Something truly astonishing happened last month while I was struggling to rub enough Naira together to pay for my monthly internet subscription. I woke up one morning, emerging from a three-day web blackout, to a startling realization: Beyonce had become one of the world’s foremost feminist activists.
Apparently the visual album she dropped sans marketing had a single, Flawless, that quoted Orange Prize-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–an avowed feminist, literary activist and thought leader.
I have met Ms. Adichie on a couple of occasions, have shouted back, Yes!, when she spoke against citing marriage as an achievement. Each year she mentors and teaches young writers at a workshop in Lagos and her viral Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, is still one of my favorites.
In short, Ms. Adichie is the kind of studied, literate, and successful person I aspire to become. And so the thought of her being lumped into the same category with Beyonce, or being appropriated by her, made me gag.
To be honest, I thought Bey was really interesting back when Destiny’s Child was still together, before her image and gyrations began taking over the media. Some of the problem with her success, in my opinion, is that it has limited her ability to effectively check and balance her presence in the media. She’s everywhere: popping her butt, staring wide-eyed, making desperate attempts at an acting career. It’s simply too much, why I try to limit my intake to one Super Bowl performance or inauguration a year.
And yet she found a way to circumvent the over-saturation problem, in this case, by not drowning us in pre-album publicity. Bey dropped the visual album without so much as a word, and yes, I love the ingenuity of it just as much as Pharrell’s 24-hour music video (tho, believe me, I didn’t have enough internet credit to watch it).
But is Beyonce a feminist? Maybe so, deep down, if we look beyond all the obvious reasons why she shouldn’t even be considered. Maybe so, if feminism by association is a thing and activism can be equated to the commodification of women’s empowerment anthems for profit.
But the real question we need to ask is: why are we looking to Beyonce for feminist leadership? It strikes me as desperate, as though there are so few activists out there in the real world doing the work that we actually have to champion Bey. (I can list many others, but I won’t here. Just don’t consult Wikipedia, since according to them there are basically no African feminists.)
Whatever her personal views on feminism, Beyonce comes across as someone who is all too comfortable using sex, her body, and image to sell records–not to say that makes her any worse than any other pop star. To be honest, though, it makes me uncomfortable to hear her sampling Chimamanda.
The filmmaker in me wondered why the author would allow herself to be quoted in this way, her voice heard over a shot of Bey’s ass in fishnet tights and a pair of butt-out booty shorts. Certainly this was a mistake? I thought. Was the speech in the public domain? Was Bey free to use it without Ms. Adichie’s authorization? Does it fall in that grey area of digital sampling? (FYI, Bey’s receiving flack for another digital sample of audio from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.)
Maybe that’s why Chimamanda has been curiously silent about all this, even after the song spiked a sales bump on Americanah.
What does this all mean? I would like to say that I get a warm and fuzzy feeling from Beyonce and progressive folks’ appropriation of Ms. Adichie’s speech, born of a culture to which they cannot relate. I would like to say that I’m comforted by the meta-truth that everything, even feminism, comes from Africa. Or maybe I should be grateful to Beyonce for giving African feminists a trojan horse delivery method for our most subversive ideas: juxtaposed to an overtly sexual personage, inoculating the listener against both the anti-feminism of the image and the actual power and import of the feminist message. No feathers ruffled.
But it all feels too convenient.
For what it’s worth, I question holding Beyonce up as a feminist simply because she sampled the work of one. It strikes me as misguided, much like calling someone a freedom fighter for wearing a Che t-shirt.
But for better or worse, to the extent that Flawless has helped bring people to Ms. Adichie’s writing, and to concrete ideas about feminism and women’s empowerment, the song is a boon to the work. And good ideas can’t help being sampled. –AL.
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