Diva BehaviorCan We Call Beyoncé a Genius Now?

Beyoncé performs at Coachella on April 14, 2018 (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Beyoncé is one of the world’s foremost artists and game changers: Her self-titled 2013 album, dropped in the middle of the night with a full visual accompaniment, changed how record labels promote and release albums. Since then, she’s released a genre-bending album complete with a movie that premiered on HBO; became the first Black woman to headline Coachella; and turned her historic HBCU-celebrating performance into a Netflix documentary and a live album. It’s impossible to deny Beyoncé’s excellence now, but there was much less consensus in 2010 when writer, speaker, and educator Kevin Allred began teaching Politicizing Beyoncé.

Allred’s course, first taught at Rutgers University, strategically paired Beyoncé’s music videos and lyrics with Black feminist and womanist texts, such as Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, Octavia Butler’s 1979 book Kindred, and Melissa Harris-Perry’s 2011 book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Now, Allred’s ever-evolving syllabus has expanded into Ain’t I a Diva: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy, a book that brings his classroom conversations about race, gender, class, and one of pop culture’s biggest stars to all of us.

Ahead of the book’s release, Allred and I talked about the enduring powerful of Queen Bey and the Black women writers, thinkers, and musicians who paved the way for her.

Ain’t I a Diva is derived from Politicizing Beyoncé, a course you’ve been teaching since 2010 that pairs Beyoncé’s music and videos with Black feminist texts. Take me back to 2010. What prompted you to create the course?

It was a combination of a couple things. I was a grad student teaching mostly intro Women’s and Gender Studies classes at the time, and assigning Daphne Brooks’s article about B’Day [in] The Nation, which came out right after the album in 2006, was one of the first things that got [those] students really excited. She did a more academic version of the article later, but [the article in The Nation] was the first analysis piece I’d found on Beyoncé. I would give it to students as part of this whole intro to race, gender, [and] sexuality. [On] those days, the students were always much more engaged, even if they were arguing. The energy in the room was so good.

In 2010, someone dropped out of teaching this special-topics course, which is [a class] you put together [based around] whatever you’re researching [or are] interested in. I was asked to [develop the class], and I was like, Okay, this is the perfect chance to teach Beyoncé for a whole semester. I wanted to do it as not just the class about Beyoncé, but as an intro to feminism through Black women’s work, activism, and history. I always say Black women created feminism, and then it got whitewashed. I wanted to go back to [the origins] and have students talk about race, gender, sexuality, class, and all the different oppressions that exist through the lens of only Black women’s work.

I’d put Beyoncé’s songs with different readings from Black women to spark conversations about the videos [and] lyrics. She’s always been a visual artist, but she didn’t have many visuals [in 2010]. At first, I put a few other artists on the syllabus as well, but there’s an overabundance now [since] Beyoncé’s put out more and more material. I can’t even include as much as I want to because she has so much work.

Since 2010, Beyoncé has released her self-titled album and Lemonade, which both revolutionized how record labels and artists release music. How has your thinking and researching evolved as Beyoncé’s artistry has evolved? How has your class shifted to accommodate everything she’s done over the past nine years?

You never know what Beyoncé will do next. I know [that causes] some people anxiety, but it’s fun to anticipate what Beyoncé might do next. We never know and I’m never spot on with it, but researching and closely analyzing the older stuff gives you a sense of what she might do next. That’s what I did in the book. After a few rewrites, [I decided to] start with Lemonade and then show through other chapters how similar things have been in [her earlier] pieces. They become fully fleshed out in Lemonade.

In 2010, people [were] like, “Are you going to say that Beyoncé [is] political? We don’t believe this. We don’t think that there [are] politics hidden in the music.” Now, Beyoncé’s [making the] politics a bit more explicit [because] she has a bigger platform. It’s a mix of her growing older, finding a stronger voice, becoming a mother, [and not] having to worry about record sales. She drops whatever she wants now, and the politics come through louder. That’s been interesting for me because the class was about creating these conversations, pairing a reading that really didn’t have anything to do with Beyoncé with a Beyoncé song. And now those two things are coming much closer together in her work. In some ways, it leaves a little less to analyze; she’s answering the questions that we would’ve asked in class or [that] I ask in the book.

It’s exciting as a fan and sometimes frustrating if you have to rewrite a whole book. I had one version of the book done before Lemonade came out, and then it was like, whoops, this can’t come out without talking about Lemonade. It had to be completely restructured. I was really happy with the way it turned out. Lemonade is such a monumental piece of work. There [are] few albums today that will go down as [one of] the greatest of all time, and [Lemonade] is definitely at the top of the pile.

