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Spheres of Influence

The art of Beyoncé bears the influence of prominent African-American feminists and intellectuals.

BeyonceKevin Allred, a lecturer in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, has been teaching a popular course called “Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé.” It looks at how the music videos and performances of the popular singer Beyoncé Knowles bear the influence of prominent African-American feminists and intellectuals in addressing issues such as race, gender, sexuality, and class in the United States and some of the persistent stereotypical imagery of African-American women.

Sojourner Truth
Beyoncé makes reference to the abolitionist and women’s rights activist, in particular her 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” in her songs “Ego” and “If I Were a Boy,” in which Beyoncé purposely con­fuses the popular perception of a woman.

bell hooks
Beyoncé investigates themes that the famous cultural critic has addressed in her writing on black female sexuality and stereotypes of black women in American history. By presenting her hypersexualized body in performances and lyrics to songs like “Kitty Kat” and “Green Light,” Beyoncé questions what has changed, or not, in society’s perception of black women.

Sarah Baartman
Better known as the Venus Hottentot, Baartman gained fame when scientists studied the contours of her body and exhibited her as part of 19th-century European freak shows. With songs like “Bootylicious,” Beyoncé counters the negative associations that black women have been forced to endure.

Angela Davis
Beyoncé refers to the 1960s activist and her writings on black feminism and to blues artists such as singers Billie Holiday, Etta James, and Nina Simone. In her music video “Ring the Alarm,” Beyoncé portrays a woman behind bars, invoking Davis’s image as a political prisoner.

Audre Lorde
The self-proclaimed “lesbian, feminist, mother, poet warrior” and author of The Uses of Anger deploys emotion as political force, to be wielded by marginalized groups. Beyoncé echoes Lorde’s call in her own songs “Resentment” and “Why Don’t You Love Me?” in which her politics of resentment are a window into the complaints of black women in America.

Janelle Monáe
The futuristic singer’s musical performances as the android Cindi Mayweather have influenced Beyoncé’s own futuristic, queer, and even posthuman construction of her alter ego, Sasha Fierce. Both artists perform as “other people” while posing questions about the place of the black female body, offering both consent and refusal to exhibit themselves in traditional ways.

Octavia Butler
Beyoncé echoes the author’s novel Kindred in her song “Déjà Vu,” presenting the imagery of the African coast, plantation South, and Gulf Coast today, equating capture, enslavement, and disenfranchisement of black women as déjà vu: slavery and its legacy continuously replayed.