After every successful political struggle comes a period of complacency, or even apathy. Fourth wave feminists know only too well that the achievements of third wave feminists were remarkable, and placated the public into thinking all battles had been won. A few years later, when the cracks start showing, people come forward to demand that there is still a lot more to gain. In the last year, a bubbling undercurrent of racism in America has come to the surface, humanized by the tragic tales of police brutality, even murder, against unarmed black men. Statistics on race relations in America are shocking: 20% of disabled children are black but they account for 44% of disabled children placed in mechanical restraints; black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children; people with “black-sounding names” have to send out 50% more CVs to get an interview; the gap between median incomes of blacks and whites has tripled in the past 25 years; the median net worth of white families is about $265,000, compared to just $28,500 for blacks. I could go on, and on, and on. Formal segregation may have fallen, but racism still permeates every level of American society.
When written down, these statistics throw a particularly vivid light on something we all knew was happening anyway. But it is shocking incidents that always rally the public to action once again. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has been transformed from a simple, yet powerful, demand that there be no more unnecessary deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers, into a national, and even international, struggle against the racism that permeates all of our societies.
Two days ago, the #BlackLivesMatter campaign got the biggest public endorsement it could ever have hoped for. The Super Bowl half time show, one of the most watched sporting events on the planet, exploded into action with global megastar powering onto stage with one of the most overtly political performances of any celebrity in modern times.
This was a political message at its most overt, brave and challenging, but also at its most commercial, appealing and unifying. Backing dancers, clad in leather homages to the Black Panther uniform, formed a dramatic X, channeling Malcolm X’s struggle for civil rights. In the accompanying music video to Beyoncé’s powerful political call to arms, visual motifs of graffiti reading ‘stop shooting us’ and nods to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are interspersed with shots of a young boy breakdancing in front of a line of policeman before raising his hands defensively. As the song concludes, Beyoncé disappears under the water atop a sinking police car in New Orleans. In an era of an increasingly sanitized, banal and generic music industry, this was a deeply political moment that powered straight to the heart of the American public.
Media reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, with even the Daily Mail’s attempt to label the performance ‘anti-police’ qualified by a note of resigned appreciation. However I was troubled by a New Statesman article that heaped praise on the singer by noting that her performance’s power lay in the fact that Beyoncé “has always sung primarily to an audience that is black” and therefore the power of her message lay in the fact that this is where it would resonate.
The paradox of oppression is that in order for it to be overcome you must join forces and gain equality with your oppressor. Martin Luther King knew this when he marched on Washington; without the co-operation and appreciation of the white majority, inequality would forever reign. Gay rights have only been won with the help and assistance of straight people, feminism is nothing if it fails to win the support of men. Those who seek to shut the majority out of their campaign deny the reality of the situation, and also overlook their own central argument, that equality means the slow dismantling of these perceived differences from public discourse, not the reinforcement of them.
Beyoncé is a global megastar, and quite possibly the most famous black woman in the world, and her success has been dependent on winning the global adoration of millions of fans by appealing to people of all colours. The New Statesmen is wrong to dismiss her audience as “primarily black”, as nothing could be further from the truth. She is not an artist purely for black people. This is crucial for Beyoncé’s endorsement of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. Black people are not the people doing the killing, they are not the people acting out the oppression. Love or loathe her music, the power of Beyoncé’s political message is in its ability to reach Americans across the country, of all races, ages and genders.
Her critics will argue this is capitalism at its most cynical; a shameless exercise in using a political struggle to flog records to the black American victims of the continuing civil rights struggle. In truth, I hardly think this matters. While other artists of her stature are busy adopting the cynicism of sexiness to get the cash registers chiming, we should be thankful that Beyoncé’s endorsement (not to mention her complementary charitable giving) will push forward the struggle for public consensus that something has got to change. While Donald Trump has been busy calling #BlackLivesMatter protestors troublemakers, Beyoncé has drawn the battle lines, pushing this agenda not just towards a black audience, but audiences of every colour. For this, we should applaud her.