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Beyoncé and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

By Olajide Salawu

 Wednesday, November 24, 2021.

In a studio, Jay-z sits majestically adoring his woman, Beyoncé. Theirs is a romance that is being celebrated and eulogized. They have survived a few gossips and tittle-tattles, that surround many celebrity couples. On Beyoncé’s neck sits a Tiffany’s necklace, which had been previously worn by Lady Gaga, Audrey Hepburn and a few other famous female icons of popular culture. It is now Beyoncé’s turn. The necklace’s rare public appearance attests to its prestige; but it still remains the property of Tiffany. The room is a background with different graffiti, enigmas and blurs which one can round up into the theme of royalty. On a closer look, it immediately generates the aura of Black excellence.  Both the graffiti and Jay-Z on the wall are an homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat whose works are infused with his Haitian heritage and African-American roots, in addition to Aztec histories.  Jay-Z, in his ruffled, Basquiat-like hair, stares on admirably while Beyoncé looks away in a candor and elegance that such jewelry often exudes. An ornament, that when Beyoncé put it on, is transported to an instant Internet sensation, trending on Twitter, with different mega-fashion magazines in awe of the necklace on the super-star’s neck.

Being one of the most prestigious world stones, wearing Tiffany’s necklace is also history-making. But what kind of history? What memories does such an event reenact in the grand scheme of colonial heist? Is there a moral burden for the wearer when the object of beauty is embroidered with ultra-colonial violence? What acquisition procedure does such a valuable object follow?

There is a funneling in this running history of the recent African-diasporic revivalism. As we approach the cinema, sit down and watch Black Panther once again, we see more clearly the deep-seated corporate intentions of the film. The grand ideology it represents and the irony’s edge of Wakanda and its people. The technology of knowledge that it satisfies becomes more visible when the white male rides in through his jet and arrives in the scene; the whiteness of good and blackness of evil are reinforced and embossed. It seems the Utopia it clamors for is etched on to its own future colonialism, neoliberal stakes and extractive culture. When we return from the cinema and turn on our stereo to listen to Beyoncé’s Black is King, we can eulogize the partnership which the album exudes. We can praise the lyrics and the image it centrally portrays for people of African descent across the world, but we should be wary of such a venture as it affiliates its philosophy by re-echoing the feminist theory of literary figures of our time such as Chimamanda Adichie and Warsan Shire. Its array of contributing artists buys it more validation. The costumes and themes are historically, culturally, politically and politically compelling. There is a reclamation going on.

Beyoncé is not an artist to ignore in this project; she is undoubtedly a cultural leader. Yet, the album comes with its own challenges on diasporic projection of African-American imaginaries about the African continent. The culture is promoted, the art is elevated but unable to survive the stereotypes, dips its feet into the croc-length mouth of capitalism. Much more than the performance, the stories the culture selects need more critical engagement. As we return to the Barber shop in the sequel to Coming to America, we recognize that much more has not changed about this African diasporic projection on the continent. The delight it evokes is commendable, but to what extent when we scrape the surface of the splendor?

When Tiffany & Co announced their partnership with Beyoncé as the bearer of image for Black excellence, beauty and as a connoisseur of Blackness in the 21st century, my biases solidified. I worry that the phrase Black Excellence is grafted into the phenomenon of exhibitionism and performativity it represents. The phrase raises the question of context for what it suggests.  I am tempted to agree that Black excellence is a product of the cultural logic of late capitalism to borrow the term of Frederic Jameson. In this regard when we appraise excellence then, we also need to feel the vibrations of gain for the capitalistic establishment. When such an object with a history of violence adorns the neck of the representative African race, it becomes an Atlantic burden itself. The morality of their enterprise becomes contested. Tiffany’s necklace is forged out of the black hole of apartheid history in South Africa. There is blood in it, as well as sweat of the laborers jiggering the earth of Kimberly, the biggest hand-dug hole in the world; we hear the cries and grunts of Africans in apartheid colonial South Africa, who were coerced into the service of the white administrators. It is a history of death that awaits Xala in Malay Camp in the world of Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy. It’s the misery that beleaguers postcolonial Sierra Leone and the extractive practice that followed its democracy as children were recruited into the labour camp of Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond.

It is then not morning yet for the icon of the recent renaissance to drape around her neck the object with such necrography, to use the term of Dan Hicks and celebrate Blackness with huge moral burden.  When it is time to flip through the book, we patiently uncover the anthropological knowledge that undergirds the heist that leads to such acquisition of objects. The environmental cost of a site of wound is a jarring tale; wearing its product makes it fester. It is another reminder that extractive capitalism is an unfinished event across different cultural institutions globally. Rather than Black excellence, the delight that such recent events evokes is cultural logic of late capitalism where the figures become the apparatus that switches the gaze from the tragic base of continuous extractive culture to repackage it in foil for the Afro-diasporic constituencies. This is an upending of knowledge by the cultural logic of capitalism, and its many branches.

In the spirit of the debates that surround reparation and restitution today, the burnished objects outside the museum need to be weighed for their colonial histories. When cultural figures such as Beyoncé put them on as adornment, it is a technology of evasion. It is a sanitizing procedure that produces new knowledge and slowly and violently erodes old one. There is more to behold and it is the ugly history of the glamor.

Olajide Salawu is a critically-acclaimed poet, writer and scholar. His poetry collection entitled “Preface for Leaving Homeland” is published by African Poetry Book Fund.  His other works have appeared in a variety of publications worldwide. He is the editor of the digital magazine “Olongo Africa”, and a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Beyoncé and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

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