Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s Praise 107.9 FM. The views expressed here are solely hers.
Beyoncé is always right on time, celebrating black womanhood and reminding us all just how amazing we are, how amazing we have always been, lest we forget while being worn down by so many daily battles for our dignity and equality.
Through her music, hard work and activism, Beyoncé continues to show us that when we black women unite, we can accomplish anything – whether on stage at America’s top-grossing music festival, Coachella, crushing the competition at the box office with “Black Panther,” having an impact on elections or taking the lead in Black Lives Matter and the fight for justice – black women have always been and will always be a force.
We are fierce, and therefore, we will be feared – Beyoncé knows this. But her greatest gift is not just what she does on stage. It’s the impact she has on women and girls when she’s offstage, when no one is watching. The way she puffs up our confidence, makes us feel beautiful. She puts a sassy wiggle in our walk even when our backs are aching. She makes us smile. That is why we love her.
For a few hours, when Beyoncé stepped on that stage as the first woman of color to headline Coachella – with an HBCU-themed marching band, an army of dancers, and all the history and imagery of Malcolm X, Nina Simone and Queen Nefertiti – she gave the mostly white festival crowd and more importantly, millions of her black fans watching from home, a few hours to look away from the horror show happening all around us daily. Black men arrested while sitting in a Starbucks, an unrelenting pattern of police shootings of unarmed black people, bombs dropped in Syria.
And while Queen Bey, as we have lovingly dubbed her, was prepping to go onstage and celebrate the power of women, President Donald Trump was busy rescinding Obama-era legislation that sought fair pay and safe workplaces for women in America.
So, yes, it was good to get away and just dance for a minute. And it didn’t hurt to hear the news after her groundbreaking performance that she is donating $100,000 to four historically black colleges and universities.
When I think of how Beyoncé has been present in my own life, there’s one moment I always remember. It was just another Saturday in the ‘burbs, about five years back. Her 2008 hit “Diva” (one of my all-time favs) was blasting in the Hyundai as my sister drove her girls and me to the local Little League game. We were all singing and bouncing with our best Yonce attitudes:
“I’m a, I’m a a diva (hey), I’m a, I’m a a diva … Na-na-na, diva is a female version of a hustla, of a hustla, of a, of a hustla …”
My two nieces and their best friend, who happened to be white, were stuffed in the back seat. My sister and I were using the bravado of the music to hype up the girls, who were all being bullied in middle school, where my nieces were two of less than a handful of black students. Their friend had been ostracized because she had stood up for my nieces, refusing to go along with the mean girls.
“Some of the white girls don’t like us,” my youngest niece, Zoë, had told me. “They call us ugly and dirty names and tell the boys not to like us. They tell other girls not to invite us to their sleepovers, or they won’t come.” She was putting up a brave face, but I knew she was hurt.
“Diva,” with its pounding beats and racy, braggadocio lyrics, is about an independent woman who is never afraid of what others think or say about her. It’s about a woman who is in control of her own life, knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to be aggressive (in actions or language) to get what she wants. She’s competitive, beautiful, free-spirited and not held back by haters.
Exactly the message I wanted the girls to get.
The bullies would be at the baseball game, and our girls were feeling anxious about a showdown. My sister and I, of course, were never going to let that happen, but we wanted to teach the girls never to back down from people who try to intimidate you.
“Do not let your haters change the course of your life, because you have a much higher purpose than they could ever imagine,” my sister and I told our girls.
Beyoncé’s music has always been – whether it’s 10 years ago or today as we just experienced at Beychella – a testimony to that sentiment and a tribute to black women: of our bodies, our talents, our intellect and our vulnerabilities. She sings about our heartbreaks but also our unyielding ability to believe in love in a world that shows us so much hate.
My nieces and their friend climbed out of that car confident, smiling and singing. They didn’t feel like victims any longer– it wasn’t just the song, of course, that’s way too simple. I realize the conversations we have are most important, but that music helped our message to stand up for themselves resonate, helped my nieces see their situation differently. They were with their girls on the field – not to mention being cheered on by Aunt Roxanne, who was just a little cray-cray protective of her nieces. And we were all divas, soldiers and survivors.
The girls had no problems at the game when the bullies strolled by. They lifted their heads, looked those bullies straight in the eye and let them know they were not going to be intimidated by anyone. It was a proud moment.
Watching Beyoncé perform at Coachella gave me the same feeling I had with my nieces that afternoon. Society may tell us our bodies are objects to be abused, imprisoned, or targeted by police and slaughtered at will, but Beyoncé uses her body and her voice to reject those notions and urges us to fight for ourselves.
Her message is gloriously, unapologetically for black women, but everyone who believes in freedom is invited to get in formation.