Rutgers Ph.D. student who teaches course on celebrity says artist provides perspective on race, gender, sexuality
BY AMBER E. HOPKINS-JENKINS
Beyoncé is known as a performer, fashion designer, Jay-Z’s missus, and arguably the most famous new mom in the world. But should she also be considered a social change agent?
Kevin Allred, a doctoral student and lecturer in Rutgers’ Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, where he teaches “Politicizing Beyoncé,” thinks so – though, he says, the artist may not be “political” in the traditional sense of the word.
“This isn’t a course about Beyoncé’s political engagement or how many times she performed during President Obama’s inauguration weekend,” he says. Rather, the performer’s music and career are used as lenses to explore American race, gender, and sexual politics. Allred pairs Beyoncé’s music videos and lyrics with readings from the Black feminist canon, including the writings of bell hooks, Alice Walker, and even abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
“Politicizing Beyoncé” emerged from Allred’s four semesters teaching Women’s Studies 101 at Rutgers, during which he and his students, both male and female, often discussed the thin line Beyoncé walks as a sex kitten-cum-girl power role model.
“She certainly pushes boundaries,” Allred says. “While other artists are simply releasing music, she’s creating a grand narrative around her life, her career, and her persona.”
Course topics include the extent of Beyoncé’s control over her own aesthetic, whether her often half-naked body is empowered or stereotypical, and her more racy performances as her alter ego, “Sasha Fierce.” In-class discussions often lead to other vocalists, including Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Lady Gaga, and contemporary musicians who embrace the soul singing tradition like Adele and the late Amy Winehouse.
More academics are beginning to explore race, gender, and sexual politics through popular culture and bring such discourse into their classrooms. Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson offers a similar course, “The Sociology of Hip-Hop: The Theodicy of Jay-Z,” on Beyoncé’s rapper husband.
Allred welcomes conversation about the course, particularly from those who question the relevance of intellectual study of pop stars. “It’s important to shift students away from simply being consumers of media toward thinking more critically about what they’re engaging on a regular basis,” he says. “When students don’t respond to theory or dense readings, it’s often easier to see things play out in the world around them.”
A folk singer/songwriter and owner of an independent record label, Gutter Folk Records, Allred was initially drawn to Beyoncé’s work after listening to her second solo album, B’Day. He notes a raw quality in the technical production of the album, over which Beyoncé is said to have had total creative control.
“It wasn’t as polished as her first and subsequent albums,” Allred says of B’Day. “You can even hear her breathing on the tracks, which is normally edited out. I wondered, ‘Why would you record a vocal to stand out in that way?’”
Allred’s desire to merge his passion for music traditions with his interest in the politics of race, gender, and sexuality in the United States emerged during his undergraduate and graduate studies. He holds two degrees in American Studies – a bachelor’s from Utah State University and a master’s from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
As a doctoral candidate at Rutgers, he is currently writing his dissertation on the ways black female performers manipulate their vocal qualities, including tone, timbre, and pitch.
Growing up a white gay male in a relatively homogenous community in Utah, Allred spent a lot of time in the library. There, he discovered black feminist texts, including the works of Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison.
“Their work resonated with me in ways that other content hadn’t,” Allred says of the black feminist scholars. “I found myself identifying with their writing because racism, sexism, homophobia, and privilege are larger systems under which we all operate.”
Allred only assigns his students writings by black women for “Politicizing Beyoncé” as black feminism is an academic discipline replete with identity politics.
“Of course, there are people who’ll say, ‘You’re not black. You’re not a woman,’” he says of his research and teaching interest. “It’s something I’m always questioning and staying aware of so as not to overstep any bounds or make any claims for a group that I don’t belong to. It’s a fine line and I want to remain respectful of that.”