There’s a parallel universe in which Beyoncé attends an HBCU and is the captain of a famed dance team such as Texas Southern’s Motion of the Ocean or is drum major of Florida A&M University’s Marching 100.
This is not the universe in which we live, but her latest documentary film, Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé, animates how that alternate reality never left Beyoncé’s mind. Homecoming is not so much a revelation as it is confirmation that every dose of Blackness is intended to ground her in her own Black cultural experience as well as provide a portal through which Black people see themselves lovingly reflected.
Homecoming is a film by Beyoncé and it’s through her voice that we understand why this performance was so important to her as a Black woman, an artist and a mother. In an intimate voice that sounds as if she’s talking to us on the telephone, she explains that she “wanted it to feel the way I felt when I went to battle of the bands and that being the highlight of my year.” In the same vignette she cites her sources by performance clips of HBCU Bands including Alabama A&M Marching Maroon and White Band, North Carolina A&T Blue and Gold Marching Machine, and Jackson State Sonic Boom of the South.
For HBCU communities, Homecoming is the social highlight of the year. A member of the cast accurately describes it as “our Super Bowl.” It’s the event that unites the entire campus as fans and alumni gather to celebrate their HBCU experience alongside friends, family, bandmates, fraternity brothers/sorority sisters and the surrounding community. Growing up attending Florida A&M University homecomings is in my DNA and is a part of the ties that bind my family together. For me, it was where the joy and gravitas of lineage of HBCU affiliation became tangible.
While watching Homecoming I had another documentary in mind: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. The recently released film gives an extraordinary view of the 1972 live recording of her gospel album at New Temple Baptist Church in the historically Black neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles. At the time of each performance, both women were at a pinnacle of popularity and opted to create groundbreaking performances infused with the Black cultural traditions that nurtured them. Black churches and HBCUs are two of the most venerable institutions within Black communities and both Aretha and Beyoncé possessed a keen sense of how to honor the spaces and the people without sacrificing their own musical alchemy.
Much like Amazing Grace, what anchors Homecoming is the musical performance itself. Its sheer scope and abundant Blackness are what she wants us to witness. This is the concert film her historic Beychella performance deserves with documentary vignettes woven throughout. The film starts with a 1953 quote by Toni Morrison from Howard University that says, “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it,” and shifts into nearly 20 uninterrupted minutes of the opening of her 2018 Coachella set. The performance segment concludes with an extended Nina Simone’s quote on why she insisted on centering her Black culture in her music:
“I think sometime before; my job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there and just to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means necessary.”
In reflecting on the treasure that Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Beyoncé offer the world, I’m left thinking about the inordinate labor required to bring such vision to life.
For all of our necessary discussions about #BlackGirlMagic, Homecoming is an important reminder of the incredible amount of labor required to give the world that magic. Homecoming contains compelling rehearsal footage, discussions with her creative team and intimate shots of her and Jay-Z, Blue Ivy and her newborn twins, Rumi and Sir. At the time of her 2018 Beychella performance, Beyoncé’s twins were less than a year old and crafting that performance required her to push her body further than she had before. She explains that her difficult pregnancy and birthing twins changed how she worked, but not what she accomplished. In summary she says, “It wasn’t like before when I could rehearse for 15 hours straight. I have children. I have a husband. I have to take care of my body.”
Homecoming is just as much a portrait of Beyoncé: The Working Mother as it is Beyoncé: The Artist. This is a lens she extends to the women who work with her attempting the same delicate work/family balance.
It’s 2019 and we’re in the midst of another Coachella. Yet, with the release of Homecoming, Beyoncé will be the biggest Coachella news this year. Her film doubles down on making sure that Blackness is seen in unapologetically boisterous and intentional ways. Even in the Coachella crowd shots the camera lingers of Black faces in a way that isn’t coincidental. Beyoncé closes the film with a newly released remake of Frankie Beverly’s 1981 classic, “Before I Let Go,” a song that’s become a second national Black anthem at BBQs, weddings, family reunions and, yes, homecomings.
We are in a cultural moment in which the divisive politics of our country, and campus racial unrest, correlates with an increase in HBCU applications. We are in a moment in which the main character in the 2019 horror film, Us, proudly rocks his Howard University sweatshirt. A moment when two HBCU alumni, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, nearly became governors of two deep South states and another HBCU alumna, Senator Kamala Harris, is running for U.S. President.
HBCUs and the people and culture they nurture still matter.
Beyonce’s Homecoming benediction makes this point well.
“So many people who are culturally aware and intellectually sound are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including my father. There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected.”
Even though Beyoncé didn’t get to attend Prairie View A&M or Texas Southern University, Homecoming makes plain the ties that bind her to family and her Black community.
She sees us and we feel seen.
Fredara M. Hadley is Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory and a proud double HBCU alumna of Florida A&M University and Clark Atlanta University.