Beyonce’s rendition of “Precious Lord” fell rather flat at the 2015 Grammys.
That’s a commentary that didn’t make it into many news stories the day after. Most stories used descriptors as “resplendent” and “emotional” to detail what the artist did in her rendering of the classic gospel piece. Social media, particularly the eponymous Black Twitter, didn’t necessarily agree. Black news sources almost universally were in agreement that she didn’t deliver. There were comments within black social media circles that Beyonce lacked the soul-stirring delivery that many of her iconic predecessors of singing this song usually possess. As Beyonce stood in the center of the stage, struggling with one or two notes, wearing all white as did an all-male chorus behind her, sans wind machine, it felt somewhat out of place. Something about it was performed wrongly.
Perhaps that is where some of the negative criticism has its genesis. Sacred music within black culture of this country has had a storied past maneuvering the road blocks and hazards of a country ill-equipped to understand and tolerate blackness. Thomas Dorsey, the author of the song “Precious Lord,” and known as the father of Gospel music as we know it today, gained the attention of the dominant culture by bringing the congregational songs of the Black Church into mainstream America. By it being mainstream, gospel music as a genre became commercialized by the 1960s, it was now something that was discovered by white Americans, something to be fetishized. By the late 1960s there was a proliferation of all female gospel groups (The Caravans), and the concept of the mass gospel choir was beginning to be seen as an iconic fixture within the black Christian religious setting. The gospel greats such as Shirley Caesar, Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, Cassietta George, the Hawkins singers, Willie Mae Ford, the O’Neal Twins, The Barrett Sisters and even James Cleveland, gained popularity and notoriety beginning in this period. For many of us, we have romanticized the happening of this; we see it as a moment that black culture emerged from the shadows and became a part of the fulfillment of the ideology behind King’s “I Have a Dream.” However, it was also a moment in which black sacred music became something of a performance, something with the ability to entertain.
Part of the controversy surrounding Beyonce and her rendition is that it happened within the context of the recent movie “Selma” which in itself opened in the midst of turmoil and hasn’t had it’s free and clear opportunity to stand on its own two feet; this is yet one more paragraph to be added to narrative of that movie. Fellow R&B singer Ledisi joined the ranks of black women who have belted out this gospel classic by adding her vocals to the soundtrack of “Selma.” As the story goes, upon hearing that John Legend and Common would be performing “Glory” (also from the movie’s soundtrack) at the Grammys, that Beyonce asked could she open for the duo with her singing “Precious Lord.” As John Legend was quoted as saying, who tells Beyonce no. No one does. It seems as though everyone was going to wait to let Beyonce prove herself worthy of being bold enough to make a
power move as that, and the jury returned a verdict that she wasn’t worthy. Many noted that it came off as self-serving and in fact shine-stealing from Ledisi. Frankly, I couldn’t agree more.
On the surface it presents itself as a moment where Hollywood favored a lighter-skined and straighter haired Beyonce over that of the darker skinned and dredlocked Ledisi. In the recent weeks with overwhelmingly white actors and movies getting nominated and winning at the Golden Globes, and the entire list of nominations in major categories for the Academy Awards being white as well, many people are easily connecting the racial dots. In a country that is still in a very post- moment surrounding the death of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent de facto acquittals of their killers without a jury trial, I don’t think it’s hard to make that initial jump with the contrast between Ledisi and Beyonce.
Penultimately, I think there’s a bit of schadenfreude from much of the commentary because for once, I think many people have found what they believe to be a legitimate reason to point out something that Beyonce simply wasn’t stellar or considered the best pick. Many people of color reminisced online about Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl two years ago as Katy Perry came out on an illuminati-esque tiger as something that was par excellence. Beyonce’s trajectory has seen few if any missteps from the power marriage to Jay-Z, to being able to drop a midnight album with no publicity, to finding herself at the center of black feminist discussion and perhaps most importantly actually able to sell albums. Notwithstanding the famous elevator incident, there hasn’t been much that Beyonce hasn’t been able to do, and do well. This was just an opportunity that many saw as a way to knock her off her pedestal. The racial conversations plus Ledisi were just enough to give the criticism enough power to not be dismissed by the Bey-hive nor the Bey-gency.
