Why I Can’t Be Silent About Politicizing Beyonce

I was on Twitter recently when one of my followers tweeted about a course called Politicizing Beyonce that was being taught at Rutgers. I was floored.

“Please tell me that is NOT the name of the course,” I quickly tweeted back, hoping it was some kind of hoax.

“That’s the name of the class,” she responded matter-of-factly. I quickly logged of Twitter and ran straight to Google. And there it was. Politicizing Beyonce was all over the net. From Huffington Post and MTV.com to Bossip, everybody was talking about the concept of Politicizing Beyonce and interviewing Kevin Allred, the doctoral student and lecturer who had launched this very controversial idea.

I was pissed. In 2010, I submitted a workshop abstract to New York University’s Show and Prove Hip Hop Conference entitled, Politicizing Beyonce: Analyzing the Intersection of Race, Sex, and Representation.

As a committed feminist and founder/executive director of a youth social justice agency with a particular focus on media and pop culture analysis, I am very fascinated with Beyonce’s ability to polarize popular opinion. Whenever her name comes up in a room full of feminists, a clear divide becomes apparent. To some, Beyonce is problematic – a woman who uses her talents to perpetuate patriarchal norms and sexist definitions of womanhood. From this perspective, she symbolizes exploitation and objectification. But there are also feminists who applaud Bey as a beacon of female empowerment. These women have often pointed out Bey’s insistence on touring with her all-female band, Suga Mama. They point out the thread of empowerment that runs through a good number of her songs and the drive, talent, and intelligence that has defined her meteoric rise to top of her profession. I love Bey’s ability to set a conversation on fire like this. And it isn’t just with feminists. I see the same response with the youth I work with – and in any setting where she comes up as a topic of discussion. Beyonce is ubiquitous. Her work is layered and nuanced, and thus, she’s necessarily controversial.

My hope was that the conference would provide a great opportunity to gauge public response to Politicizing Beyonce. Thus, I submitted the following workshop abstract in May 2010:

Abstract for Politicizing Beyonce: Analyzing the Intersection of Sex, Race, and Representation

Why Beyonce? There are numerous answers to this question. The most obvious answer is that as an artist, a symbol and as a woman, Beyonce’s influence on the hip hop generation raises critical questions about sex, race, and representation. Whether she’s on our radio, television, favorite article of clothing, or movie screen, “Team Beyonce” has worked hard to etch her brand on our collective psyches and wallets.  There’s also the fact that Beyonce is a polarizing figure who elicits devotion and derision in seemingly equal measure.  As a symbol, she sits at an intriguing socio-political and cultural intersection for many women, creating shifting divisions between those who consider her a beacon of female empowerment and those who view her as a complicit tool used by the male power structure. One thing is certain, whether we love or hate her, we can’t escape her. Beyonce is nothing short of ubiquitous, which makes her the perfect subject.

Politicizing Beyonce is a multi-media journey via interactive dialogue, interviews, and performance. Through the cultural iconography of Beyonce, women scholars, performers, activists, fans, and critics explore female representation and the implications for the hip hop generation.

A few days later, I received an e-mail from the conference committee stating that the abstract had been denied. I was bummed but I had already had some misgivings about submitting a very pop-influenced idea to a hip-hop conference anyway.  While the rejection didn’t feel exactly great, I was OK with it. I was convinced that in a different medium Politicizing Beyonce was a concept that would blow up. In a collaborative effort with Ankh Media group and my husband, I began the planning stages of creating a documentary.

Artwork I created for the Politicizing Beyonce documentary.

So, when I heard that Rutgers was offering a class by the same title and with a similar concept, I immediately went into research mode. What I found was that Kevin Allred was quickly becoming a media sensation. I even had a friend call me because she had heard it on the Ricky Smiley morning show and wanted to know if it was connected to the work that I was doing. I felt years of research and planning evaporating before my eyes as I watched the story gain momentum. It felt like a death knell to the work that I had so seriously invested in. I felt anger and despair.

And I had to wonder, was this all just a crazy coincidence? The more that I considered all of the factors, coincidence seemed less and less likely. The name Politicizing Beyonce was one that I had put a lot of thought and intention into. Was it possible for someone else to come up with the same name? Absolutely. When I considered the likelihood of it, I had to consider some other factors – like the proximity of Rutgers and NYU. What were the chances of a concept being submitted to one university and then, shortly thereafter, popping up as a course at another university approximately 30 miles away?