When you first created the class, I remember there was a lot of criticism. Many people questioned if Beyoncé was worthy of academic inquiry. What do you remember most vividly about that time? How did you navigate the criticism?

I tried to silently counter that criticism [with] the syllabus. It’s not all academic work, but it’s all published work that’s considered in other capacities. English classes read Toni Morrison, and it’s a completely valid thing to study. At the time, I even said, “People will have a full class built around Shakespeare or some other dead white man, [so] why not [create a class about] a person who’s creating just as culturally significant work?” A few [other] classes had been created around celebrities at the time, and there [are] even more now. It’s becoming more accepted that pop culture is [one way] to reach students. [My] syllabus would always get signed off [on] and was [considered] academically rigorous. You could criticize the fact that we’re talking about Beyoncé, but you can’t look at all the sources or the bibliography of the books [on the syllabus] and say it’s not based on anything.

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What was the process for turning that class into this book? In some ways, the book reads similarly to a syllabus because it’s leaving breadcrumbs for people who are interested in Black feminist theory. How did you go about structuring the book?

That was probably the hardest thing for me because the conversation could be [much] different in a classroom. So how [could] I create a version of it that’s forever going to be on the page? That’s not my wheelhouse; I don’t feel as comfortable [writing a book] as I do facilitating conversations in the classroom. I wanted to lay it out like a syllabus and not give too much prescriptive information or [offer a single] analysis. Obviously, I’ve worked through my analysis that and we’ve had conversations about [it] in the classroom, but I wanted to present all the material, give an analysis, [and] also leave it open.

I’m also working with material by Black women, and I don’t have the experience to put in there as a white guy. I didn’t want to say this is what it means or speak to or for Black women; [I wanted to] give enough space so that the voices can speak for themselves and so that readers will look up all the sources and come to their own conclusions. [It] was important [to] put a more formal syllabus at the end of the book [with] suggested pairings. You should come up with your own pairings, mix these up, and do whatever speaks most to you.

You write that, “Black women have been ignored, neglected, and expected to hypervisibly bear and represent national pain, over the course of multiple historical periods that fuels Beyoncé’s performance.” Is that why it has been so important to put Beyoncé’s art in conversation with the work of other Black women artists, scholars, and thinkers?

Well, it introduces all of these names to readers who [might be] unfamiliar [with these Black women]. I also want people to see Beyoncé as an extension of that history because she belongs there. Some people argue about the point where she becomes a cultural figure outside of music, so it was important to me to have all these names [that] a lot that people might know [and] some that people might not know. I wanted Beyoncé to be placed there to [help] find the similarities between them. I wanted to marry that old and new feeling. I was also really happy that Feminist Press [and] I were able to do the same thing with the book’s foreword by Cheryl Clarke and the cover illustration by young Afro Latinx artist Emerald Pellot.

Ain’t I a Diva?: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy by Kevin Allred (Feminist Press)

You focus on Beyoncé the artist instead of Beyoncé the private person. Why is this distinction so important for you as a thinker and researcher? How do you hold that boundary, especially as rumors float about the impetus for her albums?

That’s lesson number one for me. I tell students that I’m looking at Beyoncé as an artist. I know she’s a person, but starting with the 2013 Life is But a Dream documentary, she’s asked us to separate [her personal life from her artistry]. [There are] very few interviews [and] hardly any public statements. She really wants to protect her private life. It’s not that people can’t share in the gossip and talk about her however they want to as fans, but as a researcher or a teacher, it’s important to distinguish [between] looking at her as an artist [and examining her as] a private person.

Private things carry over. Becoming a mother probably had a lot to do with Beyoncé explicitly embracing a more feminist consciousness. A rumored affair may have been part of the impetus for Lemonade, but there are also bigger stories if you look at it from an artistic standpoint. So students might bring up personal things, [but] I always refer it back to: Why is it important as a piece of art versus as a private thing that happened to Beyoncé? We don’t know her. She’s never really spoken about any of these things as [a] private person, only as [an] artist. There are personal conversations to [be had] around infidelity and Black women that Black women should have, but I shouldn’t be having those conversations. I don’t have the ability, nor should I have the ability, to speak about these things. That was something I wanted to be really careful about.

Throughout the book, you constantly reference “ghosts” and “resurrection.” You write that Lemonade resurrected the Sasha Fierce persona that Beyoncé thought she’d buried. The chapter about “Formation” is one of my favorites because it spends so much time on Beyoncé using New Orleans, specifically, as a site of resurrecting forgotten ghosts. Do you consider Beyoncé a conjurer? What does that mean in the context of her work?

