Flare Magazine with Naila Keleta-Mae 17 April 2019
TBH it make sense that this weekend is Easter, because #Beysus has seriously risen.
Beyoncé kicked hump day in to high gear with the early morning release of her Netflix documentary, Homecoming on April 17. The doc, which was released alongside a live album, gave the Beyhive a behind-the-scenes look into the eight-month-long (!!) process behind the singer’s iconic April 2018 Coachella performance.
In addition to making history as the first Black woman to headline the fest, Bey’s two-weekend tribute to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) was *so* amazing it garnered the online re-naming of the fest to #Beychella (and let’s be honest, #Arichella just cannot compete).
And as with the festival performance itself, initial online reactions to the doc were something like this:
Part of the internet’s excitement can be explained by the fact that Homecoming is a documentary, which many hoped would be an all-access pass to the performance and the singer herself. These types of media are meant to humanize our superheroes, making them relatable beyond the pages of Us Weekly‘s “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” They’re an intimate way to connect with someone you admire, or understand someone you don’t. I *still* remember watching Katy Perry’s Part of Me Netflix documentary and *sobbing* when her marriage to Russell Brand crumbled. Because guys, she. tried. so. hard! As a non-Katy Perry fan, it was a shocking reaction.
This notion was especially titillating as Queen Bey is notoriously private when it comes to her personal life; she hasn’t done a sit-down interview since at least 2015 and the glimpses we get into her personal life are manufactured and very controlled. Because honestly, a tell-all anything just wouldn’t be Beyoncé.
So, while Homecoming delivered on many fronts, those hoping the doc would offer a no-holds-barred glimpse into the life of the superstar may have been disappointed. Because if anything, it further reinforced Beyoncé’s status as the queen of controlled narratives—and that’s OK.
Queen Bey tells us what she wants, when she wants—if she wants
If you feel like you know a lot about Beyoncé, that’s probably because you’re supposed to.
The first lady of music has created a carefully constructed narrative comprised of gorgeous editorial images (and more recently, captionless #OOTD photo carousels on Instagram), two documentaries and a series of high-profile magazine covers. But a flip through the pages of said magazines reveal… very little. And that’s very intentional. Unlike her Kardashian counterparts, Bey’s brand has become synonymous with privacy. For her, the most personal is the most private; she always takes the time to process and construct the best announcement—if any at all—and on social media, personal tidbits are few and far between.
One only needs to look at the gorgeous (and yes, extra) photos that she used to announce her second pregnancy—which were chock full of religious and maternal symbols—to know that Queen Bey is all about the perfect set-up.
But while her Instagram posts and updates to Beyonce.com are fun to scroll through, the content is predictable: shots of her performing, context-less #OOTDs or posing with Jay Z (or, rarely, Blue). And the photos usually aren’t even accompanied by a caption. It’s something, but we don’t really learn anything that we didn’t already know about the Houston native.
Bey’s previous tell-alls didn’t actually tell much
But maybe that’s okay. Because while Beyoncé’s pieces of the personal have been exciting to anticipate, TBH they’ve also left a lot to be desired. In 2013, her HBO special Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream was purported to be a “revealing” look into the singer’s career and personal life. And it had all the trappings of an up-close-and-personal doc, with the singer sharing confessional-style home videos of herself speaking directly to the camera about “big” life events or giving herself affirmations. But even that felt manufactured, the grainy video making the doc feel more like an “opaque… song-and-dance defense brief” than a transparent autobiography, as the New York Times put it.
In September 2018, the singer graced Vogue‘s iconic September issue adorned in a flower crown. “Beyoncé in Her Own Words: Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage,” featured a stream-of-consciousness narrative that read more like a poetry assignment than an essay of any sort—and it offered little actual insight into the songstress’s thoughts and desires.
To be fair, Homecoming *was* a departure from Bey’s previous offerings, with the superstar opening up about some *very* personal topics, including her complicated second pregnancy and C-section delivery, her insecurities about her body post-birth and self-doubt over her ability to perform at the level she was able to pre-pregnancy. It was definitely a softer, more vulnerable side of the singer than we’re used to seeing.
But while a foray into these personal issues could be easily mistaken for an evolution, ushering in a new era of Bey in which she lets the Hive all up in her business, it’s important to remember that these admissions are—like her Coachella performance itself—structured, practiced and edited to be exactly what she wants.
