Beyoncé’s much-anticipated performance in South Africa at the Global Citizen Festival on 2 December 2018 is for me a moment of scrutiny, not of her music or her well-documented relationship, but of her career and what it can teach us.
Recently voted the most politically divisive artist, Beyoncé is proof that ambitious black women firmly in control of their careers will attract unbearable suspicion. Accused of having sold her soul to the Illuminati in exchange for professional success, Beyoncé is evidence that a black woman running her own world and who answers to no one but herself is so unbelievable and threatening that when it happens it is attributed to some outlandish myth and conspiracy.
Most black women live on the margins of their professional lives. Most professional black women are tethered and constrained to stifling professional environments that emphasise their limits rather than their power.
Sometimes it may seem that black women are on a perpetual collision course with professional disappointment, disrespect and dismissal. Most of us grew up expecting transformative careers — careers that would break barriers and glass ceilings, that would rewrite our family narratives and prove the old adage to be true — hard work does indeed pay off. But empirical evidence suggests that despite the progress we have made, things are still harder than they should be.
To re-phrase Malcolm X’s words, the most disrespected person in corporate South Africa is the black woman. The most unprotected person in corporate South Africa is the black woman. The most neglected person in corporate South Africa is the black woman.
I recently spoke to my aunt who worked as a maid for a white family under apartheid. She said that the one thing that has remained with her so many years later is that despite the intimate nature of her job, an intimacy that brought her inside white bedrooms and bathrooms, that offered her proximity and access to whiteness, is the absurdity that she could wash, but not eat from the same dishes as the white family. She was provided with her own cutlery and plates kept in a separate cabinet from the rest of the family’s dishes. She said that that made her feel like a dog, like a nobody. She had no career — she had a job which made her feel like a nobody.
My desire for manifesting and fulfilling a liberating career was born from the disappointments of the women in my family who will never know what it feels like to have options. They survived, creatively so, but survived nonetheless and my determination is to go beyond survival and attain real control and ownership over my life.
My success, independence, liberation are the only returns of investment for the sacrifices my ancestors made with every humiliation they endured and every dream deferred, which can only be redeemed by the relentless pursuit of my own dreams.
So when Beyoncé covertly dropped her self-titled album in 2013 in the dead of night with no reliance on white mainstream media, I knew the woman I had admired since I was in high school had transcended the rules and structures that keep so many of us in our place. Her control means the defeat of outdated power structures. I was envious. She had attained the kind of liberation I have dreamed of since I was child.
To watch a woman in her 30s, like myself, finally reach a place where she herself is the institution is inspiring. Beyoncé was never a nine-to-five employee as most of us are, but I still think her growth as an artist is something we all crave for our careers.
With almost maniacal obsession, she has exhibited firm control over her career, to the annoyance of those who feel entitled to consultation. Her control is extreme, but understandable. Without it the music business would have chewed her up and spat her out like it has so many black artists. Without control I firmly believe she would have been eaten alive. Unfortunately vulnerability should be reserved for our private and safe spaces.
Writer Amy Wallace understood when writing about Beyonce that “there ain’t no use being hot as fish grease, if someone else wields the spatula and holds the keys to the cash register”.
By virtue of being lawyers my friends and I are seen as the pride of our families and communities, but what our admirers do not know is that despite our achievements we have little hope that one day we will hold the keys to the cash register. Whatever my own professional shortcomings are Beyoncé reminds me that even when challenges seem insurmountable the dream should not be abandoned.
It is against the background of my own seemingly untenable career that I watch Beyoncé unapologetically command her career. Watching Beyoncé perform is watching a black woman who has transcended both the visible and invisible barriers and who no longer needs mainstream acceptance and validation, which evokes the desire we all have for true freedom.
At the time Beyoncé made her triumphant return to the world stage earlier in 2018 after her maternity leave, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer and Issa Rae the Peabody award for her TV show, Insecure. It seems to me these awards are coming a little too late. They are coming at a time when black artists no longer need to beg conservative gatekeepers for acceptance and have instead created their own power bases, making these awards irrelevant.
Beyonce did not need Coachella, Coachella needed Beyoncé to maintain its relevance and how powerful was it to witness her accept the invitation on her own terms, even criticising Coachella on its own stage for the fact that she is the first black woman to headline the festival in its almost 20-year history.
This phenomenon of the marginalised abandoning regressive, old and exclusionary spaces for progressive, new and including spaces can be seen beyond just the arts.
In my own profession the new Legal Practice Act has facilitated the re-imagining of the law profession. The act has been the impetus for the formation of the Pan African Bar Association of SA (Pabasa). Its founding members proclaimed at its launch that:
“We are creating an atmosphere where being black and being a woman are the norm. We are creating an atmosphere where black people and women do not need to explain themselves; do not need to seek white male validation to be recognised.”
Beyoncé no longer needs white male validation and she definitely answers to no one. Her career is the universe’s love letter to black women who are told their dreams are unrealistic.
Beyoncé was not made in a day. For a long time she worked within the confines of stifling traditional power structures until she amassed a power that allowed her to exist without them.
Watching Beyoncé’s success reminds me of my own desire to have a name that matters, that is the ultimate currency. If you have a name that equals excellence, talent, hard work and substance, that is the ultimate power.
Beyoncé’s message is that the road to professional success is hard, riddled with betrayal, failure and disappointments, but worthwhile if it means you have the chance to change the status quo for the better, to tell a new story and to beat a path others can use. The message is if you do not have the keys to the register, cut your own set of keys. If your professional life has given you lemons? Make lemonade. Thank you Beyoncé and welcome to SA. DM
Tigers cannot purr.