Last weekend, the Carters released the music video for “Apeshit,” a song from their new surprise album, Everything is Love. Like most hip-hop, the song is an ode to themselves: Both Bey and Jay name-drop, talk shit, and revel in their riches and romance, as one does in a trap song. Whole lyrics are devoted to brands (“Phillippe Patek” / “Alexander Wang ( woo!)”), and the pair describe their affluence as regal, presidential, and, at times, animalistic.
However, discussion around the video’s meaning captures just how much commentary surrounding Beyoncé’s work has changed. Now that she’s framed more often as an activist producing political work, it’s dissected as such: Rolling Stone declared that the “Apeshit” video “interject[s] blackness into a space that has never placed much value on it, claiming one of the centerpieces of European culture with gleeful defiance”; Vice’s Garage questions whether the video could be considered “a glam, historical correction of the Western assumption that houses of European culture contain the highest achievements of man—and womynkind.” Art historians across Twitter are dissecting the video through threads pointing out the works centered in each shot and the meaning Beyoncé may have intended by them; one proclaimed that placing black dancers throughout the historically-white institution is “radical.” And it is a clever, challenging visual metaphor, the kind that Beyoncé excels in. She, however, hasn’t changed. Her lyrics haven’t changed. Her political stance hasn’t changed. She remains as far left now as the day in 2014 she proclaimed herself a feminist before a world stage. And save for the clumsy Black Panther homage, she’s never publicly expressed any critiques of power and wealth—let alone questioned the means through which she’s amassed and maintained her own. Nevertheless, the word “radical” floats through discussion of her work so often that it begs the question: What do we want from Beyoncé?
The Carters have been bragging about their lucrative relationship since its inception. 2006’s “Upgrade U,” for example, has Beyoncé bragging about the wealth and status she can bring to Jay-Z, and Jay-Z responding with what he can bring Beyoncé. The video is drowned in gold, featuring shots in which she drapes herself across a floor of indiscriminate gold or poses in the back of a limo. Swagger has always been the soundtrack to their relationship—save for that one time Beyoncé dragged him for cheating—and pride has always been embedded in Beyoncé’s brand.
Over time, Beyoncé has become more openly political, starting with the surprise release of her self-titled album in 2013. She categorized the girl power anthems she’d been singing for years under a re-emerging philosophy, mixing Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi’s “We Should All Be Feminists” speech into “Flawless,” and closed out her performance at the VMAs 2014 by standing proudly in front of large white letters spelling out the word “FEMINIST.” It was a watershed moment for black girls everywhere—including myself, at 18 years old, just then discovering the radical feminist author Audre Lorde.
Beyoncé doubled down on her political performance in 2016, to great success. Between the death of Trayvon Martin and rise of Donald Trump, mainstream black artists felt inspired—or, sometimes, obligated—to say something. Kendrick Lamar used his Grammy performance to bring attention to mass incarceration, while Kanye positioned himself as a controversial focal point, alongside a nude Donald Trump, with his “Famous” video. Beyoncé was no exception. Early in the year, she released the song and accompanying video, “Formation,” featuring visual references to Hurricane Katrina, Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King, Jr., southern gothica, the list goes on. “Formation” was an effective amalgam of various black cultural signifiers coalescing into the romantic validation black women needed at the time. It was, truly, “an act of black feminist world-making,” as Omise’eke Tinsley and Caitlin O’Neill wrote for Time; it was Beyoncé’s politics at their peak, because it lent her brand—pride, power, beauty—to a social movement in which it fit. “Formation” was black feminism personified.
And then she performed the song dressed as a Black Panther at Super Bowl 50. And things got complicated.
While performing the song before a predominantly white audience, she and her backup dancers paid homage to the Black Panther Party by wearing black leather, berets, and afros. The reason for this tribute is pretty obvious: Black Panther Party imagery has become shorthand for black power and pride. (Plus, there’s the added bonus that it’s the kind of provocative gesture Beyoncé traffics in, seeing as so many white critics have likened the Party to a “hate group”.) This performance, however, pushed Beyoncé a bit too far out of her wheelhouse because she, an unapologetic capitalist, was saluting a socialist organization—one more preoccupied with the destruction of capitalism because it begot racism. “Working class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class,” Party co-founder Bobby Seale once said. “Let me emphasize again—we believe our fight is a class struggle, not a race struggle.”
The tribute was a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt to venerate an organization whose philosophies were totally at odds with her own. Nevertheless, both that performance and the video that preceded it led critics and fans to seek a coherent political ideology through her subsequent work, leading many to ascribe her work as “radical”; but this only illustrates how limited the mainstream political imagination is. The Carters didn’t storm the Louvre and film “Apeshit” guerilla-style; they paid thousands of dollars to an institution that already recognized them as valued patrons. They positioned themselves respectfully beside the priceless works of European art they adore to say not only that “We are no lesser than you,” but also to say “We can afford to be here.” It’s progressive, but respectful; beautiful, but inaccessible. “Apeshit” is about as radical as Obama’s 2008 presidential run: While it’s nice to see people who look like us in these elite spaces, our lives will remain largely unchanged by the ascension of the select few who’ve mastered the game of capitalism. Beyoncé and Jay-Z do appear to want to help everyday people, but the means through which they can, while retaining the wealth they love to flex, will forever prohibit them to do so in a meaningful way—which isn’t to mention that philanthropy comes with its own ethical challenges. The Carters don’t differ very much from most billionaires with hearts of gold, despite the renewed sense of social responsibility their blackness instills in them. At the end of the day, Everything is Love is about the Carters: their love, their money, and their lives, that which they strategically offer us only a peek into. The most accurate description of the “Apeshit” video comes from Hyperallergic’s Benjamin Sutton: “Here, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are flaunting the Louvre as a kind of supreme status symbol.”
Seeking radical work in unapologetic capitalists both obscures the mission of the thinkers, artists, and activists who birthed the black radical tradition, and places the onus of “liberation” onto a duo that doesn’t want it. Beyoncé is excellent at producing work that instills black people with a sense of pride but, considering how many consumers try to seek ideology beyond romantic validation in her work, perhaps we’ve reached a point where that isn’t enough. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where standing firm in one’s identity no longer provides us with the fleeting security it did, say, five years ago. The national discourse is shifting at a rate faster than ever before, and many have begun to turn to the likes of Beyoncé for tools, or answers, or change. Beyoncé is “challeng[ing] the myths and distortions about black existence,” as Harry Belafonte once eloquently put it, but within the confines of a capitalist system that she praises in the same breath. Is that radical? And does it have to be?
Kaila Philo is a writer living in Baltimore. Follow her on Twitter.