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Beyoncé knew Coachella’s white audience wouldn’t understand her set. That’s why she did it.

Tina Knowles-Lawson: Beyoncé wants to do “what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.”

2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 2
Beyoncé at her historic Coachella set, in her own spin on HBCU gear.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella

As Beyoncé herself reminded the crowd during her historic Coachella performance last Saturday, she is the first black woman to headline the music festival. (“Ain’t that about a bitch?” she added, with a tiny but telling smirk.) But even if she hadn’t literally said it, every single minute of her set was imbued with her acknowledgment of that fact, which was, as the New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix put it, “an education in black expression.”

Throughout the two-hour set, St. Félix writes, Beyoncé put on a show that honored “New Orleans and its horns, Houston and its chopped and screwed beats, Brooklyn and its rap velocity, Kingston and its dancehall, and Nigeria and the legacy of its dissenter, Fela Kuti.” At one point, she sang a heartfelt rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song rooted in the civil rights movement that is commonly referred to as the “black national anthem.”

Surrounded by black dancers and musicians, Beyoncé was purposeful and direct about her influences and what she wanted to pay homage to — and she did so in front of a predominantly white crowd that mostly failed to pick up the references.

But that, according to her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, was exactly the point.

“I told Beyonce that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and Black college culture because it was something that they might not get,” Knowles-Lawson wrote on Instagram the Monday after her daughter’s performance. “Her brave response to me made me feel a bit selfish and ashamed.”

Knowles-Lawson said Beyoncé told her that she wanted to use her platform to elevate and educate people, to do “what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.” In fact, Knowles-Lawson added, Beyoncé deliberately referenced the aesthetics of historically black colleges and universities in order to encourage more people to go there — a wish she quickly backed up by announcing that she will sponsor scholarships to Xavier, Wilberforce, Tuskegee, and Bethune-Cookman universities this year.

“[Beyoncé] said that her hope is that after the show young people would research this culture and see how cool it is,” Knowles-Lawson continued in her Instagram post, “and young people black and white would listen to LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING and see how amazing the words are for us all and bridge the gap.”

In centering black traditions in such a spectacular way for the Coachella audience, Beyoncé made sure that they — not to mention those watching the live stream around the world — wouldn’t just have an amazing time at the show but would actually learn something while she had their undivided attention.

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