It’s a grainy YouTube video, in it there’s a brown skinned 8yr old girl, her hair in two pigtails which swing from side to side as she belts out, in a high sonorous soprano “Home” from The Wizard of Oz, her eyes a quiet song of passion. And defiance. This child will grow to be the super star phenomenon that is Beyonce Knowles. Beyonce who grew up in the quiet sleepy suburbs of Houston Texas had a father who recognized his daughters star quality and talent so he quit his job as a Xerox Sales person to hone her talent. Under her father’s watchful management she would go on to flourish in the iconic girl band ‘Destiny’s Child’ and later on, as a solo artist. She met rapper/business mogul Jay-Z, who himself was 32yrs old at the time, and was on a rapid trajectory to becoming a household name on the hip-hop/rap circuit, a man who chronicled a hard background checkered by drugs, crime and dysfunction in his gritty, raw hard hitting verses.
It seemed like a match made in hip-hop heaven, so enthralled were fans by this seemingly perfect match between an irrepressibly worldly and jaded man and a somewhat sheltered former chorister, a southern belle who didn’t seem yet, despite her accomplishments, to have fully formed her identify, who seemed, at the time, to have had a limited life experience…but no visible eyebrows were raised. Beyonce, the 19yr old, had all the makings of a superstar with a wide fan base of adulating femmes, a potential goldmine, despite this, even as she progressed in her career, was so admittedly painfully shy and often overwhelmed by crowds while performing, that as a coping mechanism she devised an alter ego “Sasha Fierce”, audacious yet mildly coquettish, Sasha Fierce was stage perfect, She left audiences enraptured, her every move confident yet beguiling. This character, still an antithesis of her personality, she continued to shy away from the press, avoiding prodding journalists and their questions with self consciousness and unease. Almost akin to a mild rebellion, Beyonce, sweet talking like a green debutante, so poised in her charm, her voice hardly raised above a monotonous decibel, juxtaposed with a brash cocky fast talking retired corner boy from the housing projects of Brooklyn. Unconventionally attractive, with a rough hewn air of masculinity to him. Women were wild for him. The world was wild for him. Cynical spectators alluded to her naivete under his domineering influence, rumors circulated that she left her father’s management to go under Jay-Z's, who was at the time her boyfriend. She however had started her own management and entertainment company, Parkwood Ent and had began to manage herself. They got married in 2008, a small intimate ceremony of 40 people in Jay-Z's penthouse New York suite, away from the prying eyes of the media. She announced her pregnancy on stage, by rubbing her protruding stomach, her face beaming as her brunette hair billowed in the wind, she was the very picture of euphoric bliss, her fan base imploded from within with unrestrained glee, readily abandoning reality to idealize her, to live vicariously through her. The ugly rumors followed soon after, hideous whispers about a fake pregnancy, readily carried by seedy tabloids hungry for click bait headlines, a tactic that worked. The public went into a crazed frenzy, most people disregarding logical thought, smug in their blunt hatefulness.
The rumors seemed to stem from a single interview, where Beyonce as she sat, in her ruched dress, her rounded belly seemed to collapse inward, the pictures went viral, despite candid paparazzi pictures showing Beyonce frolicking on the beach with husband Jayz, clad in a bikini, her belly distended, her body showing all the telltale signs of pregnancy as she waddled around, a pregnancy which did not spare her; swollen cherubic face, fat ankles and stubby fingers. Paying no attention to rumours, she continued to release music, her songs ranging from staccatic choreography worthy beats to angsty ballads about love and its numerous pitfalls, not once either through artistic expression or otherwise did she allude to her personal struggles in marriage. Until “Lemonade”. Released in 2016, it was her first recognizable moment of catharsis, a visually stunning work of melodic art, it was received enthusiastically by critics who lauded her evolution. A depiction of fearlessness, it swept in tandem across themes ranging from racial inequality, love, forgiveness, feminism and pain while centering on black women’s struggles. Having been in only one (public) romantic relationship, it was clear the music was inspired by her relationship with Jayz, a daring album, which although artistically risky, did not attempt to ingratiate itself to anybody who did not like her. A body of music raw with rough edges, slipping sometimes into gritty spoken word canto.
A woman, who has been burdened with the projections of perfection cast upon her, showed through artistic expression, all of her humanity because what could be more imperfect than the pitfalls of infidelity, pain and emotional abandonment? Even after massive success, maybe giving the world a glimpse into the part of her, that perhaps is still the 19yr old girl in love with a wealthy worldly man, a self acclaimed god? What is more human than a protracted struggle with infertility, than multiple miscarriages? Than the suffocating burden of secrecy? What is more human than trying to put on a brave face for the world when your insides are wrought with pain? A woman who throughout the span of her long career never leaned on shock value or hawking her personal life for publicity. What is more human than shame?
