We Heart: Beyoncé’s Powerful Coachella Performance Celebrating Black Women

A year after the superstar was originally supposed to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Southern California, Beyoncé finally graced the festival stage this last weekend with an electric celebration of black women. Through her own power, in a mere couple of hours, Beyoncé had taken a festival that annually sees many of its participants greedily appropriating marginalized cultures for their own fun into a complete triumph for black culture and women.

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Her Coachella performance further cemented Beyoncé’s reigning position in the music industry and showcased her ever-expanding feminist perspective. Emerging in a bejeweled leotard complete with a full-length cape and flat-topped headdress, Beyoncé appeared very much the queen as she took the stage. Her dramatic and royal entrance, however, was just the tip of the awe-inspiring night. For much of her nearly two-hour performance, a massive college marching band—complete with trumpets, trombones and sousaphones all played by black artists—accompanied Beyoncé, honoring the football halftime shows of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and giving her a set a distinctly Southern feel.

The tribute to black culture and history only continued from there. Beyoncé sang the powerful black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and then honored Nina Simone—who was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same night—with an interlude from Simone’s song “Lilac Wine.” She also incorporated a sample of a Malcom X speech in which the activist declared “the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman”—a point all the more emphasized when Beyoncé broke mid-set to offer her gratitude to the crowd.

“Thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella,” she said—before sharply adding, “ain’t that ’bout a bitch.”

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Beyond special appearances by Beyoncé’s sister Solange and husband Jay-Z, the night also featured a reunion of Destiny’s Child, with bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams appearing on either side of Beyoncé as the speech “We Should All Be Feminists,” by feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, rang out from the desert valley stage. Together, the power trio ran through some of the group’s biggest hits—“Say My Name,” “Lose My Breath” and “Soldier”—somehow bringing an added sense of exhilaration to a crowd already brimming with excitement.

If it weren’t obvious that black women were clearly at the center of the concert’s empowerment, it became all the more evident in one humorous staged bit during which Beyoncé called upon a group of men to do something—anything—funny. Unamused by their attempts, Beyoncé turned to the crowd.

“Ladies,” she called, “Are we smart? Are we strong? Have we had enough?”

The crowd roared.  “SUCK,” she roared back, stomping her feet, “ON. MY. BALLS.” Her female backup dancers then joined her in the thunderous stomping, providing the backbeat for a rousing rendition of the song “Sorry.” The crowd’s cheers seemed to last the entire show.

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But the superstar’s feats didn’t end there. Following her performance, Beyoncé announced on April 16 that she would be establishing the Homecoming Scholars Award Program through her BeyGOOD initiative for four HBCUs— Xavier, Wilberforce, Tuskegee and Bethune-Cookman universities. One student from each school will receive $25,000 for the 2018-19 academic year. “The show, with its homage to excellence in education, was a celebration of the homecoming weekend experience, the highest display of college pride,” read the program’s release. “The energy-filled production put the spotlight on art and culture, mixing the ancient and the modern, which resonated masterfully through the marching band, performance art, choir and dance. It was the impetus to mark her [new] scholarship program.”

The Homecoming program marks Beyoncé’s second scholarship. In April 2017, the singer celebrated the anniversary of the release of Lemonade with the Formation Scholars Awards Program, which awarded “young women who are bold, creative, conscious, confident and unafraid to think outside of the box.” This year’s scholarship will be open to all students at the four HBCUs, regardless of gender, and winners will be announced this summer.

Beyoncé’s show truly embodied the notion that black is beautiful—and celebrated black culture and community with a feminist bent. Here at Ms., we have long celebrated Beyoncé and her fierce feminism, and even featured her on the cover of our spring 2013 issue. The artist’s albums frequently carry empowering messages, from embracing female sexuality to boldly honoring black womanhood. Beyoncé has also repeatedly upheld the power of female friendship, declaring in the U.K.’s Daily Mail, “I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.” She isn’t just talk—in November 2016, Beyoncé, at the Country Music Association Awards for her country-infused song “Daddy Lessons,” decided to defiantly perform alongside the Dixie Chicks, who had been long vilified by the conservative country music community for their comments against President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. Beyoncé’s electric performance, in other words, then, is only one moment in a history of daring activism by the singer.

Beyoncé’s empowering messages from Coachella come at an incredibly crucial time. Just last month, on March 18, Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by police in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California. On April 12, Brennan Walker, a black teenager, was nearly shot and killed in Michigan when he missed his bus to school and started knocking on neighborhood doors to ask for directions. That same day, a Starbucks employee in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called the police on two black men who were waiting for a friend inside the coffee shop. Despite the fact that the pair had done nothing, the two men were arrested.

These instances—only a handful in the multitude of discriminatory occurrences that happen every day—only prove that for white society, black lives still do not matter. The New York Times’ pop music critic Jon Caramanica perhaps captured the significance of Queen Bey’s Coachella concert best: “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night.”

Beyoncé’s unabashed praise of black culture and her centering of sisterhood at Coachella was only further proof of her musical ability and courage. As festival season pushes on, Queen Bey is sure to continue to reign supreme.

Maura Turcotte is an editorial intern at Ms.

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