Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” By using vivid imagery and strong lyricism, music artist and pop icon Beyoncé is doing just that. So much so that a college professor created a course that examines her work.
It’s not exactly about learning the dance moves to “Single Ladies,” though in my mind that should get you some extra credit.
Beyoncé has been getting increasingly more political.
In 2010, Rutgers University professor Kevin Allred created “Politicizing Beyoncé,” a course that focuses on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality and centers Black feminist authors and creatives. Recently Rutgers fired him following a dispute over his political commentary following the 2016 presidential election. Since then, Allred has taught the class on other college campuses not only in the U.S. but also abroad. “The class started at Rutgers, but I’ve traveled to other schools across the country and venues around the world in the past years to facilitate interactive guest sessions not only in lecture halls but at arts festivals, community spaces, even in bars and clubs.”
In September, he adapted the Beyoncé curriculum to an online forum for anyone interested in enrolling in the course.
I recently spoke with Allred about the evolution of the course, celebrities and politics, and of course Trump.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Bailey Williams: What sparked the idea for this class?
Kevin Allred: Number one, being a Beyoncé fan. Of course, I have to start there. I started teaching it the first time in 2010. The biggest inspiration was an article by Daphne A. Brooks about the B’Day album, where she was kind of looking at it in a more political way.
I was always interested in analyzing pop culture, analyzing music and thinking about race, gender, sexuality, and how we can get people talking more about these things through pop culture. And so it was kind of all my interests coming together.
I started by assigning that Brooks article when I was teaching 101 classes in Women’s Studies. Even when students didn’t agree with the article, it was provoking a really fun and lively conversation. So, as soon as I got an opportunity to kind of craft my own little special topics class that was my go to.
Williams: Did you face any criticism when you were trying to start the course?
Allred: I kind of snuck it in. I didn’t have to go through rounds of submitting. … This is rigorousness, it has enough academic material, it isn’t just, you know, learning Beyoncé dance steps.
Once they heard about the class, a lot of people’s perception was that it was Beyoncé trivia or getting college credit for learning the lyrics to a song. When really it’s like any other English class where you’re looking at an author and reading the themes to their novels or writing.
Williams: How has the class evolved?
Allred: A lot. Every time she does something new.
That’s part of the fun for me, too, knowing Beyoncé was still a current artist and the curriculum would change whenever she put something new out. And then anticipating where she could go next.
We are always the ones staring at her body, and it’s like we’re objectifying her through the camera.
And she has been getting increasingly more political in the feminist statements and making statements about race and gender with [her album] Lemonade. There’s a lot of personal stuff in her music. But just because of the identity of everyone in the class, and myself as a White guy, we don’t try to read the personal experience of Beyoncé, we’re trying to read the bigger themes of the art.
So how can we transpose this in bigger ways onto society as a whole versus just, “Did Jay-Z cheat on Beyoncé?” That’s not a question we try to answer. We try to move into bigger themes, “What is she saying about society in general and Black women in Lemonade?”
The order of the course changes given what she puts out, and I have to rethink how [I want to approach the course each semester]. Should Lemonade be the first thing we talk about, or should it be at the end of the semester? People could take the class again today [even] if they took it in 2010 and have a completely different experience. So that’s fun for me as a teacher.
Williams: What’s the current structure of the class?
Allred: Right now you can check things out online. There’s free stuff, or if people want to pay $5 a month you get an extra syllabus and questions. There’s also a discussion board you can access where we talk about things from the course. And I’m working on a book version of it, too.
Beyoncé has managed to find a perfect space where she’s making political statements through her art.
Williams: Which songs have created the biggest discussions?
Allred: That’s hard because they all create big discussions in different ways. But I think one of the most interesting ones for me to see students thinking about is “Partition” and “Jealous” because they’re connected visually. She got a lot of criticism of people saying, “Oh you’re a mother now, you’re being too sexy.”
There’s a whole thing about sex positive feminism and all that, but we kind of look at it in terms of Beyoncé herself being the artist behind the camera and the body that’s on screen—it’s a double commentary on the role of Black women and how they’re seen in society and sexualized.
