How Beyonce and Jay Z said 'skrr skrr' to the notion that black art has no value

In the video for 'APES**T', The Carters make it their business to decolonise the historically white space

Danielle Dash
Monday 18 June 2018 14:37 BST

The second night of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On The Run II concert in London was wrapping up when the couple dropped the visual to "APES**T". Available exclusively on Tidal, the first single from their joint album EVERYTHING IS LOVE had the stadium rapt as iconic image after iconic image graced the screen, announcing The Carters had once again ascended to even bigger heights.

Directed by Ricky Saiz - with whom Beyoncé collaborated on her Yoncé video as part of her 2013 self-titled visual album offering - "APES**T" opens with a young shirtless man crouching; locs cascading around his face, ivory wings framing his back. The camera then sweeps deftly across the high vaulted ceilings of the Galerie d’Apollon, focusing on the white bodies captured in its hallowed mural: one of the only times for six minutes whiteness takes centre stage unaccompanied by blackness. As the video continues, it becomes patently clear the Carters have had the run of the Louvre, the world’s largest and most famous art museum; making it their business to decolonise the historically white space.

The Carters welcome black people into the Louvre and tell them that they are valuable (YouTube/Beyonce)

Dancers, representing the various hues and shades black women exist in, hold hands with Beyoncé before Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon, their bodies moving languidly with ease and precision. Many will miss the various political messages embedded within the video. The Carters’ unambiguous display of their influence and prestige will gall those determined to disassociate blackness, power and art. While their boastfulness - and make no mistake, "APES**T" purposefully antagonises those who vocally wish the Carters would exercise humility - might be read as a moment designed solely to brandish their wealth, I read this video and their album as a whole as an act of inclusion.

The image used as the EVERYTHING IS LOVE cover art, taken from one of the defining moments of the "APES**T" video, is of a black woman combing a black man’s hair with an afro pick in front of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The afro pick has a clenched fist carved into the handle and is a tool black people, regardless of their geography within the diaspora, will be familiar with.

The Carters centre the universal yet intimate black experience of having your hair combed in front of the most valuable painting in the world; welcoming black people into the Louvre and telling them they are valuable... more valuable than Mona Lisa, in fact. It’s provocative. It’s cheeky. For me, the only thing that would make this an even more powerful image would be if it were a woman sat having her afro coiffed by another woman, but again, The Carters didn’t come here to make all my wet dreams true.

Their video is about redressing an oppressive, exclusive power structure. The couple occupy a white space with images of black love, black power, black strength, black unity - understanding that it was the institutional exclusion of these images that allowed a pervasive narrative to dominate the collective consciousness. That narrative being that blackness does not belong in galleries, that black art does not hold value. The Carters said "skrr skrr" to that entire notion.

Beyonce with dancers at the Louvre Museum in Paris (YouTube/Beyonce)

Avoiding the visual, visceral violence and trauma of the black experience, Beyoncé and Jay-Z somehow still manage to acknowledge the resistance movement. “I said no to the Super Bowl. You need me, I don’t need you," Jay-Z raps, as a group of kneeling black men come sharply into focus. The reference to the nonviolent National Anthem protests against police brutality in the US comes days after Donald Trump stated that he didn’t believe the cause for the protests was a “real issue.” There is a clarity of purpose with the video and their lyrics that leave no room for uncertainty.

The nine-part album continues their directness as Beyoncé sheds all desire to appease those who prefer pre-Formation Beyoncé, when it was easy for white people to engage with her music while ignoring her blackness. In EVERYTHING IS LOVE, Beyoncé ensures her music and her blackness are synonymous, moving between rap and song effortlessly.

The album is not flawless, and because men are more often than not the weak link: it is in Jay-Z’s lyrics where the album loses some structural integrity. On "713" Jay-Z raps: “America is a motherf**ka to us, lock us up, shoot us. Shoot our self-esteem down, we don’t deserve true love. Black queen you rescued us…” The idea that black men alone are victims of an overzealous police state and black women are capable of withstanding all manner of disrespect - while also having backs broad enough to save and/or forgive everyone else - while designed as a compliment is actually dehumanising and erases the struggles.

Beyonce and Jay Z in the video for 'APES**T" (YouTube/Beyonce)

Yet, in a month of high profile releases: despite some lyrical shortcomings EVERYTHING IS LOVE stands head and shoulders above Kanye West’s ye and Kids See Ghosts albums, as well as Nas’s Kanye West-produced Nasir… simply because The Carters haven’t made engaging with fascist legitimisers a by-product of consuming their art.

We must not be so obtuse as to ignore the kindness Kim Kardashian-West showed Alice Johnson in securing her pardon while serving a life sentence for a nonviolent crime. Equally, we must recognise Mrs Kardashian-West had an opportunity to collaborate with an expert on criminal justice and use her platform to make a lasting change. Alas, she is content to prune the leaves when the very roots of the prison industrial complex are rotten - undeterred by the fact she has been used as a pawn to legitimise Donald Trump.

Ultimately, listening to EVERYTHING IS LOVE, fans don’t have to engage in thoughts about our new post truth society. Instead listeners are encouraged to question their understanding of wealth, capitalism... but most importantly for The Carters: forgiveness. The third part of their trilogy, beginning with the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade and followed by Jay-Z’s 4:44, tells fans at the end of the album’s first track "SUMMER": “Love is going to express itself as a form of forgiveness and compassion for each other.”

And while I’m here for the whole thing; excited for this family’s generational wealth; getting my life from Beyoncé’s growls and her impeccably delivered bars... I can’t help but think Beyoncé doesn’t need Jay-Z. The forgiveness of which they speak isn’t for Beyoncé to earn but for her, and by extension her fans, to offer Jay-Z. While he doesn’t need the NFL, he certainly needs Beyoncé.

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