Black lives Matter, black voices don’t: Why aren’t the left Crazy in Love with modern black protest?

When I watched the Super Bowl halftime show, it didn’t dawn on me straight away that I was witnessing a pivotal moment in modern black political activism. Beyoncé’s ode to the fight against racial injustice has once again demonstrated to the world that black culture and black protest have always been and always will be inseparable. I thought the rest of the progressive world would rejoice in the fact. I was wrong.

The response to Beyoncé’s politically charged homage to black activism during the Super Bowl half-time show has truly been fascinating. In classic American theatrical fashion, the intersections of race and popular culture have once again come to a head. Of her critics, and oh how they grow in number, three clear camps have emerged.

First, you have the poor disillusioned fan who feels betrayed by Beyoncé for having an opinion that deviates from the comfortable norms of American society — “you mean to say she doesn’t simply exist to sing and shake her ass on command?”

Second, you have the slightly more obvious but no less offensive political opportunists who take issue with her perceived race-baiting and apparent anti-police rhetoric — your Rudy Giuliani et al. For these I have no time nor word space to dedicate.

But finally, and most interestingly, you have those who purely and fundamentally reject any claim of authenticity in Queen Bey’s performance and wish to delegitimise her stake in any discussion on black power.

This latter group of critics, both black and white, not only place crosshairs on the artist for what they perceive as a lack of legitimacy, but argue that her song ‘Formation’ is part of a much larger problem — the manipulation and co-optation of black politics. In a similar vein they argue that #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackOnCampus and all the other hashtag-riddled movements are merely acts of self-indulgent but politically insignificant black political players seeking credit rather change.

Of these critiques, no article has incensed me more than that of Tom Slater, deputy-editor at Spiked Magazine who authored, “Beyoncé at the Super Bowl: From Black Power to Black Pain”. Despite being riddled with caustic contradiction, Slater’s piece insinuates that, because black political protest is now less likely to be met with police dogs, batons and fire hoses, the contemporary use of the term black power is some epicurean-type exercise and, in actuality, useless. Strangely, Slater takes issue with the popular appeal of black activism and its tangible link with popular culture in that it delegitimises the movement — because surely, for a statement on black history to be well received by white people must mean it lacks legitimacy?

Back in the real world, the truth is that new technologies are not only exposing white America to the plight of being black in America in a way that was non-existent to previous movements, but also provides the means through which a disengaged generation can begin to take part — a tweet can go a long way. We should celebrate the fact that today, rather than sitting back and allowing a self-proclaimed colour-blind America to pat themselves on the back for a job well done, people of all races are standing up to be counted.

Writer, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, sees America sleepwalking into a state of color-blind racism’ — a country full of racism, but without racists. We all enjoy black culture, but this certainly doesn’t equate to a love of black people. Recent events in Ferguson, and the importunity of the US police to shoot every black man they come across, demonstrates this idiosyncrasy — and now the world gets to see it in real-time.

Black America is a tale of two cities, Michael Brown in one, Beyoncé in the other. However, to be rich and black in America is still to be black in America. It is therefore perfectly valid for those with a platform to use it to address the injustices suffered by those without voice. It is because of the popularity of black culture across the US that black artists can be political and still sell records. Of course, for as long as black music is regarded as ‘cool’ there will always be a conflict within the industry between the money and the message.

Beyoncé is by no means the perfect activist. Her performance at the Super Bowl can, in some respects, be understood as an incarnation of this ongoing tension. However, no matter how many additional ticket sales she may have sold for the ‘stunt’ (because Beyoncé would struggle to sell out a show without a stunt) she stands to lose much more. Beyoncé now faces protest and attack from the same confused Middle America who once adored her bootylicious antics but now view her as some kind of hate preacher. She took to America’s main stage to promote a grassroots cause with a performance that was so unapologetically black that it could only jeopardize her position as a mainstream commercial heavyweight. Clearly this demonstrates that she is embarking on something more than an attempt at monetise black activism. Beyoncé may not be there yet, but through her art she is certainly finding strength in exploring her identity in new ways.

“Beyoncé may not be there yet, but through her art she is certainly finding strength in exploring her identity in new ways.”

Slater seems uncomfortable with this. He argues that, thanks to Beyoncé, ‘black power is now pop’ — the most detestable of all the seven sins. Yet his words misunderstand the causal link between black music and black politics which has, like other genres, been both a challenging and progressive force within American society. And like it or not, notions of black politics, and black power, sit right at the heart of black culture where, for centuries black music and black protest have been indistinguishably connected.

In the 50’s and 60’s, when the term Black Power was rising to prominence, one of the most important voices of the civil rights era, Nina Simone, was dubbed ‘a supper songstress for the elite’. It was when she learnt of the murder of Medgar Evers, and of the four young girls in Birmingham Alabama in ’64, did she record the famous ‘Mississippi Goddam’, placing her forever in history as the voice of black pain. Nina had to take a journey of self-exploration and brave the American political wilderness, risking everything. Slater denies Beyoncé this same journey because of a personal hang-up with modern popular culture and a sentimentality for the politics of yesteryear (something he criticises others for). An artist’s political protest should not be invalidated because they can now use the front door.

