Work, work, work: Beyoncé’s labour of liberation | Music


By now, it’s a cliche. “You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé,” the saying goes. You can find its words slapped on mugs, T-shirts and Instagram quotes or murmured into the bathroom mirror as a bleary-eyed morning affirmation. The backlash (largely led by white women) to this tongue-in-cheek attempt at self-motivation has already pointed out its blind spots around class. Of course, you, regular human with looming mounds of debt and bills, can’t “maximise” your time like a pop star with entire creative and personal teams to eliminate her drudgery. That’s obvious.

But the sentiment – that Beyoncé would, at one point, have been a nobody just like you, with as much time to work with – still holds true. Like her or not, she leveraged a childhood work ethic into a career that spreads beyond her role as a performer. Yes, Beyoncé is a singer. Yes, she often co-writes. In addition, she is also an all-round entertainment mogul, directing documentaries and music visuals, executive-producing film soundtracks and commanding a wider, ephemeral level of cultural influence – not to mention moving into fashion.

She isn’t alone. Over the past decade, black labour in music has produced a new understanding of musicians as “curators” – a word that neatly describes the ways black artistry has evolved with the times. As music has become more visual and omnipresent, weaving itself into ads, apps and other art forms, the most impactful acts of the 2010s have found ways to integrate those outlets into their own output: they’ve become industries unto themselves. Music may be their anchor, but for everyone from Rihanna to Janelle Monáe to Kanye West, it’s just one part of their contribution to culture. Working within the framework of an exploitative industry, these black musicians have created a space that allows for at least a semblance of autonomy.

‘Her work functions like a mirror held up to black women’ ... Janelle Monáe performing in October.



‘Her work functions like a mirror held up to black women’ … Janelle Monáe performing in October. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

In January 2010, Beyoncé announced a hiatus. She retired her Sasha Fierce alter ego and didn’t release new recorded material until the following year. (For Beyoncé, a “hiatus” only lasts 18 months.) It marked the first time she had put an explicit homage to soul, classic R&B and more ambitious arrangements ahead of profit. She’d never sounded blacker.

She also retired her father, Matthew Knowles, as her manager and took on that responsibility herself, via her company Parkwood Entertainment. “When I decided to manage myself, it was important that I didn’t go to some big management company,” she said in 2013. “I felt like I wanted to follow the footsteps of Madonna, and be a powerhouse and have my own empire and show other women when you get to this point in your career, you don’t have to go sign with someone else and share your money and your success – you do it yourself.”

You can almost follow a direct line from this moment to her current work, which is increasingly pro-black, self-examining and intimate. Her quest for self-affirmation played out publicly when she came forward in 2015 as one of the artist-owners of streaming service Tidal, along with husband Jay-Z and just about every A-list musician around at the time. With more economic freedom came the ability to do as she pleases: that much was obvious from her heavily autobiographical self-titled album, surprise-released in 2013, then Lemonade in 2016.

This transition reverberates in the work of peers who’ve followed in her wake. On opposite sides of the pond, London rapper Little Simz and Afro-futuristic artist Janelle Monáe embody the importance of owning the means of production. Simz self-released her first mixtape in 2010, aged 16, on label Age 101 – a place for her and the rest of her Space Age rap collective to share their work. By 2013, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar had taken notice. Since then, Simz has branched off into comics, curated a genre-hopping festival Welcome to Wonderland: The Experience and returned to acting (see her now in the Netflix revival of Top Boy). She’s navigated the industry as both an eternal outsider and one of Britain’s most talented rappers, which seemed to frustrate her at first. The business caught up eventually – a Mercury shortlisting here, some Radio 1 airplay there – though these days she appears less bothered about external validation, perhaps having realised that the industry needs her more than vice versa.

Rihanna at a Fenty Beauty event in Australia in 2018



Rihanna ‘scaled unprecedented levels by becoming the first black woman to head up a luxury fashion brand.’ Photograph: Caroline McCredie/Getty Images for Fenty Beauty by Rihanna

Monáe, meanwhile, co-founded the Wondaland Arts Society – which is a film and TV production company, a record label and an organising core for activism – in Atlanta. When she moved there from Kansas City in 2001, her art-pop sound and left-field approach soon piqued the interest of Outkast’s Big Boi. He introduced her to fellow polymath Sean Combs, who signed her in 2006. As a producer, social justice activist and actor (Moonlight, Hidden Figures) she chooses to uplift black people while acknowledging our complexities. Her 2018 album Dirty Computer confronted questions of gender, sensuality and desire; she can model in a Cover Girl campaign, lead a Black Lives Matter march and be CEO of a record label – all roles that show dark-skinned black women they’re more than a worn-out stereotype. Her work functions like a mirror held up to black women, offering them representation in ways that white gatekeepers wouldn’t instinctively understand.

