In 2010, Rutgers University professor Kevin Allred created “Politicizing Beyoncé”, a course that pairs U.S. Black Feminist texts, both historical and contemporary, with Beyoncé’s music and career in order to discuss current U.S. race, class, gender, and sexual politics. I had the opportunity to interview Kevin Allred about his class, and here’s what he had to say.
Q: What inspired you to teach this class?
A: Obviously I am a huge Beyoncé fan, and in my other classes I’m always trying to bring in pop culture references to get students invested and involved in the teaching material. I once read a Daphne Brooks article that was an album review of B-Day, and she argued that Beyoncé should be looked at politically, as a sort of protest singer – so I thought, why not do this with all of Beyoncé? Why not think about the political messages embedded in her music, imagery, lyrics, and career choices, and pair that with a history of black feminism in the US? In this class you learn about Beyoncé, but you’re also learning a history of black feminists, and weaving the two together.
Q: What do you want your students to learn from this class?
A: I really want students to become familiar, if they’re not already, with black feminism in the U.S. and to know that all these black female writers exist. It’s important to realize, how much of what we read in school is written by the people in power versus other marginalized groups, so through this class, I want students to learn about the wealth of literature that exists among and authored by black women. Also, I only assign writing by black women, and that is one of the ways I am able to mitigate my own identity in the class. Regarding the pop culture element, I want students to come away feeling that the stuff we hear on the radio everyday actually has meaning behind it. I want students to become analytical about pop culture, and culture in general, and to come away with an appreciation for black female writing, and also black female cultural production. Also, just be aware! I want students to be socially aware, and to wake up to the world around them.
Q: Is there a way you incorporate intersectional studies into your class that branch out from just Black history in the U.S.?
A: I try to do an intersectional analysis the whole semester, race and gender being the base, but there are other intersections as well. I mainly keep it within the U.S. context, but Beyoncé actually widens the dialogue by including Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, and through her is able to include Nigerian feminism in her music. I’m interested in bringing female writers of color into the classroom – I’ll mention them all the time – but the syllabus is always changing, so I hope to include more in the future. We do intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality, and I also include voices of trans women on the syllabus. I try to include as broad of an intersection of voices as I can, but I am also trying to focus on the most marginalized communities, and to make sure their voices are heard.
Q: Beyoncé has been hailed for her audacity to use the word feminist in such a bold way. Have you talked about the implications of the “eat the cake, Anna Mae” lyric in Jay-Z’s rap in the song Drunk in Love? Would you say that line would discredit Beyoncé’s feminism?
A: I wouldn’t say that line discredits her feminism, but the students in the class and I can agree on how that line has been the hardest to digest. How can we make sense of this line, in comparison with everything else that Beyoncé has done that is all about positivity? That line just makes this another complicated portrayal of feminism because no feminist is perfect, and if they pretend to be, they are lying. We’ve analyzed that in many different ways also. First, it’s Jay-Z saying the line, not Beyoncé, yet she is the one getting all the blame, which brings up another issue. Second, if you read it as a cultural reference, in the movie “What’s Love Got to do With It”, the “eat the cake” scene is at a time when Tina Turner’s career is going to take over Ike’s career, so he get’s really upset because she’s going to be more famous than him. In some way, I almost see that line as an admission from Jay-Z, of Beyoncé surpassing his own career. That may not be the most responsible way of saying that, but it’s important not to just write it off at first listen, because you can go deeper with meaning. There is a reason for why that lyric is there, it just complicates the conversation we have about Beyoncé’s feminism.
Q: You say that you include the work of other black feminists in your class, how do you include them? Are you comparing them with Beyoncé/her lyrics, or are you looking at them as separate case studies?
A: We are very concept driven in our analysis. For example, we used Janet Mock’s book, Redefining Realness, to talk about the idea of realness. What does a trans woman’s body challenge that cis gendered bodies don’t challenge about gender? Taking that question, we’ll look at a song like “Pretty Hurts”, and talk about how gendered expectations are harmful, but we also widen the conversation to discuss how much pretty hurts different bodies. For example, a trans woman’s body will be hurt in different ways than a cis gendered woman’s body will hurt. We’ll take concepts from readings like that and apply them to Beyoncé videos and lyrics.
Q: The word feminist has quite a buzz right now, and so does sexual harassment. Does the work of Politicizing Beyoncé do anything to make students engaged citizens in fighting for equality? Do you bridge the gap between music, and what is actually affecting and happening to marginalized communities?
A: Yes, absolutely. One way I’m thinking about specifically is when we talked a lot about the Michael Brown case, in comparison to the “No Angel” music video, because Brown was called no angel in media coverage. That music video, “No Angel” is very much about black men’s bodies and poverty. We talked about the structural reasons as to why a police officer is more likely to shoot at an unarmed black man than at a white man – we draw comparisons between music and real life. We talk about current events in concept driven ways, which helps us stay on topic. We don’t talk about her personal life at all, we talk about concepts that allow us to make larger connections between black history and current events.
Q: What has this class done for you as a professor, man, feminist, and human being?
A: I learn a lot everyday because my teaching style is very discussion based, so there are students coming up with ideas I’ve never even thought of myself. That’s why the syllabus changes every semester, because we are always coming up with new concepts and ideas to discuss and think about, and there are more readings and songs that come out. Teaching energizes me because I get to learn as much as I get to teach, it’s definitely a two-way street. I get to see people make connections and feel validated through the way we talk in class. I’ve seen students become empowered by Beyoncé’s music and relate to what we’re learning in class, so those are the moments that stand out to me and make this class very rewarding.