This time, the revolution will be televised. Rallying cries will be snuck into YouTube videos and feature films. Anthems will pour through speakers and travel across the airwaves. It will be documented in 140 characters or less. This time, the revolution will be all-consuming, and popular culture will serve as its major battleground.
Pop culture is often dismissed as shallow and simple. It’s trivialized as fodder for those who’d prefer to occupy their time talking about which Kardashian ate where rather than grappling with the big issues of the world. But the truth is that media, news and art have always been crucial arenas for serious social issues.
Popular culture is more than cultural products. It is ideas, attitudes and values of the world we live in, reflected back to us and challenged. Pop culture deals with the social politics of the world, only in a more accessible and ubiquitous way.
Last month, we saw this battleground used in two very different ways in two equally explosive performances.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar walked onto a prison stage set at the 58th annual Grammys to perform a medley of “Blacker the Berry,” “Alright,” and an unreleased track. Lamar was in chains with a row of men shackled together behind him, while his jazz band played from prison cells. The set ended with a silhouetted Lamar in front of an outline of Africa that read “Compton” while he rapped “on February 26th I lost my life, too” — a line in reference to the day Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman.
His performance was explicitly political — it confronted racism entrenched in the foundation of the United States and all the ways it has impacted the black experience. In six minutes, it referenced the prison industrial complex, police brutality, self-love and the daily stress that comes with living under the duress of oppression.
Though dubbed controversial by few, the consensus on Twitter and in think-pieces following the Grammys was that Kendrick Lamar stole the show. The response to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show just a week prior was not the same.
The weekend before the game, Beyoncé sent fans into a frenzy with the unannounced release of a new track “Formation” and an accompanying video.
“Beyoncé is a black woman artist making black art for black women,” writes Britt Julious in a Pitchfork review of the track. “She is creating work that speaks to an audience that might not receive the sort of mainstream, visually and sonically-enticing wisdom that Bey has perfected.”
Her song, video and subsequent Super Bowl performance celebrated black culture and black women. While many praised Beyoncé for centering the black experience, it wasn’t the same widespread praise Kendrick Lamar received. It’s not to say Kendrick is undeserving of his accolades, but the issue lies in the way his work is received in comparison to Beyoncé’s.
“Formation” was called “anti-police” and nay-sayers called for a boycott of her music and world tour — people in New York City even attempted to organize a protest against Beyoncé.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was among the critics of her halftime show, saying, “It was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us and keep us alive,” adding that the set should have been “decent” and “wholesome.”
The perceived attack he is referring to is the fact that Beyoncé and her backup dancers’ outfits vaguely paid tribute to the Black Panthers. Afterward, a few of the dancers were photographed on the field with their fists in the air and a sign that read “Justice 4 Mario Woods,” in reference to a man shot 25 times by police in San Francisco.
But nothing about “Formation” is anti-police. She sings about her child and having hot sauce in her purse, not about attacking police. Yes, the video features politically-charged imagery like a line of officers holding their hands above their head in surrender in front of a black child and Beyoncé standing atop a police car in a flooded street — an allusion to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But there are no cries of “fuck the police.” Her politics are more implicit. The pop star seeks to empower audiences through representation and by claiming space in the public eye as a person who is not traditionally offered much space.
The unapologetic way Beyoncé embraces herself, her power and her agency in “Formation” is radical in and of itself. Beyoncé did not suddenly decide to become political. Black Lives Matter or feminism are not new concepts to her, nor are they a sales ploy. Since the beginning of her career, Bey has staunchly advocated for feminism and pride in her power. This can be heard long before “***Flawless,” on Destiny’s Child-era tracks like “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Survivor” and “Independent Women (Part 1).”
The question of representation is precisely what makes popular culture pivotal ground to enact social change. Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and other artists are utilizing media as a platform to make issues like systematic oppression and institutionalized racism more accessible to a wide audience.
Popular culture must serve as a site to discuss social inequity in all its forms, and that has always been the case. We need the Kendricks, writing expressly political albums about the conditions and complexities of being a person of color in the United States just as much as we need the Beyoncés writing empowerment anthems that double as club bangers.