A black culture class at Beyoncé’s University
Homecoming, Bey's new documentary, aims to teach us how to preserve and perpetuate African-American culture.
“When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella“.
This is the urgency that comes out in the two hours and more of Homecoming, the Netflix docu-fim by and on Beyoncé that makes us live behind and in front of the stage the huge experience of “Beychella”, the Queen B’s performance at Coachella in 2018.
The entire show and its documentary were designed by Beyoncé as a majestic celebration of black culture, the greatest and the most unconventional celebration ever done for a festival show. From the outfits to the choice of the black band, from the dancers to the graphic font chosen for the merch, from the quotations that mark the different moments of the film to the references to the African-American colleges, everything in Homecoming pays tribute to the black power, the black American community, the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and speaks about the importance of being a black woman.
We will try below to channel through the quotations that seem to mark the documentary in different chapters, the meaning of this huge operation signed Beyoncé that has consecrated the artist as well as inimitable performer, dancer, singer and actress, also as absolutely capable director and creative director able to coordinate and supervise the hundreds of people involved in the project with ambition, determination and tenacity.
“If you surrender to the air, you can ride it”
– Toni Morrison, Howard University, 1953
The concert film opens with this quotation from Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author Toni Morrison. As in many other points of the show Beyoncé honors some of the icons of the black American culture, suggesting from the beginning her intention to pay tribute to her black heroes.
Drumroll. Starting whistle. The show can begin.
From the very first minutes the Beychella shows an indescribable energy, punctuated by the the tribal rhythm of percussion, the proud ride of the Egyptian Queen B on the stage and her first Nefertiti-style outfit signed by Balmain (element, this Egyptian, also featured in the artwork of the album released just in conjunction with the documentary).
Like a queen, accompanied by an army of women in sphinx-printed overalls and a dense orchestra, Beyoncé is ready to dominate that pyramid-shaped stage that she had built to enchant all her Coachella fans.
In the first backstage segment included in this documentary that alternates frames in 16mm and not, Bey talks about this experience as a moment of growth and improvement, for herself and for the whole Homecoming team. An experience made up of different people who will have to look like something homogeneous and unified in the show, while maintaining their diversity. Two hundred people, one family.
The tone of Bey, when she begins to tell this project of hers, is a proud, motivated and motivational tone.
What presses the artist is to show people that there are no limits, that anyone can overcome a prejudice, feel part of something colossal, pop, work hard to show themselves that they can do it, always.
This is especially true for the African-American community, for African-American women whom Bey sometimes calls “queens”, other times “divas” and which spurs them to break free from “bullshit”, oppressions and offenses in different parts of the show.
Near the start of this Homecoming there is another important female voice that we listen to as the backstage images flow: it is that of Nina Simone who talks about the importance of black culture and her ambition to teach it to others.
“To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, Black people“. Beyoncé gives new strength to this statement by citing in her documentary those who were the prominent personalities of African American culture and insisting on the importance of preserving it in time.
“Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.”
– W.E.B Du Bois, Fisk University 1888.
This quotation from African-American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois introduces us to the heart of the four-month preparation for the show with a series of repertoire images of cheerleaders and musical bands belonging to different HBCUs of America.
From the beginning of the film, Beyoncé claims to have never attended a HBCU but to have always dreamed of doing it and it is as if Beychella and Homecoming were somehow her “revenge”.
With this show Bey has set up a cultural laboratory, her own African American University where she does not “simply teach work but life”.
“Our mothers and grandmothers… moving to music not yet written”
– Alice Walker, Spelman College 1965
The novelist Alice Walker (Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple) appears in Homecoming through this quotation giving Bey the opportunity to introduce the chapter on maternity.
We recall that the Homecoming at the Coachella was postponed for a year precisely because of the unexpected maternity of B, pregnant at the time of the twins Sir and Rumi.
At this point, the documentary follows Beyoncé’s hard training at Coachella, from the first post-partum test to spasms due to excessive physical effort, to how she split between rehearsal and nursing, a successful woman and a mother. In the backstage videos the figure of JAY-Z emerges as that of a father who stands there behind the scenes with their daughter Blue Ivy in support of his partner, facilitating as far as possible the task of reconciling the role of mother with that of creative woman.
Beyoncé who prepares herself for Coachella after giving birth to two children and after a pregnancy full of complications is not the same Beyoncé that before could afford a whole day of rehearsals. Even her body is no longer the same: “There were days that I thought I’d never be the same. My strength and endurance would never be the same“, she says at one point.
The most important lesson she learned from those 4 months of rehearsals is that she will never again submit her body to such an effort.
