I don’t know a more divisive name in the world than that of Beyonce. You say her name or mention something that she is doing and you are going to get two very different, and very extreme differences of opinion. On one end, you’re going to get how overrated she is, how untalented she is, and how annoying her fans can be (Bey fans are the worst). All of those criticisms are unfounded and unfair.
I don’t believe anybody truly hates Beyonce. She seems like a sweet woman, immensely talented, and comes off as extremely humble. You don’t reach that height of super-stardom being untalented.
On the other hand, you get praises for everything she does. I once saw someone tweet that Beyonce could record herself chewing on a pen cap for 17 minutes and she’d buy it. Beyond that obvious bafroonery of such a statement, holding Bey to that type of standard can be problematic for a few reasons; If you are not critical of her work, how can she improve?
But I digress….
Personally, I have always been very middle of the road when it came to Bey. I was a huge fan of her during her DC days; I loved her first album. My favorite Bey era was the “Dangerously in Love” era and while, I always agreed that Bey was a talented singer, and definitely a top 10 all-time entertainer. my issue with her (if you will), has never been with what has done on stage, but rather what she does off of it. . In the wake of all that has been going on; Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland,Eric Garner in New York, I braced myself for what I thought would finally be where Beyonce proved that she was in fact, the queen that most had made her out to be.
I looked. I searched. There was an instagram post in response to the decision by the grand jury not to induct the police officer who murdered Mike Brown. But then…nothing. “It’s only been a week,” I told myself. So I began to do a little research. After all, queen Bey has been in the game almost 20 years; certainly there was some social justice activism I was missing or failed to unearth.
There’s some philanthropy. There was the appearance at a rally for Trayvon Martin a few years ago. There was also the feminism speech sample. Then there was the purchase of an apartment building for the homeless in Texas. And while these things are commendable, and Bey should be given credit for doing more than most, we should not confuse her philanthropy with activism. And, even while most will hail her as a feminist, which, depending on who you ask, she may very well be, It is very hard to ignore her lack of activism and advocacy on behalf of Black people in America.
I thought that perhaps I may have been too hard on her; after all, she is an entertainer. No one is expecting her to use her platform to address the plight of Black people, right? She is the biggest star in the world and has been so for last 10 years. Surely someone who so many in our community refer to as “queen” had put in work for her people to earn such as a title, right?
To make sure I wasn’t trippin, I compared Beyonce’s social activism to the other Queen.
Anybody who knows me, know that I really do consider myself a student of Aretha Franklin. I say “student” because, well, I have studied her music, her career, and followed her impact on Black America pretty much all of my adult life. I first fell in love with the Queen as a very young child; Every Thursday night, Re sang the theme song to one of my favorite shows – A Different World. Her music was all up and through one of my all-time favorite films “Major Payne.” It wasn’t until college however, while I was working on my history degree that discovered exactly why this woman is indeed royal. To see why, one must look beyond the music,
Beyond the 18 Grammy’s, and 100 Billboard singles, and 40 albums, and basically being the inspiration behind every major singer in the past 30 years; beyond the inaugurations, and Super bowls, and Wrestle Mania’s; beyond the fact that she has sang at the funerals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Albertina Walker, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward,, and Luther Vandross. Beyond the fact that she has serenaded Nelson Mandela, and sang for both Clinton and Obama; beyond the fact that she has showcased EVERY major form of Black expression when it comes to music on the international stage; what was it that made her a Queen? The Queen?
Simply put: Aretha is Queen because of what she has done for Black people all over the world both on and off stage.
At one point in time, Aretha was the biggest star in the world. From 1967 to 1976, it can be argued that there was no bigger superstar – man or woman – Black or white – than Aretha. She was a Black woman who wrapped her hair like a Black Woman, and sang like a Black Woman, and lived life like a Black Woman. She used her God given gifts as a weapon against institutionalized oppression.
She moved so poetically, that even Nikki Giovanni had to revel in Her essence. She used her music to bring attention to issues that impacted us. She sang about the conditions of the ghetto. She sang about Kokomo, Illinois: the site for the largest Klan rally in the history of the United States. She was Young, Gifted, and Black and told a generation that it was okay to be so; she told them that it was quite alright to be “young, and Black” with their”souls in tact;” she reminded them to keep their eye on the future, and don’t ever look back.
She was a trusted confidant of Martin Luther King and was one of the Civil Rights Movement’s chief
fundraisers. She, along with Harry Belefonte, C.L. Franklin, Maya Angelou, Sidney Pointer, and others organized Black business expos all over the nation. The “Soul Bowl,” as it came to be known, drew over 600,000 people to the inaugural event in Chicago. She was one of the few people who stood at the crossroads of The Civil Rights and The Black Power Movement.
She was a Black Queen in a time when they tried to tell us that Cleopatra was a white woman from the UK.
She was Cleopatra.
She was Black Cleopatra.
In 1972, she and Muhammad Ali refused to perform in segregated South Africa. She’d only agreed to take the tour if the booking agency that organized the tour was Black owned and operated. Even then, she REFUSED to sing for an all-white crowd. She would sing for an all-Black crowd, or an integrated crowd; but she would not entertain leaving her people out. This should be considered as one of the earliest rebukes by a major celebrity against South Africa’s Apartheid regime. She eventually toured the country with Ali and The Isley Brothers, setting the people free by every means necessary.
I’m not proud to say it, but in 1976, Aretha was given an honorary doctorate by Bethune Cookman University an accomplishment that in all that she has done, she considers this one of her greatest accomplishments making her a de facto advocate for the HBCU. I’ve spoken to people who attended Howard in late 60’s; rumor has it Aretha would do 4 shows a night there; sometimes singing herself to the point of passing out. (We need to get the Queen to FAMU; if for no other reason, then just to let BCU and Howard know anything you can do We can do better..:) She stood alongside her father and marched in the name of Black solidarity. She was an afro-wearing, head-wrap adorning, soul singing, Bad ass Black woman who made no bones about who she was, or what she came to do. Aretha was a Black woman and let you know that that she was indeed here to set the people free:
“Being black means being beautiful. It also means struggles, and it also means pain. And every black woman knows of that struggle, that pain and she feels it whenever she looks at her man and her sons. Being black also means searching for oneself and one’s place among others. There is so much we need to find. Like more purpose in life, and more self-love. That must come first. It certainly had to come first for me.” – Aretha Franklin, Jet Magazine
There are many similarities between the two. Both women slayed all the competition when it came to the music industry. Both women have been considered to be the very best at what they do. Both women have won virtually every singing award, accolade, and credential one could name. Both have used their platforms to empower women; Ain’t No Way that Natural Woman was going to let you do anything less than R.E.S.P.E.C.T.her. Bey told you to Put A Ring On It or she would indeed Upgrade you. Both have conquered multiple genres of music; Beyonce conquering R&B and pop; Aretha
conquering R&B, pop, soul, gospel, and jazz (Eh…ReRe may have her beat there…but I digress lol) But, when it comes to addressing issues directly impacting Black people, and speaking out against the injustices Black people face, and putting direct action to that activism and advocacy, between these two women, only one of them can wear THAT crown. And her name is Aretha.