Theories abound, regarding Jayz’s sudden show of introspection, which could easily be interpreted as a shrewd tasteless move, where to increase interest in his underwhelming album “4:44”, an unworthy reprisal to Beyonce’s Lemonade, he piggybacks on the media hype generated by Lemonade, and expounds, thoughtlessly, by providing distasteful details of his infidelity while lauding his growth, which came by way of his wife being his mule on his journey to enlightenment. He, of course being the nexus in this narrative, is cast as the reformed playboy turned ally, while pitiably lacking even a modicum of self awareness in his crude plight to reaffirm himself as a “good guy”. The media, drunk off little tidbits of Beyonce’s personal life, clung to trendy buzzwords and spun headlines applauding his introspection and growth despite Jayz espousing pedestrian politics befitting of a faux deep pseudo intellectual post adolescent. At two minutes to 50. A crass media tour which is anchored on his infidelity, its most interesting sound bite, of no advantage to his wife, who inevitably will suffer negative backlash for his indiscretions. It’s difficult to see how he contributes to the conversation about the rigid scope of masculinity societal norms box boys and men in. It’s difficult not to cringe at this childish act of public contrition which does not change or expand the common narrative. It is dreadfully commonplace, for men, when faced with their impending mortality, waning libidos and rapidly declining social capital to gradually or suddenly attain newfound clarity and penitence. Wouldn’t it be great though, if Mr. Carter focused on redeeming himself in his marriage, to his wife, in private like they have always done instead of expending his energy on reaffirming himself in the public eye with seemingly disingenuous self effacing interviews? Is he so self serving that he fails to see the backlash against his wife as a result of his contrived openness?
In the rush to critique and correlate their relationship with common hetero-normative relationship dynamics, a relationship, which albeit public, is still theirs, is still hers, it is increasingly pertinent that zealous feminists do not negate her agency, that they do not undermine or disregard her choices because, isn’t feminism founded on the unwavering principles of autonomy and choice? A perceived understanding of their relationship is never tantamount to the full picture, only a handful of people have ever truly been in her shoes, a woman who has her mega brand and massive fortune and heirs are inextricably tied to man whose fortune even supersedes hers, a man who is all the men she has ever known, with whom she is crafting a legacy, the main character of her throbbing love songs, the villain and hero of her love story, coupled with debilitating emotional despair and the pressure cooker of societal expectations and harsh scrutiny, thrust on her shoulders. After all, there is no accepted praxis on how to navigate a relationship with a man, especially with men like Jayz. Is it not great hubris to expect or demand that Beyonce flagrantly perform her feminism to fulfill rigid expectations, which ironically would be defeating of feminism’s fundamental principle of choice and the ability to freely utilize that choice? Feminism, very often easily regarded as an abstract practice, or commonly reduced to an issue of petty domestic squabbles as to whether a woman should cook or not, when it in fact permeates many aspects of our daily life and western exclusionary or elitist feminist’s politics is oftentimes counterproductive and does us all a great disservice, shouldn’t we allow for the shades of grey that is the palette of real life?
Women negotiate with men in different forms, to attain their desired goal, most times bargaining with his fear; of losing social and financial capital, affection, emotional and/or domestic labor as the tools in their arsenal. The brand of feminism that belittles women like Beyonce only serves to shame women into silence and hiding. Women should be given space to openly subscribe to feminist politics while grappling with complex life decisions. Feminism founded on trendy slogans and empty girl power platitudes, or rigid theoretical schema (while important) oftentimes does not neatly fit into the ruckus of life. And that is okay. The market woman, toiling in the sickly humidity of the Lagos heat, who’s every move is a balancing act with the weathered basket on her head, her mind heavy with dreams, dreams of financial emancipation, for herself, her daughters, she may not have the requisite vocabulary to articulate with clarity her politics, she may even bristle at the word “feminist” she will not quote for you Tony Morrison…or Gloria Steinem or speak eloquently about the Aba Womens Riot, is she not a feminist? She is a feminist. That is okay too.
PS- I am well aware that this relationship is none of my business but neither is Donald Trump’s unsightly toupee and I speak about it anyway.
Words by Osuala Olivia Chisom.
Writer, Lawyer, dreamer, food enthusiast.