“You can’t be what you can’t see”
– Marian Wright Edelman, Spelman College 1959
These words appear from the American activist for children’s rights Edelman are immediately followed by the voice of another woman who is the Nigerian Edidiong Emah who says she never thought she could take part in a show like that “because she was too low and too big“.
This is the part of Homecoming that most of all speaks to women and does so with a very strong motivational drive rooted in Bey’s belief that every woman has in her an infinite potential.
Homecoming is proof that black women can get anywhere.
We only need remember that Beycella marked the first time a Black woman headlined the festival and that was an opportunity for Bey to represent the black power.
“It was important to me that everyone had who never seen themselves represented felt like they were on that stage with us. As a black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And black woman often feel underestimated. I wanted us to be proud of not only the show, but the process. Proud of the struggle. Thankful for the beauty that comes with a painful history and rejoice in the pain. Rejoice in the imperfections and the wrongs that are so damn right. I wanted everyone to feel thankful for their curves, their sass, their honesty – thankful for their freedom. It was no rules and we were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized.”
While she performs on the Coachella stage, a voiceover during the show says in a row a series of phrases like: “the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman”, “the most unprotected person in America is the Black woman “.
Here, in the Beyoncé’s Homecoming the black woman thanks God for being black, for having curves, for her honesty and her faults. There is no space for marginalization or body shaming: Homecoming is “a free, safe space in which no one of us were marginalized”.
“Keep going, no matter what”
– Reginald Lewis, Virginia State University 1965
In this particular segment of the documentary Beyoncé’s talent emerges as a director and creative director, highly controlling person, an exacting boss, a perfectionist. Instead JAY-Z appears as un husband who constantly supports B. at rehearsals.
“I personally selected each dancer, every light, the material on the steps, the height of the pyramid, the shape of the pyramid. Every patch was hand-sewn. Every tiny detail had an intention“, Beyoncé is the only one in charge of everything, the only one who has checked every last detail and who has chosen everything with the aim of transmitting beauty not so much to those who would have watched live under the stage, but to us that we would see everything through the cameras.
And there is a wonderful moment when, during a brainstorming session, Beyoncé talks to her entire team about the mood of the show, the script and once she’s finished, an understanding voice off-camera tells the superstar couple: “All right. Have a good anniversary”. So JAY-Z, sitting next to her, can do nothing but listen to her and assist her in silence and exclaim, only at the end of B.’s speech, “Ok, guys”.
This is also the part where, returning to the show, Beyoncé finally takes to the stage also JAY-Z singing together “Déjà Vu”, smiling to each other and not losing sight even for a moment.
“Without community, there is no liberation”
– Audre Lorde
Like Solange in When I Get Home, so Beyoncé in Homecoming pays tribute to Houston, her roots and people.
More specifically, in this segment of the documentary the concept of family emerges, understood not only as a blood relation.
Her collaborators speak about Homecoming as a unique experience in which Bey has created a family environment bringing together normal HBCU students with dancers and musicians from her entourage.
At this point Bey brings out on stage Destiny’s Child‘s band mates Kelly and Michelle (defined by her as “my college”), and they sing together nostalgic songs like “Say My Name” and “Lose My Breath”.
This chapter dedicated to the family also includes the performance of Beyoncé with her sister Solange on “Get Me Bodied”.
The finale of this long performance, which has taken the name of Beychella, is approaching and B. gives her Beyhive (her fans) hits like “Single Ladies” and “Love on Top”. One of the last scenes of the documentary has as its protagonist an adorable Blue Ivy who sings a song for her mother in front of the cameras and at the end of the exhibition says “I want to do it again, because it makes me feel good”.
And while we laugh at this scene that makes us understand a bit about genetics, a warning for future generations that belongs to the American writer Maya Angelou arrives in voiceover:
“Tell the truth, to yourself first, and to the children. Live in the present. Don’t deny the past… And know the charge on you is to make this country more than it is today“.
What we admire of this enormous lesson of African American culture directed by Beyoncé with the contributions of high profile African-American thinkers is the Bey’s ability to dose entertainment and teaching.
During the documentary we are never bored and, at the same time, we never feel the sense of fun as an end in itself: we’re so impressed with every detail, every reference to this or that thing, every quotation, as well as with the firm will of Beyoncé to create something that will live beyond her.
“So I studied my history, I studied my past, and I put every mistake, all of my triumphs, my 22-year career into my two-hour Homecoming performance.” And that’s exactly what we can see in this concert film and it’s so extraordinary that perhaps we’ll never see anything like this again.