Beyoncé marches slowly toward the riot police, a determined look in her eyes. She's wearing torn fishnets and an army green miniskirt and is flanked by Pharrell Williams, the members of Destiny's Child and her sister, Solange. A man in a gas mask leaps up in the background; a rag-tag mob waves banners and hurls Molotov cocktails into cop cars, smashing every windshield in sight with baseball bats and skateboards. According to the dateline at the start, we're in Los Angeles.
Among the 17 music videos on Beyoncé's surprise smash of a visual album, “Superpower” stands out. No dancing. No lip-syncing. No smiling. The Frank Ocean-penned song seems to be about a powerful love, but the Jonas Åkerlund-helmed video has been widely compared to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
So LA Weekly decided to watch the video with some former Occupiers.
Kandist Mallett, Jessica Rey, and Eddie Betts met while camping out in front of City Hall two years ago but say the current incarnation of Occupy LA is too privileged, too conservative, too fractious, too white. (All three are under 30, and all three are not white.) They've faced tear gas, court and police brutality together, and they are not happy about Beyoncé's homage to their struggle. Not happy at all.
Jessica Rey: It's hard to trust when someone portrays the resistance. I hope it backfires against the state — maybe when it comes down to it people will be more likely to rebel because they saw it in a music video — but are they doing it for political gain? To control the masses further?
LA Weekly: How would this video help anyone control the masses?
JR: It glamorizes resistance, so it makes it far removed, [making people think] “I can't do that. I'm not Beyoncé, I don't have this bling.” So it makes it inaccessible. It plays on the complex this entire country has, like other people have to step in; you can't do it [yourself, but] you can watch it on TV and music videos and get down to it. And also [“Superpower” implies] this is what resistance looks like: people dressed up in bling and looking all pretty and that's not what the front lines are like.
Eddie Betts: “Superpower” romanticizes resistance culture and appropriates resistance culture. I see [the same thing] every day. Either it's celebrities or some hipster that is wearing a black power hat because they think it's cool. And that's a problem when you have no idea what the struggle is like. [It's] this phony kind of half-ass, half-hearted support, making it cool, The resistance is becoming so cool and so far removed from people participating in it.
JR: Like [Axe's] Anarchy body spray.
< They discuss Kanyé West's "No Church in the Wild" video, which also seems to make reference to Occupy. >
Kandist Mallett: There's that disconnection [between the] actual reality of what it's like to have the cops right there and almost wanting to sensationalize it and be a part of it. They're posing in front of riot cop lines and not realizing that those rubber bullets are real.
EB: Beyoncé and Kanye are never going to be in the front lines. They're never really going to give up the first world comforts that tend to create this kind of oppression and contrast to the third world. It's just like blackface. [With blackface] they're just like, I'm dressing up as this black celebrity because I really admire them when in actuality being black or being a person of color in America is a completely different experience that you can't remove. It's not like a costume that you can just put on. You're born that way and you have to deal with the experiences of systemic oppression caused by white supremacy and racism and police repression. Every 24 hours a black person is shot and killed in this country by a cop.
JR: Notice that they don't show the police beating them back or anything. They just walk up to the front lines and then stop.
KM: They'd get shot!
JR: We could show you videos of stuff that doesn't look like that. It's not like that.
EB: No one's talking about her assimilation into whiteness, to be accepted as a very very light skinned person
KM: She's really light in this video. You can tell they lightened her.
JR: I can understand her song about being pretty (“Pretty Hurts”) and how growing up in that industry and that culture is oppressive [even though] she's still working hard to be pretty…. But [“Superpower”] isn't her struggle.
KM: Yeah, she puts her mask on and then takes her mask off. You wouldn't do that.
JR: You would never do that! … What does the flag say?
< we rewind a few seconds to see the flag again >
JR: Wow. It says “Laugh”? Oh my gosh…
KM: Yeah so this is supposed to be a video that's like, you know, don't be too serious when you go on the riot lines. Laugh!
JR: And her look is very interesting. The first time I saw this, that's what got me. That look does remind me of this feeling you get on the street, and so it was really weird to see. I feel like they studied us for our look. Shady! They're commercializing everything. Commercializing resistance.
LAW: How do you feel about the violence happening in the background?
JR: I don't think property destruction is violence.
LAW: How do you feel about the property destruction happening in the background?
KM: Be about it.
EB: Yeah, be about it, Beyoncé.
LAW: What does that mean?
JR: It's still symbolic. They paid for that thing to break it, you know?
KM: The scene [in “Superpower”] of them messing with the cop car, that was like, you know the cops are your friends, Beyoncé! You go to the White House. Don't pretend to be, like, part of it. And there's money! She has money on her shorts! (Her jean shorts at the end of the video have a cash print)
JR: She's walking around in money. No, literally.
KM: And that's the thing with Beyoncé, and Kanye and all them. As much as they want to sympathize with the movement, they're still capitalists and part of the system.
LAW: So does this upset you?
JR: Yeah. Whenever any song comes out that appropriates the resistance I get really upset. Especially when it's on the mainstream radio.
< They discuss Lupe Fiasco and BOB videos that have made similar appropriations. >
EB: Maybe… maybe there's a yearning to want to be [part of the resistance] but they're restricted by their life of capital, like…
< they all burst out laughing at this idea >
LAW: If they came to a protest, would they be welcomed?
JR: Well if they did go, everyone would want to hear what they had to say and they would get to speak for the movement,
KM: Which would not be good
EB: [But] this didn't remind me of Occupy in the slightest. It reminded me of the Trayvon Martin uprising. That was something that created a very widespread discourse in the country and people took the freeways in a lot of different cities.
JR: But they called it rioting. The news didn't publish that people marched 11 miles to Hollywood and Highland.
KM: I don't feel like she's actually making a reference to Trayvon, though.
EB: She tried to make it safely political. If she had imagery of Trayvon, it would have been too much of a connection that was real, but [instead] it's just like a fantasy
KM: That would have been a little too much. Too much blackness.
LAW: Why do you think the video makes explicit reference to Los Angeles?
EB: There's a lot of dissent against the police in this particular city — there's the '92 riots, there's the Watts riots — so it would make sense that [she shows] smashing cop cars because you're trying to appeal to black people. Well maybe not “appeal” but sell your records to black people by smashing up windows and this dissent against the police but also appealing and trying to sell things to white people by [having] lighter skin [and] blonde hair. She looks like Shakira, She is Shakira.
KM: I read a lot of things on Tumblr that were like, this is the black woman's soundtrack for 2014 but, like, there's no Beyoncé just natural. There's still very glamorized whiteness Beyoncé. There's almost an appropriation of blackness in her videos that doesn't really feel authentic. She was always privileged and she even talks about that in her songs.
< We discuss the line in "Haunted" when Beyoncé sings "All these people on the planet / working 9 to 5 just to stay alive / nine to five just to stay alive / nine to five just to stay alive / how come?" >
KM: But who's only working 9 to 5? Who's lucky enough?
JR: It's very disconnected. Celebrity culture [and] the creative class want to sit back and tap into resistance culture when it suits them but sit a comfortable distance away from it.
EB: Mmhmm. Beyoncé's feminism is extremely problematic. Yeah, [the album has] created feminist discourse, but it also is marketing feminism. It's selling it, so that feels really appropriative and gross.
< Jessica says the Beyoncé album is playing in her car right now. >
EB: As a performer? Dope. Artist? Dope. But like, appropriating the resistance in a very non-politicized manner? Noooooo.
This interview has been condensed and cut for space.
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