It’s been almost a full three days since Kendrick Lamar unleashed holy blackness on the Grammy stage, performing “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright” and a verse from an untitled song that didn’t make the final cut of his Grammy-winning album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It was a powerful, defiant statement about the state of black America, one that, if we must rate “wokeness,” was on par with or even a step beyond Beyoncé’s widely viewed and much criticized Super Bowl performance.
His first major-label release was in 2012. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was about growing up in Compton, Calif., one young black man’s stories used to make a larger statement about growing up black and male in America. His second album, To Pimp a Butterfly, used similar themes with a wider scope. Perhaps the best-known song from that release before the Grammys was “Alright,” which was unofficially adopted as the theme song for Black Lives Matter.
On the Grammy stage, Beyoncé’s performance wouldn’t have faced nearly as much backlash. For better or worse, viewers expect a little controversy at the Grammys. No, it’s not the MTV Video Music Awards, but it’s a bunch of artists gathered together to celebrate their art. Things tend to get a little edgy. It’s the venue where Jennifer Lopez launched herself to superstardom by showing up in a dress cut to her navel. Jon Stewart, as the host, once stripped to his boxers onstage. Nas and Kelis, then married, arrived in apparel with the n-word scrawled in big, gold letters on it. The Grammys and controversy go together.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She is also a blogger at SeeSomeWorld.com, where she covers pop culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
In fairness, there is absolutely some sexism at play. LaSha rightfully assesses that Beyoncé’s attire of a leotard and tights during her Super Bowl performance is unfairly used to discredit her message. She points out, “Black men, after all, whether in Levi’s or Kente cloth, can still declare their allegiance to blackness no matter how they’re dressed.”
And she notes that although both Lamar and Beyoncé infuse their black-empowerment messages with lines about sex, no one has raised a brow about Lamar doing so, despite perceiving those same ideas as a strike, so to speak, against Beyoncé. That men face no penalty for expressing sexual desire, while women are shamed, is blatant sexism.
So yes, there is sexism at play in the different responses to Lamar’s and Beyoncé’s performances.
While it may be part of the reason that think pieces condemning Lamar are in short supply, sexism is not the core reason as LaSha asserts. There are other major factors to take into consideration that explain the lack of overanalysis about Lamar’s performance and the abundance of such about Beyoncé.
For starters, Beyoncé is a much bigger star than Lamar. She’s naturally going to garner more interest and more clickbait articles. She has a much longer musical history, one mostly devoid of explicit political statements about black pride or power. And although she’s never shied away from being black (even the L’Oreal commercial, in which she added French and Creole to her ethnic identity, also mentioned African American), she hasn’t come up with anything that’s even a roundabout way of saying, essentially, that Black Lives Matter the way she does in “Formation.”
Beyoncé’s new stance is, well, new. It’s why nonblack people are freaking out, as encapsulated in a hilarious Saturday Night Live segment, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.”
I don’t agree with the accusation that Beyoncé is “exploiting black resistance,” but I do understand the conspiracy theory behind it. It’s kinda cool to be “woke” right now, and Beyoncé has pulled a 180 at just the right time. Is she conscious or is her messaging convenient, just a constructed way to reinvent and engage black consumers? It’s a valid question.
There are also valid reasons—not sexism—that the same is not asked about Lamar.
Lamar taking to the Grammy stage shuffling in chains, then performing in front of a bonfire with African dancers and then flashing an outline of Africa with “Compton” stamped in the middle, isn’t a vast departure from what listeners of his music, or viewers of other awards shows, expect from Lamar. At last year’s BET Awards, I sat in the audience watching him perform “Alright” while he stood on top of a battered cop car as a giant, tattered American flag waved in the background. It was a great performance.
His Grammy show was even better, a defining moment, but it wasn’t Lamar making a departure; it was Lamar at his best doing what he’s been doing all along, this time before a mainstream audience. It’s hard to question someone about being exploitative who has a history—even if short—of doing the same thing in improved ways.
Let’s also take into account the different venues. The Super Bowl is considered an apolitical, family-friendly event, despite all the violence that happens on the field in the name of good sport. The performers chosen are typically considered “safe,” noncontroversial and appealing to a general audience. Beyoncé showing up on the field, channeling the Black Panthers—an organization largely beloved by black people and despised by white people because they equate black pride with hating white people—was never going to go over well in that arena. Had Lamar done his Grammy performance on the Super Bowl field, it would have garnered a massive response, likely about the same as Beyoncé’s, even with his lesser star power.
So yes, Lamar and Beyoncé are being treated differently despite spreading the same message. Sexism comes into play, yes, but there are other valid reasons that this man and this woman are not being treated the same. Context matters, just like black lives.