Beyoncé’s Sun City moment

The release of 'Renaissance' in Israel has spelled the end of informed indifference when it comes to Beyoncé and other stars who choose to do business with the apartheid regime.

Beyoncé on the Renaissance World Tour at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on June 1, 2023. Image credit Raph_PH via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

Recently, a TikTok video surfaced of Beyoncé fans in Tel Aviv chanting the words to her song “Break My Soul,” while waving the Israeli flag during a screening of the singer’s new concert film Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé. It was a scene as dystopian as the farcical propaganda periodically issued by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). When it was discovered that Renaissance would be showcased in the country, there was an outcry from pro-Palestine members of The Beyhive (a nickname for the singer’s troop of stans), who called for her to scrap all Israeli screenings of the film in protest of the escalated military attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. As global support for Palestinian liberation has gained the kind of momentum once thought impossible, some fans tried to persuade the artist, known for having eyes and ears all over the discourse, to boycott Israel the same way South Africa was boycotted in the 1980s.

But their calls went unheard. Just hours after Israel escalated bombardments on Gaza following the breakdown of a short-lived truce, “Break My Soul” was bellowed like a rousing war cry by jubilant Israelis who seemed to have no discernible threat of death on their minds. In another TikTok video, the same moviegoers can be seen dancing in the cinema’s foyer after the movie was paused due to alleged rocket strikes from Hamas, where they give a rendition of the song “Heated,” before belting out “Am Yisrael Chai” (The people of Israel live). The patriotic Israeli number was originally written for the Soviet Jewry movement in 1965 but has since morphed into a nationalistic anthem, repeatedly sung over the last two months. 

Since the revelation of Renaissance’s Israeli screenings, I’ve devoted some time, possibly too much, to pointing out the hypocrisy of an entertainer who can subsume iconography from black, queer, and women’s liberation movements into her art, yet allow her film to be broadcast in state practicing ethnic cleansing and genocide for over 75 years. Having earned a reputation for being attuned to the whims of the zeitgeist, I’ve wondered what sort of discussions were being held by her team when the furor began? Were they biding their time in the hopes the criticism would die down by itself? Or have they dismissed this as another example of thinkpiece culture run amok? 

After the release of her fifth studio album in 2013, where she officially came out as a feminist, Beyoncé has managed to sustain an air of mystique by restricting her interactions with the everyday world. It’s a move that has granted her watertight control over how she is perceived, leaving her fans in enduring anticipation over what she will do next. On the rare occasion that she speaks to them, it’s through the announcement of new music, a business venture, or acknowledgment of the holidays, creating the kind of environment where her every move is met with the gratitude of someone receiving a text from a notoriously patchy texter. For over a decade, it is Beyoncé who sets the terms of engagement while the rest of the world follows, supporting her projects, defending any real or imagined slights against her, and fueling rounds of discourse where her work is belabored, dissected, and pored over, keeping her name squarely within the cultural conversation. 

Some members of the Beyhive have defended her right to silence, arguing that her status as the most powerful black woman in show business has made her the target of supposedly unfair expectations. Others have been adamant that these demands are part of a double standard that hasn’t applied to singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, for example, whose concert film, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, is also being shown in Israel. The rationale is the yearslong outcome of an alliance between devout celebrity worship and liberal identity politics, instituting a form of engagement with the world that is combative, a belief system that is incoherent, and a capacity for grace that is nonexistent outside the object of worship. In one breath, an artist can be praised for having the power and influence to negotiate a three-picture deal with Disney worth $100 million. Yet in another, they can also be deemed helpless in the face of changing a distribution agreement with the company AMC Entertainment for a film in which they are listed as writer, director, and producer. The defiant courage of the Palestinians, who have continued to document and speak out against Israeli aggression, has inspired people around the world to embrace the comparatively paltry sacrifices necessary to end the occupation. And if the everyday person can be fired from their job, endure professional and personal threats, risk deportation, and eschew the fleeting comforts of consumerism to stand for what is right, then why can’t she?

This isn’t the first time Beyoncé has faced pushback for her position on Palestine. In 2016, she was called out for scheduling two performances in Tel Aviv for her The Formation Tour, later canceling the dates alongside others in Dubai and South Africa. It is unclear whether the dates were removed due to pressure from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, or some logistical issue. However, unlike some of her peers, the star has never performed in Israel ever since, or throughout the duration of her career. On December 3, BDS released a statement on Instagram expressing concern over the films of Beyoncé and Swift being “screened in Israel while its military is committing what 36 UN experts, as well as Israeli, Palestinian and international legal experts … agree is a ‘genocide in the making.’” With more than 18,000 Palestinians dead in the last two months, there is nothing that can justify the support of wealthy megastars doing business with a regime that continues to violate the conventions of international humanitarian law with impunity.