“An artist’s political protest should not be invalidated because they can now use the front door.”

What I find truly fascinating is that today’s black artists (and actually many white, too) follow in Nina’s footsteps and refuse to sit idly by as social injustice continues to plight their communities. These artists are not just lyrically but belletristically raising their fists through unflinching musical expression. This is the resurgence and reinvention of the Freedom Song, the only difference now is that, within seconds, the whole world can see it. Kendrick Lamar’s ground-breaking and unapologetically black album, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, demonstrates an elevation in Kendrick’s politics. Emboldened by the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, he beautifully portrays the realities of being black in America through a stream of consciousness that adopts musical genres that have defined black music throughout history. The freedom songs of the 1960’s civil rights era were no different. Perhaps the most celebrated of all is “We Shall Overcome.” The complex process by which this song was adopted as a kind of unofficial anthem for the movement reveals much about the improvisational and amalgamated nature not just of black musical culture, but also of the movement itself. The fact that #BlackLivesMatter protesters together sing “we gon’ be alright”, taken from Kendrick’s single ‘Alright’, should therefore come as no surprise.

“The fact that #BlackLivesMatter protesters together sing “we gon’ be alright”, taken from Kendrick’s single ‘Alright’, should therefore come as no surprise.”

Ironically, despite the good intentions of many progressive writers in this space, many will find themselves in the same position as those on the American right — being far more comfortable with black politics sitting on the extremes of political discourse, where it can be understood and managed, rather than as a legitimate part of it. Like Slater, who in the same breath praises the Black Panthers for their ‘expressed… desire to take control — for self-determination’ denounces BLM for having only taken the ‘racialising dynamic of Black Nationalism and turned it into a source of weakness’.

Black Nationalism came into being due to the deeply and overtly segregated and racialised society that provided zero formal avenues for black people to effectively engage in formal politics. The Black Panthers were necessary because nationalism, liberation and self-determination were the only feasible alternatives to an inescapable life of segregation and inequality. Today, America remains an incredibly racist, divisive and elitist society, but the idea that black people will only achieve their political goals through a retreat back into their own communities, and the threat of violence, would only exacerbate the lack of shits given by federal government and the unequal treatment African Americans face by American institutions. Instead #BlackLivesMatter enjoys varying degrees of support by the White House and leading political candidates. Rather than criticising them for having their attention, we should accept that the threat of violence is the politics of the old, instead we must grasp this opportunity to demand action and utilise both the formal and informal avenues of politics. This is the new black power.

This is a notion understood by many black actors in this American drama. The repatriation of the term black power is not to be understood so crudely and literally, but as a means of revitalising the imagery, beauty and potency of black politics. Yes, it is sensationalism of an infamous past but the term black power is evolving to be so much more than a link to nationalism. Most supporters of black power are not hoping to board the Black Star Line back to Africa next weekend, they are trying to forge a future as equal partners in the American Dream. And like this dream, Black Power needs to be open, inviting and accepting of anyone who shares in the goal of fighting racial injustice.

“Most supporters of black power are not hoping to board the Black Star Line back to Africa next weekend, they are trying to forge a future as equal partners in the American Dream.”

Instead, Slater portrays a sensationalist history of esoteric movements which only reinforce outdated understandings of black politics — that the only way to ‘fight against the man’ is through radicalisation — because civilised protest and educated political discourse is of course out of the question. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, Slater writes, has amounted to one underling problem, that “To be black is to be a victim — in desperate need of recognition and sympathy.” By this logic, I guess what we really need are a few more riots, a few more guns at the gates of the ghettoes and then maybe we will bring an end to police brutality? What nonsense.

Here in Britain, we similarly need to adopt this new revision of black power as we did back in the 60s and 70s. Because as much as the news, and authors like Slater, like to wag their finger at the big bad racists in America, black Britons similarly face the peril of unequal treatment by British institutions. The continuous deaths in police custody, the lack of representation in British media, and the social cleansing of traditionally ethnic communities in London to name a few. I really hope we spend as much time discussing the challenges we face here as we do looking across the ocean.

Now, Slater is correct in his assessment that the BLM movement must put their money where their mouth is and continue to mature. ‘Die-ins’ and hashtags will not go nearly far enough. But popular culture is their friend not their adversary, and every white teenager that walks into class tomorrow sporting a #HandsUpDon’tShoot tee, is one more person that will join the fight for change. Though these writers may mean well, assumptive words are in fact an attack on black power and not a defence of it. I encourage these critics, like I am, to sit back and enjoy Beyoncé’s political growth — and the movements she associates with. Through popular culture comes power and influence, through power and influence comes action and through action comes change.


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Follow Oliver Hypolite-Bishop on Twitter at @oliverbishop