It hasn’t always been this way
Our queen wasn’t *always* a woman of mystery. The songstress *was* granting interviews until relatively recently, sitting down with Vogue in 2009 and 2013. But in May 2015, her publicist told the New York Times that the singer had not answered a direct interview question in over a year.
There are different theories for why she may have done this: a realization that interviews don’t work for her brand, rumours of her lack of education, *that* elevator incident. But Professor Naila Keleta-Mae puts the beginning of Beyoncé’s ownership of her narrative all the way back in 2013 with the release of her self-titled album, Beyoncé.
Keleta-Mae, a professor at the University of Waterloo who has taught a Beyoncé-focused “Gender and Performance” course, says this album—and the inclusion of accompanying visuals as representation of what she imagined—marked a creative turning point for the singer. “According to Beyoncé, she had long wanted to do an album where each song had a video and had been told by labels and management that it was unrealistic and a poor move,” Keleta-Mae says. “So in 2013, she decided to do it anyway.”
And, she says, it was all part of Bey’s identity as a creative and artist. “She’s an artist who’s also interested in self-reflection about her craft and about where she is as an artist, as a creator, as a business person in relation to the larger popular culture [and] her impact in the world,” she says.” Keleta-Mae says the HBO doc and in particular Beyoncé’s home videos, show a continued and evolving understanding of herself and her image. That, along with the 600-page coffee table book that was released alongside 2017’s Lemonade, is telling—showing that Bey is continuously striving to frame herself in an intellectual but current way, as well as reflect on her work.
TBH, she doesn’t owe us anything
“We must always remember that Beyoncé is a performer who started out performing in beauty pageants,” Keleta-Mae says. “She knows how to perform and present herself in particular ways, so she has created a persona that audiences do feel like they know a bit about her and want to know about her and want to think of them as like her as their friend and some kind of way.” And that, of course, comes with some expectations. “Creating [that] kind of dynamic or relationship with the audience does also mean that that audience is going to want more of it,” she continues. “And part of that wanting is what keeps her interesting to her audience as well.”
But Keleta-May says the idea of Beyoncé, or any Black person, owing people something does give her pause.
“I don’t think Beyonce owes anybody anything. I don’t think any artist does, really,” she says. “She’s an artist whose art has resonated with wide swathes of people all around the world, but that doesn’t make her owe any more than an artist whose work only resonates in their local community of 25 people.”
As Beyoncé’s longtime publicist Yvette Noel-Schure said in a February interview with Elle, the rules of the media game are changing—and artists don’t need to give all-access passes into their lives. “I don’t know that any artist owes someone a sit-down interview, honestly, now. Politicians, yes,” Noel-Schure said. “I feel like what artists owe their audiences is a really good performance.”
And Beyoncé delivers. This aversion to the media works for the singer because what limited access she does give us—through her music—is enough.
In her own way, Queen Bey has addressed almost *everything* we’ve ever wondered about her life: Lemonade was essentially a couples counselling album, not only giving us insight into all of the bumps and bruises in the Knowles-Carter marriage and their return from the brink of splitsville, but also her complicated relationship with her father after his infidelity (in the original yeehaw bop, “Daddy Lessons“).
And that’s pretty big
This idea of Queen Bey being “enough” is pretty big. Knowles-Carter has—unlike any female celebrity—controlled her narrative to the extent that we know what we’re getting when we sign up for these no-so-all-access glimpses in to her world (i.e., a clearly defined aesthetic, but very little goss), and we accept it. We still support her and her art—because she’s earned our support.
This form of controlled notoriety is especially important as a Black woman. Speaking to the New York Times in 2015, Yale professor Daphne A. Brooks said she sees Beyoncé’s inaccessibility as a “hard-won privilege” and a reclamation of privacy that’s not historically accorded to African-American women. “She’s been able to reach this level of stardom in which she’s managed—in a way that I really think is unique even among other black women entertainers—hyper-visibility and inaccessibility simultaneously,” Brooks told the NYT.
Maybe, after years of yearning for more insight into Bey’s life, the lesson we should take from Homecoming isn’t that we need more from our queen, it’s that what she’s always given us is exactly enough.