She is [a conjurer] with “Formation” and Lemonade. There [are] ghosts all over Lemonade [who are] looking down from the trees. I even had students consider [Lemonade’s] black-and-white scenes as time travel or out of time, so that it’s the past and the future meeting each other as she says in the visual accompaniment to [the album]. Even Homecoming [had] all these quotes throughout [that] really tried to tell a history. Beyoncé [is] trying to tell a history that white people or certain groups of people aren’t as familiar with [because] it’s kept out of the mainstream. She’s trying to revive that history and celebrate [it] at the same time.

Her conjuring is about educating a wider audience. Dressing as the Black Panthers for the [2016] Super Bowl performance [brought] these historical pieces back to the present to say, “You got it wrong. America got it wrong before, and America’s still getting it wrong, so I’m going to keep resurrecting these ghosts, this past, these histories to tell you how to do it right.”

Seeing Beyoncé as an artist is really important because she’s put out work that far surpasses some of the great white male artists that revere.

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You talk and write a lot about Beyoncé not being treated as or considered an artistic genius in the ways that white male and female artists are. Why is that? How does pairing her work with Black feminist texts help to give her the credit that she’s owed?

Connecting her to academic discourses or other bodies of literature that are respected in universities gives her [a] kind of credibility. She [doesn’t] need it, but connecting her to all of that shows that she’s worth this consideration and that she has intention in her art. Beyoncé builds a whole visual world with an album, especially with Lemonade. [There’s been recent] conversations on social media about 10,000-word journalistic pieces [being mostly written by] white men. It’s about access and opportunities, so Beyoncé [not] being seen as an artist is the same thing [as someone] saying white men are the only people [who] can write these long, in-depth journalistic pieces. They’ve had the opportunities and the access. So seeing [Beyoncé] as an artist is really important because she’s put out work that far surpasses some of the great white male artists [who are] revered.

I like the idea of questioning everything and Beyoncé as an artist is also questioning a lot of things about the way we do things. As she continues putting out work, more and more people are accepting that she’s a genius. But there’s still this level of ambivalence toward it because she’s a Black woman; people can’t accept that she’s the creative mind behind [it]. There [are] a lot of excuses people give: She has a whole team [that’s] doing it [or] she has 32 songwriters. But that’s what she does. She works collaboratively with other people. She’s not a one-woman lone genius. She works with other people, and that’s a whole lesson unto itself that can [be] tied back to Black feminism [and] coalition work. She’s an example of that.

You start your class and the book with a simple question: Who is Beyoncé? Why this question? And who is Beyoncé to and for you?

Oh man, I ask it because it’s not meant to be answered! Well, it is meant to be answered, [but] I don’t know the answer. I look for the answer from students, readers, and whomever else. Beyoncé is so many things to me: She’s an artist, an artistic genius, [and] an inspiration. She’s obviously celebrating Blackness and Black women, and in some cases, feminism in general and women of all races and backgrounds. She celebrates queer people in other ways. I try and tie those threads back together by the end of the book. It’s an answer that comes toward the section [about] “I Was Here.” She just makes you feel okay even if things aren’t okay. There’s an example of someone in the world creating, doing her best, and fighting against all these odds. She’s rich now, so the odds aren’t as against her in some ways, but they still definitely are as a Black woman in America. We can [all] come together through that feeling. It’s so hard to just choose one word [to describe Beyoncé]. Beyoncé’s just Beyoncé.

I know that you said that it’s impossible to predict what Beyoncé is going to do next. I wait with bated breath, like there’s no way she can top this, and then she does. What do you think she’ll do next? What do you think happens after the Homecoming era?

The Homecoming era kind of ties everything up. It creates a new, clean slate for her. Maybe everything does that, but I don’t think Lemonade did. She [released] the long-rumored joint album with Jay-Z during On The Run II, [which] worked as an epilogue to the Lemonade chapter. Homecoming is its own kind of self-contained, historical, public history project. So, she’s set herself up to do anything. The Lion King will come out next month [and then] I feel like there’s going to be a break because she wants to just be at home with her kids. In Homecoming, there’s those moments where she just wants to be at home with her children. She’s like, “I’m working these crazy hours—10 hours a day [for] 10 months put on the show, and I will never do it again.” So it’s going to be a new beginning. I can’t even begin to imagine what it could be. I’ve jokingly said the only way she can top herself now is to beam a hologram of herself into everyone’s living room to give a live show. But I don’t think that’s feasible.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.