Beyonce's Coachella Set Was a Landmark Celebration of HBCUs & Southern Black Culture
Beyoncé is from the Black South.
In case anyone was unsure of this, on “Formation" she intones “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma." If fans and critics still feigned ignorance or apathy about her Black Southerness, she followed the release of “Formation” with the Grammy Award-winning album Lemonade, a hauntingly beautiful ode to Black Southern womanhood.
Saturday (April 14) night at Coachella, Beyoncé was a thousand miles away from the Black South, but she carefully and deliberately transformed the desert stage into one of the most dynamic of Black Southern spaces, Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs). Her attention to detail was reminiscent of how famed director Debbie Allen constructed the fictitious HBCU, Hillman College, in the 1990s sitcom A Different World. Allen, another Texas native, and an alumna of HBCU Howard University, understood the spirit of HBCUs as a place of rigorous education, but also one of Black cultural legacy and pride and created a mainstream space for that spirit to shine through. Beyoncé did no less in her two hour performance, that, from the first whistle to the last note of the outro, manifested jubilation that exists at HBCU parties, football games, and homecomings.
Beyoncé may not have attended a HBCU herself or joined a Black sorority, but the feel and execution of her performance rang true with people familiar with HBCU and Black Greek fraternity/sorority traditions because she did more than scan YouTube for inspiration -- she brought expert practitioners in house to reimagine her catalog and stage show as if it were happening at Howard Homecoming instead of Coachella.
The band was the musical and onstage anchor for the entire performance. The expertly done band arrangements of the Beyoncé catalog lent fresh energy to hit songs like “Crazy in Love,” “Shining,” and “Drunk in Love.” But it was longtime band choreographer Don. P. Roberts attention to non-stop movement for each instrumental section and his integration of HBCU band favorites such as Juvenile’s “Back that Azz Up” and F.L.Y.’s “Swag Surfin'" that evidenced his experience as a former drum major of the legendary Florida A&M Marching 100.
Beyoncé’s performance was peppered with hip-hop band repertoire as she used them as breaks in her own songs and interludes between her hits. Two of the strongest moments were when she used C-Murder’s “Down for my N---as” as a transition from love-laden “Crazy in Love” to a powerful social justice moment that included “Freedom” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Then the band used more standard HBCU Band repertoire, the introduction from The Jacksons 1980 hit “Can You Feel It,” to bring Beyoncé back to stage where she reminds us that she’s the first Black woman to headline Coachella and then adds, “Aint that bout a bitch?”
Wardrobe changes served as mini-halftimes, which allowed other aspects of HBCU culture to shine through. After “711” the audience formally meets the “Bugaboos” of fictitious co-ed fraternity Beta Delta Kappa. Their greetings and the stepping that appears throughout the show come directly from the tradition of Black Greek fraternities and sororities that thrive on both HBCUs and predominantly white college campuses. Joe Brown and Jamal Josef choreographed the stepping, and “greetings” and “Suck on my Balls” segment. But again, the references made are not general or coincidental; careful observers noted both the moves and the colors were eerily close to one fraternity in particular, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. The fraternity of which Brown and Josef are members.
Lastly, this is Beyoncé, and so the dancing is always fierce. But in her Coachella performance her adoption of the “j-Setting,” which she first used in her “Single Ladies” video, is now in its original context -- combined with a marching band. Choreographers Chris Grant and JaQuel Knight, who introduced her to the style, rely on the dance formations to visually anchor the entire performance. J-setting, named for the “Prancing J-Settes” of HBCU Jackson State University, is an HBCU tradition that garners fiery competition among schools and loyal admiration from fans. Beyonce majestically leads her own j-setting team into the performance while backed by the band playing a slow-tempo version of Rebirth Brass Bands' “Do Whatcha Wanna.” A variation of that entrance can be seen at nearly every HBCU football game.
Beyoncé did not simply design a show and stick a pan-HBCU band, fictitious Black Greek organization, and a baton twirler (Diddi Emah) in it. 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. From Southern University's “Human Jukebox” to Tennessee State University’s “Aristocrat of Bands” to Florida A&M University’s “Marching 100,” these bands, their directors, and their arrangers work overtime to demonstrate to their students and community that they are listening. They take the songs students dance to at parties, people sing at weddings, people dance to at family reunions, and parishioners worship to at church and canonize them through performances at football and basketball games.
In a cultural moment when most of our talk about the South is about its white conservatism and evangelicalism, Beyoncé’s Saturday night Coachella performance, again, reasserted the Black South as a place of Black liberation that refuses to be ignored in favor of myopic narratives of right-wing zealots and SEC college football. What we witnessed Saturday night was Beyoncé, the drum major, championing 100 years of HBCU band tradition and leading us into the brightest of futures of what HBCU musical culture will continue to be.
We have Beyoncé, ever the bandleader, to thank for that.
After the Coachella performance Beyoncé announced that she would commit $100,000 in scholarships to four HBCUs: Bethune-Cookman University, Tuskegee University, Wilberforce University, and Xavier University.
Fredara Mareva Hadley (@fredaraMareva) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at Oberlin College; alumna of two HBCUs: Florida A&M University and Clark-Atlanta University; and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.