or another area with a heavy West-Indian and/or Caribbean population attending school in the mid-'90s, “You Don’t Love Me” would have been a must-have at a party, but someone from Atlanta might not have known the song. Same for the subtle “Bam Bam” (Chaka Demus & Pliers) transition from “You Don’t Love Me” into Bey's own “Hold Up.”

“Déjà Vu” x “Zombie” -- Fela Kuti + & “Soul Makossa” -- Manu Dibango

Genre: Afrobeat

Let’s first establish that “Zombie” is a horn section’s dream, and belongs in the Homecoming set for that reason alone. But Fela Kuti’s work is a outstanding example of music that’s so captivating on its own, you could miss the messaging while you’re dancing. The Nigerian activist and afrobeat pioneer spent time in the US in the late ‘60s, and was greatly impacted by two things: the Black Panther Party, and James Brown. When he went back to Nigeria, he started using his music to advocate for resistance and liberation, through epic songs that ran 15 minutes or longer, backed by an incredibly tight band.

“Zombie” was an undisguised criticism of the Nigerian military, and it was a massive hit. Infuriated, the government retaliated by raiding Fela’s compound, which included family homes and his studio. The invasion was brutal, and ultimately resulted in Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother, dying from injuries incurred when soldiers threw her out of a second story window. Beyoncé is well-versed in the legend’s story and music -- Jay-Z was a producer of the Tony-winning Broadway musical based on the Fela’s life.

Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” is also a perfect song for horn and rhythm sections. The early ‘70s afrobeat track accidentally became one of disco’s first hits when discotheque pioneer David Mancuso found the obscure 12-inch and started playing it at his invitation-only parties. “Makossa” translates to “I will dance,” and this song still gets the dancefloor moving. In addition to the killer horns, “Soul Makossa” has an infectious breakbeat that’s been sampled for decades, from Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” to Jay-Z’s “Face Off,” which may be why the snippet joins the Jay-Z affiliated “Zombie” in introducing Mr. Carter to the Homecoming festivities.

THE FLARE

HBCU band performances are Showtime. Routines are carefully crafted with accents and sonic exclamation points rounding out the full songs and transitions, most noticeably in show intros.

“Welcome” x “Emerald City Sequence” --The Wiz

Near the end of the “Welcome,” trumpets play what feels like a royal fanfare. That’s because it is a royal fanfare… for The Wiz. Not the Wizard of Oz, The Wiz.

Beyoncé’s official arrival to the Coachella stage is marked by music from the first for us, by us movie production, Berry Gordy’s film adaptation of the reimagined Wizard of Oz. The Wiz is a black family tradition, watched annually around Thanksgiving or Christmas. The movie was a commercial failure, but is a cult classic and cultural jewel. The movie was bigger, brighter and bolder than filmmakers had yet dared with an all black cast, with no expense spared and no creative shorts taken. Supported by an All-Star cast including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russel, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor as The Wiz, featuring music by Quincy Jones, the movie gave black audiences permission to dream and fantasize, to believe in magic and miracles. It was akin to Black Panther’s release, but with less box office support.

The Emerald City scene from which the Homecoming sample comes was glamorous and opulent. The four-night World Trade Center shoot took 385 crew members, featured 400 dancers, three costume changes, one supermodel (Iman), incredible lighting, and was a shining moment of fashion, beauty and black excellence. (Sounds kind of like Beyoncé’s production, minus Iman.)

The scene showcased black people striding confidently, dancing beautifully, in bright color. This was a huge visual departure from the Blaxploitation films of the era. It was a precursor to the Carter’s intentional representation in the name of limitless black expression. Beyoncé no doubt spent many years watching The Wiz with her family growing up, and her entire career has been about dreaming big, pushing boundaries, making magic, and now specifically doing it in a way that celebrates the beauty of black people, as The Wiz did.  

“Run the World (Girls) x “Can You Feel It” – The Jacksons

The Jackson’s anthemic song and the horn riff used here is standard HBCU band repertoire, but Beyoncé uses the literal triumphant fanfare -- the song is from the brothers’ 1980 Triumph album -- from her predecessor in pushing the limits of creativity, shock and awe in entertainment through a perfectionist eye for every detail, to address being the first black woman to headline Coachella. And then she sings about how much of a boss she is. We felt it, Bey.

THE STAND SONGS

In HBCU band tradition, there are songs for the field that showcase musicianship, artistry and skill. And then there are songs for the stands, which are usually more contemporary, and allow the band and dancers to improvise, add some more personality, keep fans entertained, and engage in friendly battle with the rival school’s band across the field.

“The Bzzzz Drumline – Interlude” x “No Mo Play in Ga” – Pastor Troy + “Hay” – Crucial Conflict.

The interlude before Homecoming’s fourth and final quarter serves as both the drum break (please see Nick Canon’s 2002 HBCU band-centered movie Drumline for easy reference), and an opportunity for the band to get some universal HBCU stand favorites off.

“No Mo Play in GA” is a southern classic and an Atlanta anthem. The 1999 diss track was aimed at Master P., who was enjoying Atlanta’s hospitality a little too much for local rapper Pastor Troy.  HBCU bands have adopted the song’s “We ready” refrain, understandably. The chant is an instant energy and hype booster -- and caused many a fight in clubs in its heyday as a result.

Crucial Conflict’s “Hay” perhaps doesn’t seem like it would work as such a ubiquitous band jam, but the bassline and melody make it ideal. There’s even sheet music (there is for “No Mo Play in GA,” too).

On closer inspection, the song is a representation for the amalgamation of blackness that HBCU’s represent. “Hay” is a sonic example of the Great Migration: the song sounds like southern rap, but it’s from a Chicago group. Add the Funkadelic bass line from “I’ll Stay” for the older generation, and you have a groove with wide appeal, which is why it’s heavily utilized.

After we’ve swag surfed, stepped with our fraternity or sorority members, eaten at the tailgate, gotten crunk to the band and dancers at halftime, dropped it like it’s hot a few times, and done the electric slide; we leave Homecoming with a full and joyous spirit, a feeling of warmth and love for our people, and an immense pride in our blackness. This precious feeling is why, on the end card of the Homecoming documentary, Beyoncé emphasizes that the HBCU experience needs to be celebrated, but also protected.

Historian Crystal A. Gregory explained the importance of HBCU and HBCU bands to The New York Times: “Here were black people in their own black face, not in blackface. HBCU’s have provided black musicians an opportunity to demonstrate those parts of our culture and expression that had not yet been culturally mainstream.” With Homecoming, Beyoncé has invited the mainstream in to observe our traditions a way that hasn’t been done before. If this was your first foray into the HBCU experience, we hope you not only enjoyed it, but came away with a new understanding for how fiercely we love our culture, and why.

We also advise that you spend some time with the many line dance tutorials available on YouTube before you try to set it off with “Before I Let Go” this summer.