She’s doing that from an empowered place, and that’s on the screen as, you know, Beyoncé with Jay-Z. But then there’s also commentary from behind the camera: the visual piece or the way the videos are framed through our point of view. We are always the ones staring at her body, and it’s like we’re objectifying her through the camera. And she’s created the video to comment on the ways that society does that to women every day, Black women especially.
Williams: People often criticize celebrities for speaking on politics, saying they should stay out of it. What do you think about that?
Allred: I don’t think celebrities always have a responsibility [to speak about their politics]. I guess as time goes by, it becomes harder to not be political, as an artist in 2017, now that we’re seeing all these things since the last election.
But I would say that Beyoncé has managed to find a perfect space where she’s making political statements through her art. And she’s also found a way to be a private person. I think Beyoncé believes that an artist should reflect the times, and she’s been doing that throughout her entire career—even when she didn’t make it as explicit as she does now.
Williams: Has her music always been revolutionary, or was there a shift somewhere?
Allred: I think she’s always had really strong feminist statements in her music. It has always been centered around herself as a Black woman. That experience can be radical just by [itself].
But I think there was more of a shift with B’Day in 2006 to her being more explicitly aware of the layers she’s putting on. She gradually built that so that she can make these pronouncements in 2016 and 2017 and show up at the Super Bowl styling herself and the dancers after the Black Panthers. And make a major statement with “Formation” that reached all of these people that wouldn’t otherwise be listening or be reached.
Williams: The reading list for the course is rigorous. How do you go about picking your material?
Allred: I usually think about what I think is the major theme Beyoncé has in the video that I want to draw out.
And then find a reading by a Black woman or a piece of art by Black women that also has the same theme. I think the earliest that we read is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.
We always tend to think we’re doing—as a country and as a society—better than we are.
Williams: So you’re deliberate about making Black women’s work the center focus of this course?
Allred: Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do. I mean my own identity has always been something I’m trying to negotiate. And that was one way I found that the students could be introduced to all this literature [by Black women] and look at Beyoncé in a deeper way. And it kind of helped mitigate my own voice and direction by using specifically only Black women’s words, writing, art.
Williams: Tensions were high following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and you dealt with some backlash to a conversation in one of your classes about the election. What happened?
Allred: The day after, I had an open forum for students to talk about their feelings, fears, etc.—basically reactions to the election—because there was a real negative atmosphere on campus.
During that session, I had an American flag with me and asked students if they wanted to use it in any way to protest. It opened up a conversation. We didn’t do anything with it. I returned it to Target, where I had bought it, a few days later.
A week later, NYPD showed up at my apartment saying that a student’s parent had filed a complaint against me with Rutgers, and Rutgers had contacted them. They said I forced students to cut up an American flag and directly threatened every White student in my classroom, neither of which happened. I went home later and tweeted about the things we had talked about in class.
Rutgers then put me on administrative leave to further investigate, saying I had discriminated against a protected class of students, White people, and committed violence in the workplace.
They did a three-month investigation. [They] interviewed students who all backed up the real version of events. And the student that complained eventually admitted it was a lie, and the only evidence of me “being hateful to White people” was that I told the class that 53 percent of White women voters voted for Trump, which is just a fact.
Rutgers refused to renew my adjunct teaching contract after they cleared me of everything. Even though I’d done nothing wrong. That’s about where it stands. I’m still trying to fight it but it’s slow going. I’ve also written about it more formally.
Williams: Why do you think it’s important to study culture while it’s happening?
Allred: Because it tells us where we are. We always tend to think we’re doing—as a country and as a society—better than we are. Take the Super Bowl for example.
It’s not like people don’t know that racism is still prevalent, but they like to pretend that it’s not. But when Beyoncé goes to the Super Bowl, and you see all these people respond in such an outwardly racist way to her—then. They still try, but you can’t deny it.
I like the immediacy, and I think it lends to more of an activist approach to know what’s going on as it’s going on.
Bailey Williams wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Bailey is the audience relations coordinator for YES! She is passionate about intersectional feminism, social justice, and ending violence against people of color. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.