a reflection on divas, class, race and a dying cultural narrative

By Immi Hill

That's our Star!
I’m going to start with a magic trick. So read carefully and don’t blink. Before you finish this essay, I’m going to make a major cultural narrative disappear before your eyes and replace it with a new one. I’ve warned you, it’s going to happen if you read on, and you’re going to want to read on because this is going to be about race and class and perfection and something we might call diva-ism.

Hello, Beyoncé!

Now, I’m not going to go on and on about how much I love Beyoncé; instead, I’m going to ask why? Why do I love this woman so much? Why her and why do so many feel the same as I do? I could say that I grew up in an inner-city community in a single parent household, but that wouldn’t come close to explaining the effect that Beyoncé has on me and clearly wouldn’t explain the unique hold she has on the general public who all have radically different upbringings from mine and each other. I’m not discounting my background. I’d like to think that the culture follows me and my desires, but as I’ll explain later it’s only part of the answer and is much more complex.

Always Beautiful
Let’s start out with an interesting fact. Inner-city women adore Beyoncé, but she is not urban at all. She’s an upper-middle class suburban girl from one of the many outlying communities around Houston, Texas. Here is a performer whose most loyal and adoring fans are at social and cultural odds with her. She is a representative of inner city black women and the only real connection she has with them is that she’s black. Now that used to mean a lot, in fact meant everything in America for African-Americans no matter their class, education and economic status, but as the most virulent aspects of racism have waned, identification has become more complex. In recent years the African-American community has fractured and split between the haves and the have-nots, just like white Americans. Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration is an attempt to catch this new reality for African-Americans. What’s clear is that you can no longer count on instant solidarity and yet that’s what Beyoncé has. The question is how does she overcome these new barriers with such ease and how does she stay real or, better put, stay relatable.

The secret lies in her perfection. There is something unreal about her perfection; of course, the idea of perfection is unreal itself! Still, Beyoncé is almost impossibly perfect. Her name rolls off the tongue with ease, it’s just French enough to be classy instead of crass. Imagine if her parents had named her Gertrude. She can sing, dance and on some occasions act (Austin Powers and Dreamgirls). Her public demeanor is calm, even when Kyane West is going nuts at the MTV awards on her supposed behalf. Again, her manner is not very urban streets, where her most rabid fan base comes from. She possesses and seems to fully inhabit perfect etiquette. In many ways, she is the perfect role model and beautiful in too many ways to count.

Now, I promised you that I would come back to the inner-city equation. The inner city is a noisy, wild, upbeat place. In most cases, the deeper you go, the wilder it gets and the issues of everyday survival become, unfortunately, an everyday issue. In the past century we have had many great African-American women who have eloquently sung about and expressed the problems and complexities of being black in American and especially being black and female. Some of these women become famous and some never break out into the mainstream and yet they do retain strong, local audiences who support them. Beyonce, who is essentially suburban, could have targeted a suburban audience, but instead she embraces both black women and her own blackness. She doesn’t have to and that makes her choices all the more powerful. This is the key to why inner-city African-American women love her so much, because Beyoncé has chosen to be with them. It is a graceful gesture and obviously deeply appreciated and makes everything that Beyoncé does doubly significant.

Look what Bobby did
In fact, her significance is so powerful that Beyoncé has changed a long-standing cultural narrative about powerful and talented black women or what we might call, “The Fall of the Diva.” We all know it and can tick off its well-worn elements: talented and driven young black woman rises to fame, meets a charismatic “bad” boy from the street who becomes her lover, manager, drug connection (after he hooks her) and eventual destroyer. Billie Holliday is the most famous, Whitney Houston the most tragic and Tina Turner a noted survivor. Beyoncé is beyond this narrative and has actually very publicly changed this long-standing and corrupt story. She did marry, a very smart, charismatic, streetwise rapper, Jay-Z, but he hasn’t brought her down. No, she has transformed him. Jay-Z was always smart, but look at what Beyoncé has done to him and you understand her perfection. If you didn’t know Jay-Z and saw him walking down the street, you would have a difficult time knowing that he was ever from the streets. He has been Beyoncéd: not neutered, that would be just as bad as the old narrative, but given a greater scope, a sense of a greater self.

We'll see you at the White House
I told you right from the beginning that you would see a major cultural narrative disappear and it has and it’s gone. I love Beyoncé, and the reason I can say that is that Beyoncé loves me, and many others that she could have rejected. That’s the key to her greatness, the grace to include people who could so easily be forgotten.

©The CCA Arts Review and Immimimirr Hill

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