On the first day of “Politicizing Beyoncé,” a Spring semester course at Rutgers, 32 young women and men sat in their desks, texting behind a Coach bag or catching up on Vlad TV’s rap posts on a laptop. It was February. I was dressed in jeans, Converse, and a giant sweatshirt, going for undergraduate realness, and here on a mission: to observe my fellow classmates and figure out exactly how one can analyze a living, breathing pop star while she’s still out here pop star’ing.
As the first class began, an ambitious few raised their hands, responding to an introductory lecture from their tattooed instructor, Kevin Allred.
“Beyoncé’s only really surrounded, in terms of other wealthy black female celebrities, by Oprah, Nicki Minaj and Michelle Obama, right?” asked Allred, the Ph.D student behind the course. “But when she shows vulnerability, society blames her gender, like ‘Oh, Jay Z wouldn’t do that.’”
Since the singer was first molded by her father Matthew Knowles, Allred noted, many fans think she must now be guided by husband Jay Z. “As the world’s biggest pop star, she couldn’t have achieved any of her success and awards by herself, right?” he added sarcastically, almost winking his underlying message to his audience.
This idea sits at the heart of “Politicizing Beyoncé,” a class Allred’s been teaching for three years and yes, Beyoncé knows about the class and her team approves. Since I’m not a real student, I selected five classes to attend—the ones featuring songs like “Grown Woman” and “Flawless,” or my favorite readings by Angela Davis, Melissa Harris Perry, Audre Lorde and bell hooks. My ultimate goal was to see what a class on a living pop star would look like.
Rutgers isn’t the first university to analyze a pop culture icon with a class, though Beyoncé as a living subject is probably the most well known. In 1997, UC Berkeley offered a two-unit course on “Poetry and the History of Tupac Shakur” but in the last ten years or so, other instructions on living subjects have appeared. Harvard offered a course on Nas, Georgetown on Jay Z, New York University on Prince as well as a number of other courses focusing on Bob Marley, Motown and Black Music’s history, in general. Most recently, a New Jersey high school teacher taught her pupils on the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar—and K. Dot even stopped by for a visit. Now, a new course on Beyoncé has been announced at Canada’s University of Waterloo, according to That Grape Juice, however it’s unclear whether the teacher will parse the specific interconnection of black feminist theory and the way in which Beyoncé moves through pop culture.
While it may not sound like it, blending the academy with the real world is tough because applying theories like black feminism or intersectionality to a star like Beyoncé—who is constantly releasing new work, imagery and questionable diets while architects build towers to pay homage to her videos—means you’re analyzing a moving target.
“I started the class because I was looking for a fun way to engage and inspire students to learn more about the history and political realities of groups of people that are usually marginalized, in the world and in college classrooms,” Allred tells Jezebel. “I wanted the students to look at the history and politics of black feminism as told by black women themselves. I only assigned black feminist texts and I wanted to change the way the students were learning and thinking about how history and politics are constructed. I also wanted them to see that the pop culture surrounding them everyday also plays into the ways society values and devalues certain groups of people over others.”
The curriculum for “Politicizing Beyoncé” is part black feminism, sociology and music history with the star as an engaging entry point for how women, and black women specifically, are treated in America in real time. For example, things heat up after the 2015 Grammy Awards show aired on February 8. Beyoncé, nominated for Album of the Year for her self-titled LP, did not win. The class is pissed, Allred included.
“I don’t even know who Beck is,” says one student, flanked by a room full of people who’ve also probably never heard “Loser.” I am the only one with my hand in the air when Allred asks who is familiar with the latest victim of Kanye West’s “I’ma let you finish” antics. Allred then asks the class what other black women have won Album of the Year and the crowd can only muster three—Natalie Cole for Unforgettable, Whitney Houston for The Bodyguard soundtrack and Lauryn Hill for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Beyoncé upset the Grammy structure with her surprise album, Allred surmises, and is perhaps being punished for it, especially considering only a few black women have ever won the coveted award anyway. The class reading for the day is Melissa Harris Perry’s Sister Citizen chapter entitled “Myth,” where she writes about America as a crooked room which black women must navigate.
