In “Homecoming,” viewers get a look at how Beyoncé crafted her Coachella performance — in which she made history as the music festival’s first black female headliner — as a tribute to historically black colleges and universities. It opened with a whistle from a band leader and performance by a drumline, and it featured a full marching band throughout; Beyoncé and the band sported pink and yellow in the opening sequence.
Daryl Michelle Lawrence, a 23-year-old social media specialist living in Florida, watched a live stream of Beyoncé ’s 2018 Coachella performance as well as the “Homecoming” documentary. She attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an HBCU that sent students to Coachella to perform alongside Beyoncé. For Lawrence, watching the first black female performer at Coachella highlight marching bands — an integral part of the HBCU experience, she says — was a huge deal.
“It was this extra level of being seen and recognized that we just don’t have, and it meant so much,” she says over the phone.
That’s why, she says, watching Swift’s BBMA performance felt “a little like a slap in the face.” Swift’s performance included an opening whistle, a marching band and a pink and yellow leotard. “I understand the intention was probably pure, but that doesn’t eliminate how it’s felt and why people are so upset,” Lawrence says.
On Wednesday night and Thursday morning, a deluge of Beyoncé fans, who felt that the performance had been “stolen,” took to social media to air their grievances.
In time, Swift fans jumped to the pop star’s defense. Many pointed out that myriad artists have used marching bands in live performances in the past.
The two women are arguably two of the biggest stars in music today, with hyper-loyal followings. On Beyoncé’s side, superfans call themselves the “Beyhive”; on Swift’s, “Swifties.” But this time, the debate pointed to something more than just celebrity loyalty: It was squarely pinned on race.
Paula Harper, a PhD candidate in historical musicology at Columbia University and writer on popular music, sees both sides of the argument — but says it’s important to consider the “cultural moment” in which Swift’s performance is situated.
“On the one hand, Beyoncé doesn’t own marching bands,” Harper says. But on the other, the conversation about marching bands has, since the release of “Homecoming,” centered on their significance in black culture, she says.
The fan feud also fits into a larger historical context. “I think part of the frustration with this is coming out of the reality that so much of the history of American popular music is the history of unequal racial relations,” Harper says. “So musical innovations of black and other nonwhite performers that are being adopted and adapted by white performers to garnish huge amounts of success — musical success, cultural success, economic success — that isn’t available to black and nonwhite musical artists. ”
White popular musicians appropriating or benefiting from black culture has a long history. Harper says the practice stretches all the way back to minstrel shows in the 1800s. And in the 1950s, Elvis Presley popularized blues and rhythms music, borrowing heavily from black artists such as Big Mama Thornton. Harper also cites contemporary instances of white artists using elements of hip-hop — Miley Cyrus twerking in her performances, for example.
White artists, Harper explains, can more easily adopt elements of different genres. “That kind of flexibility is not equally available to nonwhite artists, who are more saddled with ideas about genre specificity that they have to struggle very hard to get out of.”
That legacy is what led Lawrence to bristle at Swift’s performance: “We have a history of our music, our culture, being taken and reproduced in a different way and it’s praised as being trailblazing,” she says.
Both Lawrence and Harper say that this is a very charged moment for fandoms in general, and that social media only exacerbates that. When a contentious topic is introduced, they say, mobs of superfans will debate about anything. This particular controversy, though, presents an opportunity to have a deeper discussion.
Lawrence says she doesn’t think Swift defenders are being malicious at all; she just hopes it sparks a genuine conversation: “Just be open to learning something new when we have these hot-button topics like this, because there’s usually a reason why someone is as upset as they are.”