It’s easy to dismiss Beyoncé as a political figure. For as long as some have been holding her up as an icon of black feminism, others have been rolling their eyes. In 2015, Rutgers University canceled a popular class called “Politicizing Beyoncé” amid what the instructor, Kevin Allred, described as a struggle to be taken seriously in academia. How could such catchy choruses, such sparkly stage outfits, such sexy dance moves accompany serious political fodder?
But make no mistake: Beyoncé has become the most potent political voice in popular music, and her political power is rising just as we need it most. She slowly grew into it, which made her all the more powerful. She snuck up as a benign pop force with the crowd-pleasing girl power (and oversimplified feminism) of songs like “Bootylicious,” “Single Ladies,” and “Run the World (Girls).” She stepped up her political prominence by singing at both of Barack Obama’s inaugurations and even proclaiming her true feminist awakening with a lengthy sample of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech defining feminism in her song “***Flawless.”
Most of white America didn’t notice Beyoncé’s radicalization until last year’s video for and Super Bowl performance of “Formation,” which linked plantations, neglect of the black community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the Black Lives Matter movement. (Saturday Night Live nailed the absurdity of the reaction in a sketch called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.”) Then she dropped her tour de force visual album Lemonade in April 2016, using a narrative of personal betrayal to comment on the broken relationship between black women and America.
Now, when we need a protest singer most, we look up and all we see is Beyoncé.
As American political turmoil reaches a boiling point with Donald Trump’s inauguration — immediately followed by one of the largest protests in U.S. history led by women’s groups — it’s natural to wonder who will provide the most potent soundtrack for this time of unrest. After all, the progressive movement of the 1960s was famous for its leading musicians, among them Odetta, Joan Baez, and, most iconic of all, Bob Dylan. The white, male folk singer quickly became synonymous with the movement with protest songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”
Could Beyoncé be our Dylan? In some ways, she already is. She could continue to evolve into the role even more, if she wants to — and she’s our front-runner for the job.
From the beginning of her musical career, when she was the frontwoman for Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé favored a clear — if still pleasantly marketable — strain of female empowerment. The group’s breakthrough singles from their 1999 album The Writing’s on the Wall included “Bills, Bills, Bills,” and “Say My Name,” both lectures to male partners who couldn’t keep their acts together — hardly progressive, but at least encouraging heterosexual women not to tolerate willful unemployment or cheating. Her worldview came through clearer on the group’s 2001 record Survivor, which included “Independent Women,” “Survivor,” and “Bootylicious” — all of which list Beyoncé as the only credited songwriter in the group, and all of which celebrate women’s own buying power, staying power, and body pride with little regard for men’s part of the equation.
She could be forgiven for being far from radical — far, even, from the sassy jabs of “Independent Women” and “Bootylicious” — as she transitioned into a solo career. Starting with 2003’s Dangerously in Love, through 2011’s 4, she turned out consistently excellent pop songs full of catchphrases and light on political statements. (“To the left, to the left,” was not a call for progressivism.) But the 2000s were an apathetic time overall for American politics. We grew numb to ongoing wars in the Middle East and calmly divided ourselves into content red state and blue state niches. Obama became our first black president, and much of mainstream American culture patted itself on the back: Great! Racism, handled! And Hillary Clinton would probably be our next president, right? So, sexism, handled!
It was a time when we had the luxury of blog posts nitpicking the flawed feminism of “Single Ladies” (why so materialistic and marriage-focused?) and “Run the World (Girls)” (why so hollow and clichéd?). Then we could go back to our regular programming: Kardashians and other Kardashians.
It wasn’t until after Beyoncé broke professional ties with her father and longtime manager Matthew Knowles and started her own production company, Parkwood Entertainment, that she could truly get political. As she gained power over her own career, she began to use her music to address the inequalities of her intersectional identity — that is, she started to sing about being female and black. This coincided with growing mainstream acceptance of “feminist” as a label — and, eventually, with national despair over the remaining chasm between white and black Americans. Beyoncé responded by performing at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards in front of a giant FEMINIST sign. The she stole last year’s Super Bowl halftime show from ostensible headliner Coldplay with a wardrobe tribute to the Black Panthers.
Take that in for a second: Beyoncé now uses glittery stage craft and outfits — the very elements many use to dismiss her as a “serious” artist and subject of political study — to say exactly what needs saying in the places it most needs saying. On MTV, bastion of demeaning-to-women videos, she declares feminism the norm. At the Super Bowl, America’s mainstreamiest cross-racial celebration of male brute force, a female artist tells the nation that black lives do matter.
Three months after the Super Bowl, she released Lemonade, which artfully took public interest in her marriage to Jay Z — and his reported indiscretions — and turned it into a political wallop. On first listen, and first viewing of the accompanying visual album, we notice the tale of infidelity (“Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you”), rage (“Who the fuck do you think I am?”), and redemption (“Trade your broken wings for mine”). But even on that first listen and viewing, we remember some other elements: All those black women surrounding her in the videos. A tribute to the independence of dancers and sex workers in “6 Inch.” Most notably, the mothers of black men and boys killed by police officers appearing near the end of the visual album and the overtly political “Freedom,” featuring a rap interlude by another political voice of our time, Kendrick Lamar.
As we continue to watch and listen, even more political layers emerge. Lemonade spends much of its time wondering aloud whether reconciliation is possible after devastating betrayal. By the end, it seems to conclude that it is, in fact, possible, but only with honesty, acknowledgement, and time. It’s also clearly talking about more than Beyoncé and Jay Z’s marriage. It’s addressing the many rifts evident in America right now: between black Americans and a country that can’t quite seem to own up to the continuing vestiges of slavery, including disproportionate police violence against black people; between women and a country that still disrespects them; and most of all, between black women and the feminist and Civil Rights movements that have historically marginalized them.
After Trump’s Electoral College victory in November, Lemonade became even more vital to even more of us, obviously far beyond Beyoncé’s intentions. More than half of the electorate woke up after Election Day feeling betrayed by a system that handed us a president who had been openly xenophobic and sexist, who had been endorsed by the KKK, whose victory unleashed a spate of hate crimes and white supremacist rallies, and whose advisers include leaders of the extreme “alt-right.” In Beyoncé’s rage and hope — “I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell” — many of us could find some solace.
I wouldn’t expect 2017’s version of Dylan to be anything like him. He rose with a vogue for folk music and a tide of political frustration, a time when a white man was the most likely voice to emerge from the strife. Beyoncé comes to us in an age of female pop star dominance, when hip-hop has become an intrinsic part of our musical culture. She comes to the job with a market force so huge, earned through years of apolitical behavior, that she can drop albums with no promotion and still become a topic of national obsession. But she also comes to it with an intersectional identity crucial to any 2017 political discussion. Our new president may be white and male, but he was elected on a backlash against blackness (Barack Obama) and femaleness (Hillary Clinton).
Beyoncé didn’t ask for the job of progressive political savior. She may not want it. But there’s no better soundtrack to the resistance than Lemonade. And as we continue to fight for justice in the Trump era, we’ll definitely be listening to anything she has to say next.