Harris-Perry writes that, no matter their talents or accolades, black women compete on an unequal playing field, dodging socio-economic factors and stereotypes to achieve success. Black women make less money per dollar than white men and women, for example, and have to combat media stereotypes like the “sexually promiscuous” jezebel and “emasculating” sapphire.
Therefore, according to Allred, Beyoncé’s always trying to stand up in a crooked room. In the “Grown Woman” video, though, Allred suggests that Beyoncé creates her own room, where she and her dancers can perform free while chanting, “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want.” Beyoncé is showing us her version of freedom, I think, and here I was just wanting to learn the choreography.
“I learned to look beyond what you originally see with Beyoncé, and see how she’s really relatable to historical and political figures that have made an impact,” says Jamil, a 21-year-old prim and proper member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. “I liked our class on “Superpower” because he brought it back to things that are happening currently like Ferguson, Baltimore and Eric Garner. Even though the songs came out a little bit before, the music and events are related and you can see she’s sending a message.”
Here’s the syllabus:
With each class, Beyoncé went from being just a singer that people listen to absent-mindedly, to an activist with more to say than a radio’s playlist or MTV’s Video Music Awards stage allows.
“Before I was like ‘Oh, she’s singing about guys or nonsense’ but she really has a message and that’s what makes her interesting,” says Monique, 21. “Now that we took the class, I’m going to be reading more into what she’s saying and giving her more credit.”
As a black woman who is aware that America’s ladder to success is often rigged with patriarchal foolishness—remember when Beyoncé, a married woman, was publicly chastised for making songs about sex?—I realize that she’s often damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. But “Politicizing Beyoncé” was a deeper look into the ways her treatment in this country reflects the larger realities written about by great black feminist writers like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Melissa Harris-Perry. From Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, which Allred says summarizes what’s he’s trying to get across with the class:
When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion.… To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence there behavior. It can be hard to stand up in a crooked room.
Both male and female students got into the class discussions, connecting the kinds of academic texts that some people find dry with the freshness of a pop video they could cue up on their laptops. During the last day Allred discussed the “7/11” video, joking that he envisioned Blue Ivy behind the scenes, directing the clip from her high chair. Elsewhere one student confused his mention of Beyoncé’s butt in the “Partition” video with plastic surgery.
“She got back shots?” asked a student with a short afro in horror. No, no she didn’t, her fellow co-eds clarified.
During the final class, with the permission of Allred, I revealed myself as a journalist, much to the shock of some of the students. Then I asked what they’d loved and learned through their course deconstructing the biggest pop star in the world.
“I’d listen to Beyoncé occasionally,” said Anthony, 22. “But I never noticed what she was saying, now I realize she’s more explicitly feminist than I thought.”
“At first I felt dumb taking this class but now I’m analyzing everything,” said Ebru, 22. “I’m like ‘What does she mean by this or that?’”
During a class I skipped, Allred broke down “Deja Vu” as a metaphor of the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and that struck a chord with another student.
“I just learned to think about so much stuff I didn’t know about,” said Sharee, 21. “Like how “Deja Vu” was about Hurricane Katrina and her banging on the wall in that video was like her making a path for black womanhood.”
In hindsight, everything Beyoncé does in her career opens the door for a black feminist discussion while clearing a path for whomever comes after her. For the students of Rutgers, they are lucky their institution and Allred see that pop culture and black feminist theory cross paths in someone as incendiary and pervasive as Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.
“The class is really about looking at the ways Beyoncé plays with this kind of structural constraint that Melissa Harris-Perry writes about in Sister Citizen, since Beyoncé does have enormous privilege and power, and offers alternatives to not only black women but folks of many different marginalized groups like her huge LGBTQ following,” says Allred. “Why do these groups of people find such empowerment in her music? And can something like mainstream pop culture ever lead to progressive social change?”
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Beyoncé image via Getty, cap image via Shutterstock, illustration by Bobby Finger