“Help us to give people hope, touch them, and make them feel strong and united…”
So begins the prayer Beyoncé leads over the myriad dancers, musicians, and technicians as they prepare for her return to the stage at Coachella, as captured in the Emmy-nominated concert special Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé. Written, produced, and directed by her, the documentary—as well as the 2018 live performance it depicts—serve as a reminder to other leaders, particularly Christian ones, that a vision that is only about elevating ourselves is too small.
Homecoming documents Beyoncé’s return to the stage after several months on maternity leave. What’s striking is the way Beyoncé focuses her energy beyond herself, beyond the throngs of festival-goers, and even beyond the boundaries of the Coachella festival grounds. Inspired by the homecoming festivities held at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the performance took place on a massive pyramid meant to reflect the type of bleachers that adorn many HBCU football fields. Her female dancers were costumed as HBCU majorettes and the male dancers wore jumpsuits reminiscent of members of the Divine Nine at probate shows.
Beyoncé also reconfigured her hits in the style of college marching bands, replete with a huge horn section and her own drumline. She layered and mixed her songs to include other important African-American music, transitioning from her “Freedom” to the classic “black national anthem” “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” She also paused “Drunk in Love” on the word “surfboard” to include an interlude of “Swag Surfin’.” And towards the climax of the show, she added New Orleans-style, second-line brass instrumentals to “Single Ladies,” one of her biggest hits. In mixing her music with other culturally significant African-American music, Beyoncé placed herself firmly within the African-American tradition and brought such songs and styles into the majority culture. In a moment that could have been hers alone, she chose to celebrate the past, present, and future of African-American life in unspoken and subtle ways.
Homecoming was about more than Beyoncé’s return to the stage after the birth of her twins, then. It was a love letter to the African-American community, through a particular African-American experience: an HBCU homecoming. Though her reach extends beyond this community, she chose to center the African-American experience and invite those on the outside in, to celebrate the beautiful struggle that has characterized African-American life since we first stepped foot in America as enslaved persons 400 years ago this month. In a moment that was about her homecoming—returning to the performing stage, a fixture in her life for 22 years—Beyoncé reminded us of the importance of community and of having a vision of flourishing that extends beyond yourself.
In a moment that could have been hers alone, Beyoncé chose to celebrate the past, present, and future of African-American life.
Early in the film, as a montage of the Coachella crowd plays, Beyoncé notes that she could have brought her “flower crown” to the event, referencing the common fashion choice at the music festival, which might be described as a mix between “hippie” and “hippie chic.” The crowd at Coachella is overwhelmingly Caucasian, so while bringing a “flower crown” may have been a more fitting choice, she chose to offer a cultural experience that was, for many of the attendees, unfamiliar.
Homecoming put the things that black families value front and center: the bodies we recognize as those of our mothers, sisters, aunts; the songs that reverberate around the cookout; the moves from the probate; the educational institutions we revere. So often the eyes of the larger world are only turned to us when our bodies are in pain, in protest, or under the auspices of the brutality of racism. In the documentary, Beyoncé says that she wanted to create something that would make “every person that’s been dismissed because of the way they look feel like they were on stage killin’ [it].” This was Beyoncé’s return to the stage, but it wasn’t entirely about her. Homecoming reminds us that none of us are ever truly home if we are alone.
In the documentary, Beyoncé exhorts her viewers to keep going, to “make something that heals people and [that] may spark vision in people … that shows them to dream big … that they are limitless.” Her performance, like the Christian life, was not meant to be only about a single performer. Her joy was complete because the show was built in community (it featured over 200 performers and musicians, not to mention the many people behind the performances). In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul celebrates the Thessalonians, his work among them, and the work that continued while he was away from them. He speaks of his deep desire not just to share the gospel, but his very life with the Thessalonians, even calling them his “glory and joy.”
Beyoncé’s vision for Homecoming was bigger than her. It was a celebration of the African-American experience and a testament to the importance of a vision of flourishing beyond oneself. Paul’s final encouragement in 1 Thessalonians is all about the beauty of life in community, the importance of building one another up so that even the weak and fainthearted might live holy lives on earth and share in the beauty of heaven upon Christ’s return. Homecoming is a love letter to the African-American community, meant to spark pride and creative vision. The Christian life lived in community is a labor of love, a work of faith, a testimony of the power of the Holy Spirit and the steadfastness of Christ’s love. Homecoming is an invitation to community, a vision of home for those who do not often see themselves in places like Coachella. The life of Christ is an invitation into a community who are looking for an even better home, but who are committed, in the meantime, “to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”
Think Christian Podcast: Covenant (Chance the Rapper’s Big Day, Beyoncé’s Lion King album)