Anyone who is familiar with Beyoncé’s work knows that every outfit, song sample, visual reference and album cover art contains a deeper, more significant meaning behind its mainstream pop culture sheen. Now that Beyoncé has added her relationship with her husband Jay-Z and her passion for art to her vast repertoire, the symbolic and literal depth of her own work has an added resonance.
From the On The Run Tour II tour poster which references and pays homage to the 1970’s classic African film, Touki Bouki to the surprise release of the joint album Everything is Love, which takes a direct swipe at the white dominated high culture palace of the Louvre, Beyoncé and Jay-Z as reigning global megastars are turning their joint attention to celebrating black culture and highlighting historical and contemporary inequalities.
The On The Run II tour images offer a direct reference to the 1973 Senegalese film written and directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty in Wolof, a native language of Senegal, and its title loosely translates to “The Hyena’s Journey”. The story of Touki Bouki follows a young couple from Dakar, who steal and scheme to acquire the money to travel to their dream city of Paris. The lead characters are reminiscent of Bonny and Clyde, whom Beyonce and Jay-Z have previously referenced in their work.
This homage, though celebrated by many fans and cultural commentators, was not entirely welcomed by Mambéty’s family (the director passed away in 1998). Buzzfeed News reported they were somewhat critical of the press tour material, which was unveiled on social media.
Mambéty’s son, Teemour Diop Mambéty, told Buzzfeed: “We must welcome any creative exchange respecting the integrity of the works and their authors.” Despite this, for many, this referencing is important in that it highlighted an African film that, on release, generated intense political debate about colonialism and heritage.
From pop to politics
As two of the most prominent African-American musicians in pop culture, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have played increasingly visible political roles – from campaigning for former president Barack Obama to championing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Beyoncé, in particular, has referenced the richness of African culture in recent years. In her visual album Lemonade, Nigerian influences were woven through with numerous references to Oshun, the Yoruba mother deity, whose colour is yellow. Oshun is the goddess of beauty and love who unleashes her wrath when provoked.
Bricolage – or the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of cultural references that happen to be available – is keenly at work in the scope of Beyonce’s artistry. She has an astute ability to plunder high and low culture to make her own output appear completely fresh and relevant. This became even more apparent with the surprise release of Everything is Love, which dropped during the universally praised On The Run II tour, which itself offers a paean to African American identity.
Black Effect, which opens with a monologue about self-love, references being in love with your own blackness and becoming a symbol of black wealth. Jay-Z raps:
Shit I am the culture
I made my own wave, so now they anti-Tidal.
Here he explores his own contribution to capitalism, which both he and Beyoncé celebrate – but he is equally aware that as a black man, this comes with much public criticism.
He also name-checks Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American shot dead in 2012 by a neighbourhood watchman in a Florida gated community – and, in a twist on arena performers call and responses for crowd gesticulation: “Get your hands up high like a false arrest.”
Occupying ‘white’ space
The couples plundering of almost the entire canon of art history for maximum effect is no more on display that in the video for APES** T. This is perhaps the most direct statement concerning the redressing of an oppressive, exclusive power structure that the power couple have ever made. They literally occupy a white space with images of black love and black unity – understanding that it was the institutional exclusion of these images that allowed a pervasive white-dominated narrative to govern the collective consciousness. That narrative being that blackness does not belong in galleries, that black art does not hold the same value structures.
The video, which was directed by Ricky Saiz, who previously directed the “Yoncé” video, and produced by Iconoclast, intersperses close-ups of the Louvre’s most famous artworks – most prominently Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Jacques Louis David’s Consecration of Emperor Napoleon and Coronation of Empress Josephine.
Shot in a way that allows Beyonce and Jay-Z to almost obstruct the globally renowned works behind them – kneeling, swaying and smiling in the process – images of black bodies directly challenge the limited portrayals of blackness that audiences are used to seeing in museums. This invites the audience to take in an entirely new narrative, one that is direct and beautiful in its celebration of an (often intensely capitalist) sense of the many virtues of blackness.
It is abundantly clear that the power couple are effectively inserting themselves into the Western art canon and deftly highlighting the importance of a diversity of representation in such traditionally hallowed halls. What is so brilliantly relevant is that the pair have claimed white spaces and hosted their own black cultural moment that has the world talking. Art as an explicit metaphor for power has never seemed so present.