A response to Nehmat Kaur’s recent article in LiveWire ‘Beyoncé and Modi Have Something in Common (Yup, You Read That Right)‘, published on June 20, 2018.
When I read that Beyoncé and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were being compared to each other, I was more than a little taken aback. Yes, they both have enormous fan bases. Yes, both are success stories. Both have built their careers on the back of hard work, talent and acumen – the acumen that some term genius. And that’s where the similarities end.
Beyoncé is a visionary. She is easily one of the most gifted singers and performers of our time. You don’t need to be part of the Beyhive (the name for her adoring fans) to acknowledge that. But her art is not merely art: it is fiercely political. Nobody who saw her Mrs. Carter world tour – where she sang in front of an enormous screen with ‘FEMINIST’ emblazoned on it, and quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – can deny it. Since the time she was part of all-girl group Destiny’s Child, her songs have always been about empowering girls and women. With lyrics like “Do what I want, live how I wanna live/Ladies it ain’t easy being independent” laid over catchy hooks, the message is hard to miss.
For this reason, any criticism of Beyoncé that says “she is sexualising herself” or “pandering to the male gaze” is misplaced. Beyoncé already told you. She “does what she wants”, she “lives how she wants to live.” If she chooses to wear tiny booty shorts while shaking her hips to a global audience, that is her prerogative. She is not responsible for the male gaze: she is controlling and monetising her appearance. To slutshame her for it is reprehensible.
Another criticism that has been made of her is that she is inconsistent in her narratives. Her decision to forgive her cheating husband – charted in the immensely powerful visual album ‘Lemonade’ – has been seen as contradictory of her feminist message. However, Beyoncé has made it very clear in the album that infidelity is not supposed to be something women accept meekly. The iconic image of her strolling down the street in a yellow dress, swinging a baseball bat makes it clear: this is a woman who takes nobody’s shit. The fact that she chose to stay with Jay-Z (keeping in mind that she has children and we cannot know her private life) is not grounds on which to attack her feminist message. The fact that she chose to wrap her pain and lived experience into her art is nothing new: artists do it all the time. As for whether the cheating stories are true – I find it hard to believe that Jay-Z (himself a mogul and byword in rap) would acquiesce to be part of a narrative that makes him look so bad unless it were true. He has rapped about it himself. He has admitted it in interviews. It would make no sense for him to be lying.
“Modi, like Beyoncé, gets away with a lot.” Leaving aside the fact that Beyoncé has been criticised by everybody from bell hooks to protestors who find her un-American, let us examine this statement. Modi has been accused of enormous crimes. His stint as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 coincided with mass killing: when has Beyoncé been accused of inciting genocide? This alone makes it patently unfair to compare the two.
It is true that we do not criticise Modi for leaving his wife. He is seen as a family man despite essentially abandoning her to focus on his political ambition. His extraordinary ascent to power is intoxicating in a country where upward mobility is mostly a myth. It is for this reason that he is loved by the masses despite enacting risky policies that may hurt them (demonetisation).
It is equally true that Modi is fond of spectacle, and that he is seen as a showman instead of statesman by many. The many, many viral photos of him hugging world leaders are something of a joke at this point. We do not want him to put on a show: we want good governance.
We can criticise him on the ground that he ought to engage more with the public. But we cannot criticise Beyoncé for her tightly-controlled images. Beyoncé is not obligated to give interviews because she is not a head of state: it’s as simple as that. She has no constitutional duty to the public. In fact, in this age where we demand to know everything of celebrities (‘Are you breast-feeding or bottle-feeding your babies? What brand of toilet paper do you use?’), we might argue that her minimal engagement with the public is refreshing.
Ultimately, Modi and Beyoncé are as different as chalk and cheese. One is a black female entertainer, one is a charismatic prime minister. We can call them both performers, but performance is the job of the former. In that light, we may as well compare any performing artist to Modi, for all the good it does us.
Priya Alika tweets @priya_ebooks
Featured image credit: The Wire