Myles E. Johnson, NYT, February 14, 2017
Black people have great imaginations, not just in the arts but in everyday life. We imagined ourselves as family when we were treated as property. We imagine equity and freedom when we seldom get to experience them. We imagine a generous and loving God when it often seems that if there is a God, he does not love black folks nearly as much as we love him on Sunday mornings.
In her performance at the Grammys, which had people across the country talking all Sunday night and into Monday, Beyoncé showcased her imagination. She appropriated European images of the Madonna and conjured other images of African Orishas like Oshun. She celebrated her pregnancy and gathered countless black women on stage as words by the poet Warsan Shire filled the air. The performance concluded with many black hands greeting Beyoncé as she smiled into the camera like a black Mona Lisa. It was not just the smile of a satisfied performer, but the smile of someone who knew she had just won.
When the Grammy for album of the year was awarded to Adele, I was surprised that so many people were disappointed. I thought of my mother telling me countless times that I must work twice as hard to get half as much as a white peer would get.
Black people who do transgressive or radical work must redefine and reimagine what winning is in a white supremacist capitalist culture. The music industry is largely run by white men, and they are the ones who decide which artists, genres and topics should be validated and funded, and which should be erased or othered. Work that gets funding and support is often work that caters to a white audience. If you create a work that does not do so, you are not simply creating a risky product. You are positioning yourself as an opponent to white institutions and business models. If you are a black person who does not try to be palatable for a white audience, but instead focuses on your own culture and experience, this is seen as a transgressive act. If you are a woman who does not try to make work that is appealing to a male audience, this is also seen as a transgressive act. Being awarded for your art is nice, but when you center radical black female thoughts and aesthetics as Beyoncé did with “Lemonade,” you’re not going to be rewarded by the same system you are subverting. “Lemonade” did not translate black womanhood for a white audience. It told a story about a black woman to other black women, and did not explain these experiences to make white people more comfortable.
And I suspect we know that a radical black person will never be rewarded if there is safer, whiter, more apolitical choices. Beyoncé did not lose; she was punished for a radical black feminist imagination that was more than white people in the music industry could handle, or were interested in consuming. She was not going to get an award for an album that white Grammy voters could not sing along to.