Many moons ago, the South African writer Sisonke Msimang published the essay “All your faves are problematic” where she argued that the “active and confrontational stance” of stanning placed celebrities on a pedestal grounded in our own desires, hopes, and ambitions. Inevitably, this resulted in disappointment when their actions didn’t correspond with the roles and hopes that had been projected onto them. While Msimang was ultimately calling for a more sober-minded interaction with beloved famous figures, the title of the essay was used like a doctored sick note in some corners of the internet, relieving certain celebrities of having principles and integrity. In addition, it also numbed the discomfort of having a living conscience, intellectualizing moral inconsistencies that should have been a cause for concern for many of us. The distortion of the phrase can be seen in my ability to recite Beyoncé’s contradictions with the ease of a child singing a lullaby, but blend in among some of her most ardent, unhinged stans. Cynically, a part of me wants to lean into the laziness of the excusatory online adage that “multiple things can be true at once.” But what good emerges from juggling truths that ultimately service a lie?

I’ve been reflecting on whether this informed indifference is equally, if not more, disingenuous than the mental gymnastics of stans who excuse her cowardice with a level of generosity they probably don’t have for one another. When bell hooks published her review of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade in The Guardian, she labeled the project “capitalist money-making at its best.” Just two years earlier, hooks had called Beyoncé a “terrorist” at a panel discussion at The New School with trans writer and activist Janet Mock, causing a firestorm among different branches of the black feminist (or womanist) internet. Young and cocksure, my immediate response to hooks’ critique was, “no shit.” In my mind, it seemed strange to expect a woman who sang about being a “black Bill Gates in the making” to regard herself and her work as anything other than a commodity. It appeared ridiculous to surmise that a pop star renowned for the ferocity of her ambition, numerous brand deals, and perfectionistic work ethic was not, as the forever smug Thomas Chatterton Williams opined, “the Nina Simone of her generation.”

Right now, it feels extravagant to measure the ethics of a billionaire entertainer when Palestinian journalists post farewell messages every single day, unsure of when they’re going to die, but certain the end is imminent. But as Israel shows no signs of committing to anything close to a ceasefire, it is important to dictate our own terms of engagement with the entertainment figures we have embedded in our lives. As a longtime Beyoncé fan, I vowed not to watch the film when Israel wasn’t removed from the list of countries screening Renaissance. I’d be lying if I said I was surprised by her actions. But it feels especially craven to shrug off the extractive relationship between the star and the radical traditions she draws from just because she is a capitalist. While there is nothing productive about fixating on the vacuous politics of celebrities, it is worth thinking about how to engage with those who ignore the inescapable calls to stand with Palestine.

At the height of the academic and cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, it was a mark of shame to have ties with a government responsible for the subjugation of the majority-black population. Artists who performed in Sun City, the casino resort located in the sham “homeland” of Bophuthatswana, were widely shamed for choosing profit over principles. This was particularly true for black American performers like Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Brook Benton, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, and the O’Jays, who were seen as traitors for taking money from a country with a similar history to the US of colonialism, Jim Crow, capitalism, and state-sanctioned violence.

Some days ago, Beyoncé thanked AMC Entertainment on Instagram—as if the last few weeks of anger, outrage, and criticism had not happened. It was a microcosm of the unevenness within the parasocial relationships initiated with celebrities over the years. That she used the first line of that gushing thank note to acknowledge AMC feels audacious, if not disrespectful. However, the incident forced me to reassess where I stand with Beyoncé post-Renaissance. While it is fine to reject the film and ignore all the clips popping up on my timeline, her gushing letter of thanks compelled me to decide not to purchase, engage with, or listen to any of her work insofar as possible.

For someone who grew up watching Beyoncé transition from lead singer of Destiny’s Child, to her inevitable emergence as a solo star, to her current status as the best living entertainer in the world, it is hard to part ways with someone whose music has been as ubiquitous as the presence of Coca-Cola. Towards the end of “All your faves are problematic,” Msimang suggests that it is “the stans who will change their own world … through their solidarity and organizing and their critical intellect.” She hoped that it would “push our faves to be better.” Retrospectively, it is a decidedly benevolent reading of stanning—especially the Beyhive. If these stans were to follow through on Msimang’s hopes, they would have to see that the interests of their idol are incompatible with the world they’re trying to fight for.

Further Reading