Beyoncé's HBCU Tribute at Coachella Was the Latest in a Proud Tradition

Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during the first weekend of Coachella on Saturday in Indio, California.

Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during the first weekend of Coachella on Saturday in Indio, California.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella

Beyoncé’s audience at Coachella may have been largely white, but her performance had “FUBU” written all over it. When the festival’s cameras weren’t glued to the mesmerizing, 100-plus performers singing, playing, and dancing their hearts out onstage during Saturday night’s livestream of her historic headlining set, the cameras would occasionally cut to the elated, awestruck faces of the crowd. Most of those faces did not appear to be black—which was perhaps not surprising given that this was a festival that had never previously featured a black woman as a headliner. But Beyoncé didn’t appear to care. She knew millions more would watch her history-making moment on their screens, and even if much of the Indio crowd wouldn’t pick up on everything she was doing, many of those at home would. With her marching band, line dancers, and bright yellow aesthetic reminiscent of the colors of North Carolina A&T State University, from which some of the performers hailed, Queen Bey inserted herself into a long grand tradition of paying homage to the culture of historically black colleges and universities.

While the history of HBCUs extends back before the Civil War and has long been depicted in novels (including Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man), much of the country first got to know this slice of black campus life in the late 1980s. 1987 saw the debut of The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, set at the fictional Hillman College. The series featured a variety of students of different personalities and socioeconomic backgrounds, and despite their differences, they were connected through their affection for their school. That love was infectious. The series ended in 1993, but it has been connected to an uptick in enrollment at HBCUs in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Even today it lives on in the popularity of Hillman College tees and sweatshirts.

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The next year, Spike Lee released School Daze. Based on the filmmaker’s experiences at Morehouse College and set on the fictional HBCU campus of Mission College in Atlanta, the movie musical focuses on the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity and Gamma Ray sorority during pledge season, offering a peek at the traditions that distinguish this culture from that of majority-white schools. Extended sequences depict call-and-response chants and high-intensity choreography of step shows that have become a staple of black Greek life at HBCUs and other campuses across the country. One segment of Beyoncé’s set felt like an unofficial sequel to these scenes: Some 15 minutes into her performance, during her rendition of “Sorry,” she paused the music to bring out her “Bug-a-Boos,” a line of men dressed in all-yellow sweat suits who submitted to her commands as if they were pledges at initiation.

In the years since, HBCU pride has frequently cropped up in black popular culture—even from those, like the former teen star Beyoncé, who didn’t go to such a school themselves. On the ’90s sitcom Living Single, Khadijah (Queen Latifah) and Max (Erika Alexander) were Howard University buddies, and Latifah’s character would sometimes be seen wearing Howard gear. A few years later, Kanye West evoked HBCU life on his first two albums College Dropout and Late Registration, featuring a series of snarky skits about the fictional fraternity “Broke Phi Broke” and the song “School Spirit,” which namechecks most of the “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities in its chorus. In 2004, he and Dave Chappelle brought out the marching band from Ohio’s historically black Central State University for a performance of “Jesus Walks” filmed for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.

Then, at the 2006 Grammys, West one-upped himself. He and Jamie Foxx put together two fictional marching bands from “KW State” and “JFU” for a similarly themed performance of “Gold Digger,” complete with fraternity chants and step dancers, that they called “halftime at the Grammys.” At the same time as West was repping HBCUs in his music, others continued to show HBCU pride on-screen. In 2002, the coming-of-age movie Drumline starred Nick Cannon as a cocky freshman entering into the highly competitive world of marching band. Two years later, BET premiered its Real World imitation College Hill, featuring students picked to live in a university house at a different HBCU each season so that they could hook up and argue for the cameras. More recently, a 2018 episode of Black-ishfound the Johnson family members involved in an old debate about the relevancy of such institutions in the present day.

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What Beyoncé did onstage wasn’t entirely new, even for her. She had previously performed with a marching band, albeit in a more militant fashion, during her controversial 2016 Super Bowl halftime show. But in this case she deployed her band to a different purpose. Like the visual album Lemonade before it, the Coachella performance was rich with subtext, littered with as many Easter eggs as Ready Player One. Some of these HBCU-specific moments were purely instrumental, such as the brief interpolation of C-Murder, Snoop Dogg, and Magic’s “Down For My N’s” (a favorite song for black Greeks to stroll to) at the end of “Crazy in Love” and the homage to Crucial Conflict’s 1996 “Hay” (an HBCU game-daystaple), during a brief intermission. Others harkened very explicitly to the call-and-response tradition of step shows (which in itself has its roots in soul, R&B, and gospel), such as when Beyoncé and her dancers incorporated hand and footwork into “Diva” and “7/11” and when the “Bug-a-Boos” returned for a dance break in which they introduced themselves one by one in the manner of a Greek probate. She even broke out into the black American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song heard at games and commencement ceremonies at HBCUs all over.

The Coachella set was basically a two-hour return visit to A Different World’s Hillman campus.

In incorporating these references, Beyoncé celebrated a collective black experience that resonates loudly with HBCU alumni (and those of us who are HBCU-adjacents) by remixing the culture and inserting her own mythology within it. She made her personal communal, making her international hits and a few deep cuts, some of which are now 15 years old, feel as though, just for a moment, they were made with only a black audience in mind. (See also the way in which the entire ensemble comes together to riff briefly on F.L.Y.’s “Swag Surfin’”—a song known to get black people to link arms and sway in unison as soon as it comes on—during “Drunk in Love.”)

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The Coachella set was basically a two-hour return visit to A Different World’s Hillman campus. It was a sort of utopian bubble of black aspiration and excellence. Not that it was unmindful of real-world prejudices. “Coachella, thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline,” she said at one point, adding, “Ain’t that about a bitch?” (The Monday after her performance, she also announced a scholarship program for students at four HBCUs.) But everyone onstage was undeterred and able to thrive in a world they created for themselves. On Monday, Beyoncé’s mother Tina Lawson wrote in an Instagram post that she had been worried that the “predominantly white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and black college culture.” According to her, Beyoncé’s response was that it was her duty to use her platform to showcase black pride to everyone and to “bridge the gap” across races. And it’s true: If anyone is going to reach people who weren’t already aware of the significance of HBCU culture and general camaraderie often shared among black people, it’s Queen Bey. But even if not a single non-black person could appreciate or “get” all of the minute details involved, it wouldn’t matter. To paraphrase her thoughtful and equally in-tune sibling, who made a delightful appearance onstage to dance alongside her sister, this shit was for us.

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