Some performances take over. Some performers cover reality in a blanket of mist and stomp on it in sparkling shoes. And when midnight strikes those performers blow their last kisses, click their heels, and return us to reality. But they leave a residue of glitter on our bodies that doesn’t wash away, and we spectators, on the other side of midnight, watch our lives a bit differently. We come away with raised standards for how spectacular people can be.
Two such spectacles have been on my mind lately: Beyoncé’s “Beychella” (2018) / Homecoming (2019) and Sama’ Abdulhadi’s “Boiler Room Palestine” DJ set (2018). Coincidentally, both performances concerned themselves with elevating subjugated cultures and people through jubilation, and in doing so, they created musical landscapes that felt like sovereign nations.
Je sais quoi…
Of Beyoncé’s visual offerings, Black Is King (2020) is most topically Afrofuturist, yet it isn’t the performance that makes me feel like I’m sitting on a cloud. For me that distinction still goes to 2018’s Beychella, preserved in the Homecoming documentary and live album. So I’m asking myself now what Beychella’s “je ne sais quoi” is — why its real-time lights and bodies do more for me than the gradual staging of Beyoncé’s pre-recorded works.
Part of Beychella’s attraction is the shrill excitement of the crowd. More of its attraction is the daring of the performers themselves, to be so vulnerable without knowing how they’ll be received. And beyond those inherent risks, of course, is the confidence of the production itself, the thrill as it transitions from scene to scene at a breakneck pace. It corrals us with a soundtrack that re-imagines songs we thought we already knew, and from start to finish it never breaks a seam, accumulating the weight of some holy, deferred event restored to a once-forsaken people. Celebrities cannot be revolutions, cannot be messiahs when their greed is more personal than communal, but every once in a while a small gift descends from their power. In this case, Beychella’s gift is the reminder that magic is real, and magic is work. Countless hours of practice, rehearsal, and sacrifice hidden behind a magic cloak.
In the middle of Sama’ Abdulhadi’s Boiler Room set, an ethereal Black American voice testifies over techno sound: “It takes work, it takes poise, it takes finding stillness and silence and
blocking out all of the noise….” I had to poke around a bit to trace the origins of that voice: it’s Ursula Rucker, a Black spoken word artist from Philly. I think, now, of how kin spirits have always found each other across realities, across oceans and difference, so that a Black American woman can know what she shares with Palestinian people. I want Palestinian independence and joy. I know that Palestinian freedom is integral to the glory of the world. I’m still figuring out how to play my part in this. And I admire how Abdulhadi is playing hers, as a musician.
Abdulhadi’s Boiler Room set was lit in a Friday-night way, but it was also heartwarming in a Saturday-morning way. The love and respect people had for each other in that outdoor party was so evident. Abdulhadi was not a lone emcee: she was of and with her people. Watching her set reminds me why Beychella is my favorite Beyoncé moment: instead of being a maverick, she was a mason. She made something that was so much more than her beauty, though her beauty was certainly there.
References / Further Reading:
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle (2016) by Angela Y. Davis, “Chapter Four: On Palestine, G4S, and the Prison Industrial Complex”
“African Americans, Palestine, and Solidarity” by Russell Rickford (2018), AAIHS
Homecoming, dir. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (2019; currently available on Netflix; standalone 2018 Coachella recording may be on YouTube)
“Beyoncé Claims Music’s Most Influential Stage for Black Culture in Netflix’s Homecoming” by Judy Berman (2019; review), Time
“Boiler Room Palestine: Sama’ Abdulhadi” (2018), YouTube
“Alone feat. Ursula Rucker (Original Mix)” by 2pole (2018), YouTube
“Sama’ Abdulhadi: Palestine’s techno champion” (June 2021; interview / profile) by Sirin Kale, DJ Mag (June 2021)
“Interview with Sama’ Abdulhadi” (May 2021), Beatport Live / YouTube