From Billie to Beyoncé, class explores black feminism via music

Kevin Allred (left) and his class watch a Beyoncé video. In "Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé," he uses the pop star to discuss identity politics and black feminism. Parents sometimes call or e-mail to complain but often feel better when Allred explains.
Kevin Allred (left) and his class watch a Beyoncé video. In "Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé," he uses the pop star to discuss identity politics and black feminism. Parents sometimes call or e-mail to complain but often feel better when Allred explains. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 30, 2014

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - By the time Kevin Allred walked in, his students had just finished discussing the day's reading on black feminism and Billie Holiday, had tied the ideas to some of Beyoncé's work, and had begun analyzing the identity politics in her songs and videos.

For what looks at first glance like just a fun undergraduate class at Rutgers University on the reigning queen of pop, his students sure were going above and Beyoncé.

As Kanye West rapped in the background, Allred began discussing his latest album, Yeezus, comparing it with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ("So good").

Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé had begun.

The five-week, standard three-credit undergraduate class is a starting point, Allred said, for introducing students to identity politics and black feminism, using an entry point they are already familiar with: Queen Bey.

Allred, a graduate student and adjunct lecturer in the women's and gender studies department, showed a video of Holiday singing "Strange Fruit."

"She's not just singing, right? You can see her swallow some of the vocals and grimace at different points," said Allred, 33. "This song is specifically political, because it's about lynching. But what else about Billie Holiday is important?"

Faith Henderson, 22, responded that the artist's lyrics can become loaded with additional, even opposing, meanings.

"It gives it a whole new meaning," she said of Holiday's singing techniques and performances. Holiday's love songs, she said, do not always come off as such: "She sounds like she doesn't want the man to come back, even though the lyrics say she wants him to come back."

It was just what Allred was looking for, and he transitioned to Beyoncé's video "Mine," which included a shot of her naked back, the word "MINE" across it, arms wrapped around herself.

"She's property, not herself," Henderson said.

"Possession of herself," said Elijah Agustin, 18. "But also, most love songs are about a girl who's the guy's girl - but in this video, all the guys were 'yours.' "

For years, Allred taught classes where he would use Beyoncé and other pop culture figures to help introduce concepts.

"It was always a hit because they could relate to it, they knew the music, they knew who she was," he said. "I just thought about how opening up to all of her music and career, how could she be seen as a figure around all these questions: How do we understand gender and sexuality and race and class through her music?"

But Beyoncé is just the starting point for the class, not its whole focus, he said.

"It's really a class about black feminism and the politics of race and gender and sexuality in the U.S. today, just using her music to get at those themes," he said.

Class readings are all written by black female authors and provide an overview of black feminist history in the United States. Wednesday's class was themed "Limits of Heterosexuality and Gender." The readings were paired with Beyoncé songs: "If I Were a Boy," "Broken-Hearted Girl," "Irreplaceable," "XO," "Love on Top."

"I don't assign articles about Beyoncé, it's really stuff about black feminism and different struggles throughout history," Allred said, "and then, how can we see these either being replayed through Beyoncé's music or contemporary society? Or does she challenge some of these? Does she extend some of these?"

Parents who sometimes call or e-mail Allred to complain about the class - "What are my tax dollars going to pay for at this school?" is a popular one - are usually more understanding once he explains that the class is a serious academic endeavor.

Grades for the summer class, the second time Allred has taught the class, are based on attendance and participation, preparedness, and engagement.

To Allred, Beyoncé's songs, videos, and performances can be "read" as texts, especially because of the high level of control she exerts over all aspects of her career. His favorite song and video to analyze right now: "Partition," from Beyoncé's latest, self-titled "visual album."

Wednesday, the 18 students analyzed Beyoncé's "Mine" video. They disagreed on the implications of the video showing people with the words "YOURS" and "MINE" printed on shirts pulled over their faces.

"The idea of possession, when we talk about relationships, we usually talk about it with an undercurrent of possession on one side or another," Allred said to the class, discussing historic examples of possessive indicators, such as wedding rings or changing last names.

Not your typical response to a music video. Mission accomplished.

"I'm always surprised how interested the students seem to be once they get past the initial, surface, 'Oh, it's Beyoncé, we're talking about Beyoncé,' kind of thing," Allred said. "They really dig into their own lives, their own situations, the things they see going on in the world today."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

www.inquirer.com/campusinq

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