Thursday, December 17, 2009

Beyonce Incorporated: R&B, Thugs and Whiteness


Here is the thesis and intro ya'll. Peace to Birk and Jess for helping
me organize the beginning, I swear that's the hardest part, because the
rest of the framework flows from there.

In writing this I was reminded that its not enough to have something
to say. Its not enough to have read the books to be informed. It's only
enough when
I can frame and deploy a convincing argument.

If you have any questions, leave them below, and I will try and work them
into the paper.


Beyonce Incorporated: R&B, Thugs and Whiteness

Since the 1998 crossover breakthrough of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce Knowles has

been a star on the rise. Since then she has released numerous albums, both with

Destiny’s Child and as a solo artist, she has starred in or served as a supporting

actor in several major motion pictures, and has married a multiplatnuim selling rap

artist. In short, Beyonce is everywhere, including the bank. In fiscal year

2007-2008, Beyonce reportedly earned an estimated $87 million dollars.

Given that black wealth is incredible rare in the United States (Oliver & Shapiro, 2006),

the reasons for Beyonce’s incredible success are worth exploring.

In exploring the reasons for Ms.Knowles’ success, I am primarily concerned with

the intersection of popular culture and the day to day lived experience of African

Americans. Often times we listen to music without considering the fact that it isn’t

neutral and that it also has an affect on the ways in which we go about our lives.

Beyonce Knowles is an accomplished, talented and attractive, singer, actor,

entertainer and fashion designer.

She is also is fast becoming an entertainment empire in and of herself. While she

“grew up in a four-bedroom home in Houston's upscale third ward with her father,

Mathew, a salesman at Xerox and Johnson & Johnson mother, Tina, a hair salon

owner, and sister, Solange Knowles, sings.”According to Forbes magazine,

Ms. Knowles has “sold upwards of 118 million records, won ten Grammys,

starred in seven films and headlined three solo tours” (Rose, 2009). Her endorsement

deals are extremely lucrative. She has had them with “Tommy Hillfiger L'Oréal,

Giorgio Armani Diamonds perfume, Samantha Thavasa handbags” and in the last

year, “she's added deals with Crystal Geyser and Nintendo DS to her résumé” (Rose, 2009).

Further more, the blue chip corporation, General Mills just underwrote her most recent

tour, I AM (Rose, 2009). Rose goes on to note that “Beyoncé constantly works and

reworks her act, watching every two-hour performance on tour--even after her

hundredth appearance--taking notes on how to improve. "I'm never satisfied," she

says, adding with a nervous laugh, "I'm sure sometimes it's not easy working for me."

Then, seriously: "I've never met anyone that works harder than me in my industry”

(Rose, 2009). Indeed, given the fact that she employs four hundred people and

arguably many more through touring and merchandising, she, in many ways is a


According to Marxist theory on cultural hegemony, “the class, which is the dominant

material force in society, is at the same time its dominant intellectual force”(Strinati, 131).

Beyonce Knowles earned an estimated 87 million dollars in fiscal year 2007-2008 not

only because she is talented and attractive but also because her most popular work

serves the interests of the white ruling class elites, such as the presidents of Fortune

500 corporations and Madison avenue advertising firms, wall street investment bankers,

television and record executives. She serves the interests of the ruling class by

normalizing and never questioning the impact that white supremacist patriarchal

capitalism has on black heterosexual relationships. Lyrics such as “pay my auto

bill, pay my telephone bill”, thug worship such as “ if his status ain’t hood, I ain’t

messing with him, he better be street if he looking at me” and “them hustlas keep

on talking, they like the way I’m walking” reify the stereotype of the black, male,

sexy thug. These lyrics also deploy the patriarchal notion that African American men

are only worth what they can contribute financially. Furthermore such lyrics are

problematic because they place the economic issues facing black heterosexual couples

squarely on the shoulders of individuals while obscuring the structural forces acting on

the lives of such couples such as a historically segregated educational system, a

segregated housing system, a discriminatory bank lending system, an oppressive

police system, historically discriminatory judicial system, the war on drugs, the war

on poverty and a largely self serving non-profit industrial complex.

I am making this argument because I am concerned with the package that her

message comes in, the content of message that is deployed and the impact that

this has on the masses of society, as popular culture is where most people learn

about society by deploying lyrics that focus on black women asking black men

for money for utility bills, that celebrate black men as the mythic thug, Beyonce

Knowles both reifies the stereotype of rugged, violent, black men who work in the

underground economy. This is important because applying white hegemonic market

ideology is harmful to Black heterosexual relationships, given the fact that historically,

Black workers tend to be some of the lowest played workers in the United States

economy (Oliver and Shapiro).