This decade, I watched black musicians defy other traditional gatekeepers in the hard-to-crack world of fashion. Like Beyoncé, Rihanna entered music as a teen, signing to Def Jam at 17. Now, she’s scaled unprecedented levels by becoming the first black woman to head up a luxury fashion brand, with Fenty in partnership with French company LVMH. At the start of the decade, few would have seen her evolution coming. During her Loud era, all shrill EDM production and flame-red hair, she felt easy to dismiss as a pop-machine puppet, singing words written by other people. Now she’s a savvy businesswoman, equally at home with music as with philanthropy, acting, design and beauty. Her line Fenty Beauty has shaken the cosmetics industry to its core, forcing a diversity of makeup shades into the market – as her competitors scramble to react – a sign of what will become a norm. Her Savage x Fenty line does the same for lingerie, essentially ringing the death knell for the Victoria’s Secret catwalk show by employing a diverse cast of models, as she did at New York fashion week in September.

This matters on two levels. Rihanna’s success in fashion and beauty moves her away from seeming like a product that belongs to her record label. She becomes a person and force of her own – Fenty, after all, is her real-life surname. And by steering all these seemingly disparate parts into one brand, she is creating a new set of norms for black art. Plenty of her peers have seen how investing in and executing a broader vision can support, rather than distract from, their music. Consider the likes of Tyler, the Creator, Solange, Kanye West, Dev Hynes, Frank Ocean and Donald Glover, and you realise how their multifaceted work shaped some of the most important western pop culture of the decade.

Our notions of what counts as “black art” no longer need to be defined by the global north’s white mainstream. Since the 80s, black genres from hip-hop and house to R&B have led countercultures. But those genres used to be put into neat boxes – “black culture”, to be consumed in specific ways and places, without needing to care about the experiences behind the work. Now, black music soundtracks global teendom. Now, Kanye West can endure being laughed out of fashion circles before turning Yeezy into a billion-dollar company. West brought a certain kind of self-conscious tastefulness to his work as a designer, continuing to kick back against convention just as he had as a middle-class art-school kid during his mid-2000s backpack-rap era. (Hardly the usual “thug life” backstory easier to sell to white consumers.) Glover, meanwhile, can rap (and sing) as Childish Gambino, and also create and executive produce a TV show as lush as Atlanta. Solange can create performance art, with installations for New York’s Guggenheim and LA’s Hammer Museum and London’s Tate Modern. Once you realise you’re more than a preconceived notion of a black artist, or of black industry, entire worlds open up.

‘These polymaths show that you can eschew one neat categorisation and do so on your own terms’ ... Donald Glover as Earn in Atlanta.



‘These polymaths show that you can eschew one neat categorisation and do so on your own terms’ … Donald Glover as Earn in Atlanta. Photograph: FX Productions

These musicians’ stories are aligned in a quest for true independence. Such a thing can’t exist within the parameters of a business designed for profit – historically, recording contracts let labels exploit artists. Yet this type of multifaceted black labour rebukes the idea that you’re only worth the figure on your first contract. Frank Ocean’s Endless album/livestream, a quick way out of his Def Jam contract before he released Blonde, brought these delicate chess moves to life. One of the most boring critiques of Beyoncé is that she’s just a cog in a corporate machine. But the fact that any of these artists turn their talent into products doesn’t negate their overall value.

Black children are always taught that we have to work twice as hard to gain half as much recognition. These displays of black labour, of a relentless drive to excel in various ways and a refusal to be defined by one skill, push that adage to an extreme. These polymaths show that you can eschew one neat categorisation and do so on your own terms. Black American fans of Beyoncé would have recognised the cultural references others missed in Homecoming, her 2018 Coachella festival performance, an ode to historically black American universities. Later, it was turned into a Netflix special produced by – you guessed it – Parkwood Entertainment. The decade in Beyoncé drew to a close with her executive-producing 2019’s pan-African Lion King reboot soundtrack, The Gift, in addition to voicing Nala in the film.

The idea of performers “just sticking to the music” is all but dead. In the next decade, it may well become the norm for black artists to explore other creative avenues without being mocked or cut down. As pop music shifts away from English as lingua franca, new global acts could begin to dominate in spaces previously only held by this crop of multitalented public figures.

Seen at a glance, they can inadvertently make hard work appear effortless, and as though you’re failing if you’re not squeezing as much productivity out of every day as Beyoncé. But that misses the point. These artists have poured buckets of themselves into these accomplishments, and have done so while working in an industry still mired in institutional racism, sexism and one that treats duty of care as an afterthought. They made the choice to seek self-determination – sometimes at a high cost. What you do with your 24 hours is up to you.



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