And then there were the striking similarities between the descriptions given by Allred in his interviews and the abstract I had submitted. While his work seemed to point to a greater field of exploration – utilizing other black women writers and artists – what was striking to me was some very particular wording that was to describe the course. In an interview featured on The Boombox.com, it read:

“The course description reveals that students will explore the ‘Run the World (Girls)’ singer’s alter ego Sasha Fierce, the extent of her control over her own aesthetic and whether her racy image is a demonstration of female sexual empowerment or complicit with gender stereotypes.”

http://www.theboombox.com/2012/01/27/politicizing-beyonce-college-class/

My abstract:

“…between those who consider her (Beyonce) a beacon of female empowerment and those who view her as a complicit tool used by the male power structure.”

This congruence of factors led me to believe that this was not a “coincidence” and that I had both a personal and political responsibility to speak out about it. However, I was also aware that I had to treat this like any other area of my life – with intention, awareness, and mindfulness.

And at that point, I took some time to listen – to my head, my heart, and those closest to me. I consulted with my mother, my friends, my husband, my mentors. I meditated. I thought. I researched. And from these very meaningful conversations emerged a strategy. My first step was to contact the submission committee for the NYU conference. I wanted them to confirm that they received my submission in May 2010. They confirmed that they had and would be willing to corroborate, if need be.

I knew that my next contact had to be with Kevin Allred himself. This call was a lot less easy. I was angry but I also wanted to be fair. I could not shake the feeling that he had some kind of access to my concept – or at least my title. But I also knew that I needed to open to whatever his side of the story was. I had to allow the conversation to be guided by something more than my outrage.

After much research, I was informed that Allred could only be reached by e-mail. E-mail was not my preferred method of contact. I preferred the immediacy of telephone. I wanted to hear his voice, his tone; I wanted to listen for signs of authenticity. I wanted him to hear my voice. But e-mail was all I had. I sent Allred an e-mail sharing my concern about the possible misuse of my intellectual property. Within 20 minutes, he had responded both by e-mail and by voicemail.  In both, he was very apologetic. He assured me that he had never laid eyes on my abstract and that his use of the title was inspired by his work and discussions around gender and representation. He also indicated that the recent reports were misleading and that Politicizing Beyonce was not a current course offering at Rutgers, but that it was actually a class taught in fall of 2010.

This added another layer that made coincidence even less probable. Apparently, Allred and I had thought of the exact same title and similar concept, submitted it to two universities within very close proximity to each other, in the exact same year.

Before I called Allred back I wanted to do some fact-checking. I went to Rutgers website and accessed their 2010 catalog. Although, it verified that he had taught a class there, it did not indicate what the name of that class was nor did it have a syllabus or course description.

Given the fact that I turned in my abstract description in May 2010, I consulted with a friend of mine who is a professor at a university. I asked her how feasible it would be for a professor/lecturer to come across a concept in May, develop it, and have it available as a course offering by September. Without knowing the particulars about Rutgers’ system, she indicated that at her university, and generally speaking, it was very possible.

When I called Allred his voice was friendly, alert and somewhat cautious.  I was very candid and transparent about my initial anger, my concerns, and the feeling that my work had been stolen. But I also let him know that my goal in contacting him was not to fight, accuse, or point fingers but to rather get an understanding as to what truly happened. He stood firm by the notion that he had not had access to my work and that he thought the name choice was safe because his Google search on it had yielded no results. He was civil and apologetic. And while I couldn’t fully embrace his assertion that this was all some kind of “crazy coincidence”, I appreciated the way that we were able to respectfully dialogue about such a contentious issue.

The possibility of reinforcing one another’s work came up as an option. A class and a film are two different mediums. Allred expressed a willingness to acknowledge the work that we had been doing on the film in any future interviews he gave about the class. While we came to no clear conclusions, we did agree to put some thought into it and reconnect very shortly.While I still was not (and am not) convinced that this is some “crazy coincidence”, I was willing to explore what collaboration might look like.

Today, I came across this Allred interview: http://thefeministwire.com/2012/02/schoolin-life-teaching-beyonce-and-engaging-youth/  In it, he clearly identifies himself as the creator of the Politicizing Beyonce concept and there is absolutely no mention of my work or our conversation.

I write this blog with the best of intentions. I write this blog to challenge the system and the cultural norms that tell women (especially women of color) that silence is always the best response.

Needless, to say, I think it’s time that my side of this story is heard.