DJ Diva The Mixtress said...

This was interesting. While I agree with some of what you said I also think that the part of the reasons for her becoming such a phenomenon lies with her upbringing as well. She comes from a very focused 2 parent home who, judging from home videos and countless interviews, were very involved and molded her from a young age.

I'm still not sure what the argument is here. Maybe I'm having a daft moment. But are you trying to say that the reason for Bey's success is because white people endorse the fact that she's singing about thugs and bill payments?

Because if that's the argument, it's not entirely true. She sings about plenty of other subjects that I'm sure you are aware of and most of her songs don't contain references to thugs.

Also, in this last 15 years of rap lyrics, it is unnaturally common to hear black rappers consistently rap about the fact that they are not (for lack of a better term) "Giving a bitch shit". They are constantly talking about how they got the girl without having to do anything for her. How she is a dime and they would do anything for her but give her a dime. The hiphop woman has become immune to this by declaring that the rappers are not speaking of her, when in fact they are!

For Beyonce to actually stand up for herself in a song and say "Can you pay my bills"? is actually applaudable given the state of the black male hiphop mindset and I'm not mad at her for it. We don't talk about that enough. We don't speak about the monetary responsibilities that arise while being in a relationship.

I'll end this by saying that when I was 13 a boy called the house for me. My father picked up the phone and drilled the boy asking him "Do you have a job?" I pleaded with my father to be nice, that the boy was only 13 and how could he have a job? My father said "If he aint got nothing to give you, then you aint got no time to give him. If he can't afford to take you to the movies, he can't afford to be calling you!"

The next week the boy called again. He had started packing bags in the supermarket and wanted to take me to the movies across the street. My father consented. I'm glad I learned that lesson.

Derica said...

If you haven't already come across it you might find Eva Illouz's writing on love and capitalism interesting: and

Anonymous said...

Great piece! Very thought provoking.

I'd be interested to see a comparison of Beyonce's songs which primarily involve singing to a man, about a man, or being in love, to other popular female artists today, maybe Alicia Keys? In my opinion Keys' songs also have appeal to white audiences but her lyrics are more focused on becoming a better person, experiencing life to its fullest, learning from mistakes, etc. Granted she also has her share of songs about love but they seem to come from a different place than Beyonce.

This also gives rise to the question of how much songwriting control Beyonce really has over her music, and whether that influences her promotion of racial stereotypes. Maybe Beyonce wants to belong to the ruling class and therefore is OK aligning herself with their (the ruling class, her producers, etc.) perception of black males.

-little_ph0enix on Twitter

Model Minority said...

Girl, thank you for putting me on. I will put the book on my reading list.

Hey Girl, this is interesting.

This also gives rise to the question of how much songwriting control Beyonce really has over her music, and whether that influences her promotion of racial stereotypes. Maybe Beyonce wants to belong to the ruling class and therefore is OK aligning herself with their (the ruling class, her producers, etc.) perception of black males.
Is the issue who is writing the songs or an artists willingness to sing, and therefore profit from them being sun?

An AK/ Yonce comparison may be cool.
BUT, I am interested in how society requires an
ideology to maintain our current system which serves the interests of elite whites first.

So. Yeah.

The comparison is cool, but I trying to follow the money and the oppression. Luls.

Unknown said...

Fascinating . I think as a thesis, its going to be incomplete if you don't consider the content of songs like Independent Women and what those say about black female empowerment in the same white power establishment you say controls/directs her lyrics. Also what are the positive images of black life (whether male or female) that her music contain?

If you're going to make the argument that her music sells because it caters to the establishment in a certain way, you're going to have to address the whole universe of similar musicians who have succeeded or failed in the same time period. Does Missy's music convey the same set of messages? Alicia Keys's man wears shiny cufflinks and she's no record sales slouch.

Personally I've always thought Beyonce's real stroke of genius as a pop artist is the conversational writing she's taken to the top. The biggest of her songs (from Destiny's Child to date) inevitably use language on a more everyday, conversational, slangy and 'black' (problematic?) basis than most pop acts do. Think "bug a boo", "am a, am a diva", etc.

I think you'll have to address very directly who writes her lyrics, the evolution of that writing over time and as her popularity has grown for this to be really strong. Definitely an idea worth exploring though. I'd love to see the results.

*Long time reader, possibly my first time ever commenting. Your blog is always thought provoking.

Post a Comment

eXTReMe Tracker