When we talk about the queen of pop culture, no woman better fits the bill than Beyoncé.
Her influence in America is unparalleled – people pay hundreds to see her in concert, they call her Queen Bey as she is basically American royalty and her unborn twins are being compared to Luke and Leia from Star Wars, cast as a new hope in the age of Donald Trump.
Given that February is Black History Month, it seems like a perfect time to discuss the value a class on Beyoncé’s cultural impact could add to UCLA’s curriculum.
Let’s begin with Beyoncé’s meteoric rise to fame. She began singing at a young age and first caught the media’s attention at 16, as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child.
In 2003, Beyoncé released her first solo album, marking the beginning of the Beyoncé brand. Today, Beyoncé is the only female artist to have all six of her albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Apart from her resounding album sales, Beyoncé changed the game by releasing a surprise self-titled album in 2013 with accompanying videos and releasing a film for her album “Lemonade” on HBO in 2016.
Beyoncé has spent the last 19 years carefully curating her image like an art gallery – only letting the world see what she wants it to.
Over the years, she has gone from singing about female empowerment in works like “Survivor” and “Run the World (Girls),” to rebranding intersectional feminism with her single “#Flawless,” featuring a TEDx talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and finally to becoming a major advocate of the #BlackLivesMatter movement with her single “Formation.”
But more importantly, Beyoncé can further important dialogues with her music.
That is exactly what she did with “Lemonade,” her most controversial and important project to date. This album alone is worth a study.
During the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé, clad in militaristic garb with her backup dancers channeling the uniforms of the Black Panthers, performed “Formation,” the lead single from “Lemonade” and an anthem for black power and pride.
Her use of provocative images – Black Panther-esque costumes, police cars sinking in the streets of New Orleans, graffiti reading “Stop Killing Us” – in her performances and music videos forces black culture and issues to the forefront of American pop culture.
Her lyrics do the same.
By referencing “Becky,” a term used by the black community to describe average, white women, Beyoncé critiques the pressure traditional white beauty standards place on black women for their naturally curly hair.
Her allusion to slavery in “Freedom” rings true today, as she draw attention to the high rates of mass incarceration among black youth. By echoing black history, Beyoncé reminds mainstream America that though we have come a long way, the remnants of a society built upon the oppression of people of color persist.
Throughout the album, Beyoncé sings about marital strife and gives the world a look inside her home and family. In a vulnerable display of self-reflection, Beyoncé opens up about her pain and echoes the pains of generations of people of color.
At UCLA, a school that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness, students would benefit from a class that explores the work of an artist that captures the ideals we champion.
Mainstream America seems to love black style, music and expression, but just doesn’t seem to recognize the racism that informs it. By adopting the vibrant and creative aspects of black culture, but dismissing the hardships that come with being black, white-dominated institutions have trivialized the struggles of the black community.
Beyoncé deserves a class because her work normalizes black culture during a time in which cultural identity and black heritage are increasingly more complex and uncomfortable topics for many Americans.
Whether it’s due to her privilege as a light-skinned black woman or her ability to attract mainstream appeal, Beyoncé can voice the concerns of an “angry black woman,” without being labeled and dismissed as one. When Beyoncé talks, people listen – white people listen.
By getting white people to understand and empathize with the struggles of people of color, Beyoncé elevates the conversation about social justice and equality in America. Through Beyoncé’s music, black culture and the African diaspora are more fully integrated into the wider scope of American discourse, transcending cultural stereotypes traditionally associated with black art, while staying true to black cultural motifs and struggles.
Beyoncé’s ability to reflect the multi-faceted struggles of people of color in mainstream American music is commendable, as she captures the respect of a white-dominated institution without being left out of the conversation.
Other black artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, who have meaningful and important comments to make through their music, have been left behind by the music community, while Beyoncé manages to ride along at a comfortable distance, able to change the establishment from within.
When the 2017 Grammys rolled around, the music community once again found itself at a Taylor Swift-Kendrick Lamar crossroads, this time with Adele and Beyoncé.
But, in true Grammy tradition, Adele’s traditional “25” beat out Beyoncé’s innovative “Lemonade.” Like Swift, Adele swept the Grammys, winning Record, Song and Album of the Year – once again confining black artists to the urban contemporary genre.
[Related: Bruin Bash performers turned Grammy nominees]
In order to truly appreciate impactful music like “Lemonade” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” and to recognize the impact of black culture and musicians on both the music industry and the greater cultural conversation, artists like Beyoncé must be celebrated and studied for what they have contributed.
UCLA has a tradition of honoring great artists like the Beatles and musical genres like the blues and Motown that have impacted the direction of American culture. If UCLA is truly as culturally aware as it claims to be, it is imperative that artists like Beyoncé are incorporated into the curriculum to showcase the power music has outside the music industry.
In some form, a class on Beyoncé would be more than a fitting addition to the educational curriculum at UCLA. Whether through a Fiat Lux seminar or a Beyoncé fan’s Undergraduate Education Initiatives class, her role in the progressive diversification of culture and integration of what it means to be a black woman in America is unprecedented. Albeit doing so in a commercialized way, she’s managed to force black womanhood to the forefront of the conversation about art and culture in America.