My first concert was Jay Z and Kanye West on the Watch The Throne tour when I was 14. It was the best night of my life. Kanye West was god to me, and Jay Z taught me the values of hip-hop. I knew every word, they played Niggas in Paris eight times. I was overwhelmed by the intersection of blackness, opulence, and populism. The way they made a stadium of people family for a moment was profoundly influential on my ideas of artistry. My voice was so lost I couldn’t present my science fair presentation the next day (it was bad anyway, 8th grade, really phoning it in).
Tonight I saw Jay Z and Beyoncé on the On the Run II tour. Yet again, I was immediately in awe of the grandiosity before me. It felt like fantasy, that two black people could create this world in a a stadium, create an instantaneous cult founded on rhythm and melody. To see Beyoncé live is a 360º experience. It is immersive, decisive, profound and yet her otherworldly presence itself keeps you grounded in reality. The precision and purpose Beyoncé performs with returns you to the elemental nature of the show; the performer’s presence, and their ability to move you.
Once again I found myself obsessed with the power of the artists before me. Not their starpower, not their ability to a silence a room with an entrance, but their ability to execute their craft so well and so fluidly that it captivates and mobilizes thousands of people, a range of people with incredibly different origins and principles. But the presence of Beyoncé, the immersion of the persona of Beyoncé, the cohesion of Beyoncé the symbol, the myth, and Beyoncé the artist, create a palpable bond with every member of the audience. It’s more than her talent. It’s more than the art direction, and the extravagance of the event. It’s more than the adrenaline of sold out stadium fixated on a single individual. It is the fact that Beyoncé is cognizant of all of this, acutely aware of how deeply she moves hordes of people, and performs flawlessly and determined in superhuman manner. She knows she’s Beyoncé, but to behold her is to be reminded that Beyoncé was human before she was Beyoncé.
It is the total immersion of Beyoncé’s entity and imagined existence that is integral to the show that separates her influence from Kanye. At watch The The Throne and again on the Yeezus tour, Kanye was the conductor of an orchestral multimedia performance. The art you witness and internalize is what is meant to follow you out of the venue. Beyoncé has all the artistic prowess and Genius as Kanye West, but when you leave a Beyoncé show you leave with an impossibly intimate understanding of her personhood, values, and message. Kanye’s performances emphasize Kanye the artist, the curator. Beyoncé’s emphasize the influences and key information about her art and her humanity. This approach, this wholistic, humanizing while beyond-our-bandwidth presentation of self is the difference between an artist and an icon; an entertainer and a performer.
I do not intend to compare Beyoncé and Kanye West as artists or compare their work, I don’t mean to pit them against each other at all. But it all came to me in the surreality of On the Run, the strange closure I felt going to this concert, remembering I last saw Jay Z at my first concert. There have been many in between, yet not one that so strikingly enchanted entire communities. Beyoncé (and Jay Z, he was an equally important part of the show for me and did great, but it’s just not about him right now) gave me back the feeling of being moved by someone’s sheer existence in the same space as I, transcending the abstraction of them I had formed on my own.
Things have changed, and I was fortunate enough to be very close to Beyoncé, but I am certain that if you were in the nosebleed seats I was in for Watch The Throne, you too would be moved the way a child is moved seeing their hero live. Beyoncé performed for god to hear and see, as well as everyone in between. Her movements, her actions, her chemistry with her husband created an intimate experience that defies the physical capabilities of the venue that hosted her. Through their art direction and performance, The Carters gave the Rose Bowl a look into the honest lives of the world’s most famous couple, with the caveat that it was through the lenses of Yonce and Hov’s highly principled conceptions of artistry and presentation. Key to those principles is the deep responsibility they evidently feel to represent and uplift black people, women, and especially black women. Beyoncé and Jay Z turned a 100,000 seat stadium into a Kerry James Marshall exhibition, a Steve McQueen reimagining of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the intimacy that comes with the presentation of those artforns. Bey and Jay wielded their immense star power to take an entire city on a mystifying journey through black life, black love, and their exterior and interior perils. To use that platform, their social capital to the cause of pusing high black art to the forefront of popular culture is as admirable as their singular talents in their fields.
Beyoncé already transcended the label “entertainer”, she now surely has transcended the label “performer”. She is a living spectacle, a neverending artistic and political endeavour. She has taken on the task of personifying a lineage of narratives untold and histories revised and disturbed, and creating and performing complete artistic efforts devoted to carrying on the family name, and setting the standard for excellence. She has to crouch down next to you and, amid the echoing cheers and jamming band, carry a tune you are unsure if it is possible to perform in an atmosphere like this. You must see her, in front of you, do what you have always imagined she does. And she somehow does it better. That is how you are reminded you are in the presence of a person, a daughter, a mother, a sister, a wife. Because with your own eyes you witnessed what you have created a mythology of so much larger than life, that this can’t be life.