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Down with performative activism

Updated on: 05 April,2024 04:37 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Rosalyn D`mello |

Celebrities with massive followings should use their powerful voices sincerely to effect change. Their ethics and behaviour must resonate harmoniously through artistry that is embodied

Down with performative activism

The digital cover of the latest Beyoncé album, Cowboy Carter. Pic/X

Rosalyn D’MelloDespite my growing wariness about Beyonce as a brand that feeds off feminist and Black liberation discourses, I was intrigued to listen to her new country album. I haven’t made my way through the whole album. Instead, I skipped ahead to Jolene because it is a song I have known from childhood. I was curious about what Beyoncé’s take on it would be. I found her collaborative cover of ‘Blackbird’ (titled ‘Blackbiird’) very tender in how it reorients you to the civil rights movement in America that was the inspiration for the song. Her version features Black American country stars like Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts, who, I read in an article in The Guardian, are ‘musicians who have struggled to gain a foothold in the notoriously gate-kept Nashville establishment in which women and Black artists are often marginalised’.

The song’s writer, Paul McCartney, has talked about how the lyrics reference the group of students called Little Rock Nine, who faced intense ostracism and ridicule for being the first to ‘colour’ schools that were historically meant only for white children. McCartney’s Blackbird is a kind of homonym for Black girl. Apparently, the actual black bird appeared to him when he was in Rishikesh and its chirp remained with him and became the pretext for the song which he evolved in his garden in Scotland. I didn’t know this history until recently, but the song had been dear to my heart since it was covered by Sarah McLachlan. My sister and I loved it so much we passed it down to our niblings when they were tiny. It was among the first songs they ever sang.

Last year, when I heard Miley Cyrus sing Jolene I started thinking about the queer connotations of the song. Dolly Parton’s version has the structure of an appeal from a married woman to her husband’s lover, begging her to leave her man alone. But the supplication has these undertones of desire. She outlines Jolene’s beauty, remarking on her eyes and hair and how she couldn’t compete with her. It felt like some kind of triangulation, as if she herself desired Jolene. Beyoncé’s version is not vulnerable in that way. It is more aggressive, threatening war, almost. The feminist in me felt really disappointed by the take because it felt like such a boring reiteration of the trope of monogamy and heteronormativity. Strewn among the re-invented lyrics are also mentions of identity, about how she, the threat-issuer, is somehow responsible for even making her man who he is and how she knows him better than he knows himself, which I found flatly patriarchal in many ways. As if the man had no mind of his own. Instead of liberating the Jolene character from the trappings of heteronormativity, I feel Beyoncé’s version places her in another gilded cage.

Then, of course, I wonder if a part of me is just very annoyed and irritated with the selective nature of Beyoncé’s activism and its mass-scale performance of allyship. A celebrity with such a massive world-wide following could have used her power and influence to pressure the world into demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. And yet, six months into the horrific onslaught of violence against civilians and not a peep from her.

I think I have begun to tire of artists whose work profits from the discursive and activist labour of people on the ground without any real giving back. I am so done with the ways in which luxury is touted as the ultimate form of arrival. As I near 40, I see so clearly the markers of people selling out and cashing in on their marginalised identities instead of actually participating in the struggle. A lot of it is starting to feel hollow. It doesn’t mean the work they produce is not commendable, it just feels like it exists in a vacuum.

More and more I feel invested in the idea of a holistic practice, an idea of embodied artistry that irrevocably harmonises one’s ethics with one’s behaviour in a way that is not hypocritical. A lot of it has to do with our notions of what constitutes success, which is shaped by external gazes. We are impressed when someone buys a house or a car or owns more than one of these. These barometers of wealth become indicators of ability when, really, they are manifestations of existing privilege. The work you are doing in this world is what needs to count. And that work cannot exist in isolation, because we do not live single-issue lives. We give celebrities free passes or often laud them for doing the bare minimum. I am so done with that. If you are someone who has currency on social media and you use that currency either to enable forms of authoritarianism or to be complicit in them through silence, then any activism you do is hollow, performative and anti-feminist, because your activism isn’t lived or embodied, it’s only ‘for show’.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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