What I think is at the bottom of this quagmire, fueling this conversation like swamp gasses bubbling to the surface through a stagnant muck is that black sacred music is nothing more than yet another musical genre. It’s almost a novelty to many. While for many black folk, be they the ones who faithfully go to church, or a part of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, classic gospel music still has a sacred air to it and Beyonce profaned it. If Black Twitter was any indication, it was clear that the Wikipedia page for the musical artist Beck saw a surge last night, probably mainly from black viewers showing more and more how much of a gap there is between black culture and the larger dominant culture. The distance between the values and cultural sentiments that support a jingoistic American exceptionalism and Black culture very creates an almost “second” America at times where the former sees the later as an afterthought. I would even go so far as to note that this happened before when Taylor Swift was interrupted by Kanye: black folk overwhelmingly didn’t know who she was. It was one of those weird moments when there was actually something about white culture that we didn’t know about! One of the tasks of those who live in a “second” America is being able to manage the double duty of operating within your own cultural context as well as that of dominant culture. It’s almost expected for white people to not know about Erykah Badu, India Arie, Maxwell to J. Cole, but black folks are seen as out of touch when the likes of Sam Smith or Beck, or back in 2009, Taylor Swift come into the Grammys–seemingly unknown to a wide part of the black population–and walk away with the top prizes. While the chasm is deep around pop music, the gulf is even wider with a niche musical field such as gospel. As Ledisi said, both her and Beyonce joined the ranks of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin by singing that particular song in such a national and public display, and frankly, Beyonce just didn’t do it.
Part of it, let’s be honest, is the fact that last year Beyonce wrote a song where the sexual innuendoes were about bukkake and male oral sex. She actually wins a Grammy for this exact song and then gets up and sings “Precious Lord.” While I personally don’t have a problem with her occupying that space of both sexual liberation [Drunk in Love] and holiness [Precious Lord], I can see how that’s not an easy task for many casual viewers. Given the racial context and the black cultural context of this particular song, the history of this particular song through the years, the fact that this song’s most iconic performer was Mahalia Jackson, who chose not to sing R&B makes this all the more interesting. Shortly following Mahalia Jackson’s death, R&B singer Aretha Frankling, an icon in her own rights, cut a gospel album entitled “Precious Lord” clearly being that bridge between the sacred and the secular.
One takeaway for me is that sociologically more people need to be aware of the ways in which black faces inhabit white spaces and the ways in which our black culture, our blackness, is misappropriated into those white spaces. While Kanye West is getting major flak in the press for his comments about Beck, the thing is that black folk in the country actually get what he’s talking about! Certainly it comes off as the antics of a disturbed musician who’s a destructive narcissist at times, but Kanye is also that one black male voice in a sea of whiteness that for whatever reason, attempts to “disturb them at ease in” Hollywood. He’s like a manic prophet for the land of Hollywood. He’s considered to be so off base and off script that no one pays him attention anymore–when you kill the messenger you don’t have to deal with the message. I don’t think it’s that black folk have anything against Beck, but it certainly shows the difference in cultural sensibilities, and it is at that intersection of difference where many of the cultural clashes arise. In a Hollywood world where Kevin Costner has two back to back movies coming out where the “white savior” motif is being trounced out (“Black and White” and “McFarland USA”), it makes the sentiments behind Kanye’s comments all the more damning.
Here’s what made Beyonce a bad choice in my opinion:
Beyonce is not a soul singer. She has never marketed, nor positioned herself to be a singer or a performer that catered to the souls of black folk. Or any folk for that matter. She is the black version of Katy Perry or Madonna or any other white female artist of the last 20 years. That’s not a bad thing, but gospel music certainly isn’t her forte. The whole country knew this simple factafter “The Fighting Temptations” movie was released. This is not to knock Beyonce’s talent, but she was certainly out of her depth singing this one. Be it the Grammys or the Academy Awards, the epitome of whiteness in this country, if a black person is asked to sing a gospel song (and I’m sure many of you readers already have a memory of Aretha Franklin or Patti LaBelle singing), there is an expectation and anticipation of the singer “taking it to church” in their singing. It is that metaphysical transcendence where while everyone knows the singer isn’t in a ministry moment nor is there an evangelism component to the rendering, it no longer becomes a mere performance for the singer nor for many black people who have that black religious cultural connection. Even with the explanation video of why she chose to do this, I don’t think Beyonce never made that transition, and many people were left asking that euphemistic question “where was the oil?”
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL