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Keeping Up With The Knowleses: Beyoncé And Solange’s Differing Approaches To Activism

Beyoncé was Queen Bey last night, as usual. “Formation” took over the Super Bowl halftime performance, making professional entertainers Bruno Mars and Chris Martin look amateurish in the process. Martin and Mars both gave it their all, but when it comes to simultaneously dancing with fierce precision and attitude, and singing without sounding gassed, Beyoncé is tops. She also pulled off her version of Michael Jackson’s outfit better than Mars’ low-key MC Hammer costume (minus the parachute pants) and Martin’s weird tie-dye thing, but that’s beside the point. Or is it?

Beyoncé - "Formation"
Watch Beyoncé's politically charged new video.

Beyoncé’s exactitude and meticulous planning are readily apparent in every minute aspect of her career. Of course her homage to Michael Jackson, a super-fly custom-made militarized Dsquared2 leather jacket, was on point. Of course “Formation” dropped from the sky a day before the Super Bowl. Of course it’s linked to a world tour for which pre-sale tickets are available tomorrow. Of course the tour starts on 4/27, with enough time for a proper album rollout that will probably come piecemeal but still seemingly out of nowhere. She doesn’t let you know she’s going in for the kill, but it happens anyway.

Even when Beyoncé takes the backseat, as she did with her Mrs. Carter H&M line and the accompanying tour, it’s strategic. Although she received some backlash for taking Jay Z’s name initially, she succeeded in showing just as much of her more vulnerable, sensual side as she wanted to. As a reminder, her name is legally Knowles-Carter, and Jay Z’s was rumored to be Knowles-Carter as well, but they’ve both long since transcended last names altogether.

Solange is just Solange as well. But not in the same way that Beyoncé is BEYONCÉ. That is not a shot at Solange’s stature — it’s more to say she is truly her unadulterated self, and she fiercely guards her uncompromised identity whenever it is questioned. Because of this, Solange exudes an authenticity that somewhat eludes Beyoncé naturally. Solange would rather DJ a party or accompany Dev Hynes on stage at the Apollo under the banner Blood Orange and Friends than have her own space on the bill. Beyoncé only watched from the crowd as her sister did two things she couldn’t — blend in while still being herself.

Solange’s actions are solely for Solange. She turns inward and projects those personal, private feelings, as opposed to Beyoncé propagating outwardly and openly for a huge audience while trying to salvage the true bits of herself. Beyoncé’s grand gestures can be powerful, but they’re also fluid and ambiguous. Whereas nobody’s going to be confused about the messages Solange is trying to communicate because she isn’t saddled with the job of being a larger-than-life figure.

Their disparity has been in their music from day one. Beyoncé, even in the days of Destiny’s Child, has sung over polished production and had dance routines created for her. She has even been accused by other artists of making minuscule edits to songs and claiming writer and production credits. Her spectacular performances and videos, even her iconic “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” were choreographed by others. This is common — most pop stars are very talented delivery vessels and sometimes savvy curators — but in comparison to Solange, it involves less artistry. Solange’s music has a more stripped-down sound, firmly rooted in R&B traditions, decidedly not leaning toward pop. She claimed to have been “writing and producing her own voice since ’02” in a tweet after she thought Pitchfork came at her sideways on the review of her fantastic 2012 True EP.

blood orange + solange @roweknowsthis @h_tothe_k @devhynes @saintrecords

A video posted by KG (@kirengopal) on

Beyoncé has released a more steady stream of music than Solange over the past four years, but it’s outside of music that the difference between the two artists is most interesting. The grainy elevator footage of Solange attacking Jay Z seemed to speak volumes about the sisters’ personalities, but there is so much speculation about why that fight went down that nothing is definitively discernible about their temperaments or their relationship. The difference in their artistic personas, however, has shone more brightly in the past week or so than it has before. Ironically, the catalyst for this comparison is something they share: their upbringing. Solange took to Twitter last week to rehash what is known as the “deep Brandy cuts” incident. But she also had some insightful commentary on race in the music industry and music criticism which led to some revelatory tweets about her childhood addressing New York Times critic Jon Caramanica. She speaks on how Houston, New Orleans, and her father in Alabama “fed her.” Beyonce speaks of those same places in “Formation”:

My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma

 

A key difference lies in how each utilized the very same upbringing. Although Solange’s heritage is also prevalent in her music and the distinct flavor it possesses, she used it is a point of contention in defending her identity and authenticity while also addressing racial issues. The same ‘Bama, Texas, and New Orleans that raised them was alienating in Solange’s hands. Beyoncé used them to more subtly address racial issues in a celebratory, prideful way that is less combative and more easily digestible. The racial undertones are still in Beyonce’s song and video. She addresses the public’s opinion of Jay Z overachieving a bit in the looks department while also addressing a stereotypical black facial feature with the line “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” and “I like cornbread and collard greens, bitch.” But by showcasing her background more overtly in her music, she used it to her advantage to launch a new tour, possibly a new album, and garner over 13 million YouTube views in a little over two days.

That brings up some of the age-old questions for black people trying to be successful in America. Are you more real or authentic because you are unapologetically “black” but less successful? Or are you less authentic because you are profiting from stereotypical views of black people that you represent proudly? Beyoncé and Jay Z wouldn’t be caught dead at a Red Lobster after some good sex, and she could probably buy the entire Jordan brand if she wanted to instead of waiting for Jay to buy her one measly pair. She’s employing an average-woman stance sprinkled with some authentic black experiences, adding a dash of her past and little offerings from the present and packaging it to be sold to the masses.

Her Super Bowl 50 performance was much more radical than the song, with black power fists reminiscent of the Black Panthers hoisted proudly and her background dancers paying tribute to fallen victims of police violence. Though it is still not quite the “attack on police” former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani thought it was, it is still only one performance that may or may not be associated with a song that lasts forever. Not everyone realizes Jay-Z gave $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter, and anyway, that’s Jay Z, not Beyoncé. Removed from the context of the Super Bowl, it’s in the eye of the beholder whether “Formation” celebrates or exploits the black woman who takes her dude to Red Lobster, carries hot sauce in her purse, and has her man buy her Jordans.

Solange’s actions are undoubtedly less lucrative: a tweetstorm that collects thousands of retweets and favorites as opposed to promotion for a new album or tour, or a political Marvin Gaye tribute that gets coverage on a few sites. But she is speaking solely for herself and is unwilling to relinquish her identity as a black woman in the face of white critics. While her exploits are more true-to-self and adherent to preconceived notions of “blackness,” that kind of strident individualism can also spark more tension in an already tumultuous racial environment amid protests against police brutality and racism. To a much, much lesser degree, she is the Malcolm to Beyoncé’s Martin, if Malcolm and Martin had been blood. So which method of activism is more effective? There is truly no definitive answer, but it is an interesting study in nature versus nurture.