Maya Angelou: legendary feminist author, poet and spokeswoman against racism. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter: the most influential singer-songwriter of the modern day and advocate of black and women’s rights. It is without doubt that these two women are politically and artistically iconic, and this makes Beyoncé’s music the perfect complement to Angelou’s writing.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s most famous work – an autobiography telling of her youth growing up in a segregated small-town society in the 1930s American South. Just like many of Beyoncé’s songs, the book is intensely personal; there are harrowing descriptions of a young Maya being raped, constantly persecuted by white society and even her black peers, and suffering from a crippling inferiority complex. One of the most affecting scenes in the whole book is the trial against Maya’s rapist, where the white lawyer mocks the eight-year-old: ‘ “You mean to say this man raped you and you don’t know what he was wearing?” ’ At times like this, the book is emotionally fraught and hard to read.
The general theme of I Know Why the Cages Bird Sings’ first half is the confusion of a young and vulnerable child, victimised by society at every turn, before she can grow into a self-possessed woman of her own. It is a harsh and truthful book which doesn’t hesitate to be honest – similar to Beyoncé’s assured, unashamed albums. In the 2013 documentary Life Is But a Dream, Beyoncé proclaimed: ‘I’m not going to try to be cool. Forget being cool, I’m going to be honest. I’m going to be sad, I’m going to be passionate, I’m going to be vulnerable.’ Perhaps this is why both women have earned global respect – they are unafraid to present themselves as the people they truly are.
The greatest theme tying together Angelou and Beyoncé as artists is their attitude to female empowerment. Angelou’s poetry is a gold mine for sassy, powerful and unapologetic feminism, the stuff made for being painted on picket signs and shouted aloud. The legendary Phenomenal Woman places power in ‘the reach of my arms / The span of my hips / The stride of my step / The curl of my lips’ – most importantly, within the woman herself. At the Global Citizen Festival 2015, part of Beyoncé’s set featured Ebony Williams dancing to a reading of the poem, producing a proud statement of what it means to be female. Followed by Beyoncé’s powerhouse vocals, it’s easy to see why both voices meld together so well, putting across the same message in different ways.
Many of Beyoncé’s songs have been hailed as feminist tracks, empowering women both individually and as a whole. ‘I need no permission, did I mention?’, from Single Ladies, promotes the idea of not being answerable to a man, of embracing sexuality and disregarding cultural conventions, of ‘repping for the girls who taking over the world / Help me raise a glass for the college grads’ (Run The World). With this, Beyoncé doesn’t just make a sweeping statement, but reminds us of real-world events which allow women to claim their own autonomy. That’s not to say that the song wholly rejects conventional images of women, though – ‘we’re smart enough to make these millions’, but still ‘strong enough to bear the children’. It’s telling that stanzas from Angelou’s incredible Still I Rise, like ‘Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise that I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs?’, would not sound out of place on a Beyoncé album.
The revered 2016 album Lemonade has also inspired a lot of feminist debate and helped to bring it to the forefront of the media, in the tradition of Maya Angelou’s works. It featured a sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of We Should All Be Feminists) denouncing the fact that ‘we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller’, and leading onto Beyoncé’s own observations about the treatment of women, which she subverts throughout the song Flawless.
The video sees Beyoncé blend the masculine with the feminine, coupling an aggressive spread-legs posture, checked shirt and harsh environment with fishnets, diamonds and female backing dancers. They hold their own against masculine-dominated sexism, but do so via their own female empowerment rather than by changing themselves. As Angelou wrote, “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
If Lemonade isn’t a kick-ass album, I don’t know what is. It has caused controversy thanks to Beyoncé’s bold political statements, particularly those about modern racism in America (these include part of Formation’s subversive video being filmed in a slave plantation house, with black owners instead of white, indicating a reclaim of political power, and a young boy streetdancing in front of armed policemen, eventually causing them to put their hands up in surrender). The album even sparked a university course to be taught at the University of Texas, entitled ‘Black Women, Beyoncé and Popular Culture’. She has arguably become an unofficial figurehead for black women’s rights and empowerment, much as Maya Angelou was dubbed “the black woman’s poet laureate” by the Black Issues Book Review. The most divisive section of the Formation video is Beyoncé singing from atop a battered police car, which gradually sinks into the floodwater of Hurricane Katrina, leaving the singer to drown. Potentially, it’s symbolic of the infamous relationship between US police and black communities – but this time showing that they’re interdependent; if one drowns, so does the other. It has, of course, caused a media storm, with some suggesting that it promotes negative sentiment towards the police (the same was said of Kendrick Lamar, when he performed Alright from the top of a vandalised police car). And the politics doesn’t end there – Beyoncé’s 2016 Superbowl performance featured dancers dressed as Black Panthers, the notoriously violent civil rights protesters, and divisive figure Malcolm X’s ‘Who Taught You To Hate Yourself?’ speech is featured on Don’t Hurt Yourself. Maybe the main message from all of this is that Beyoncé will continue to create music she fully believes in, be it controversial or not.
Of course, Angelou was no stranger to controversy either. She worked for Martin Luther King Jr’s SCLC, and her autobiographies often brought startling, uncomfortable truths to public attention. Phrases such as “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat” made the truth of segregated society quite apparent, and wasn’t always well-received (especially by white media). She also addressed the social distaste for black female culture, ‘the fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence’, a distaste still prevalent today, arguing that the systematic racism which black girls experience could hardly produce any other result. In Freedom, Beyoncé openly sings ‘Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move / Freedom, cut me loose!’; Angelou goes for a more subtle approach, as seen in the poem Harlem Hopscotch. ‘In the air, now both feet down. Since you black, don’t stick around. Food is gone, the rent is due, curse and cry and then jump two’. She highlights the everyday issues faced by black families, which often aren’t seen by those who don’t suffer in the same way.
Maya Angelou is revered across the globe for her outstanding literary works. Beyoncé became the highest-paid black musician in history in 2014. They are advocates for female empowerment and an end to discrimination, but above all, both women have produced unapologetic art worth taking note of – a legacy making Beyoncé’s music and Angelou’s literature the perfect companions for one other.
Words by Annabelle Fuller