Why Beyonce and Jay Z's Marriage Matters To Black Women, Whether We Like It Or Not
On Sunday night, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter was presented with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award by her husband, Jay Z, and daughter, Blue Ivy, at the MTV Video Music Awards. As a smile crossed her face, one also crossed mine. As a black woman, I couldn't help but feel, well, relieved.
The effervescent moment followed an unprecedented 15-minute performance of Beyoncé's fifth album, which contains lyrics that arguably lend more credence to the swirling rumors that the Knowles-Carters are headed to splitsville than any tabloid headline ever could. Ballads like "Jealous" and "Mine" signal marital strife seemingly stemming from adultery. Many wondered if the VMAs would be the night the couple finally announced their separation.
Instead, Beyoncé offered her husband a rare public kiss, grinned at their offspring, and basked in their familial accomplishment. The PDA appears to have been an attempt to address — without directly addressing — the rumors. (As was the unsubtle inclusion of line, "Of course, sometimes shit goes down when there's a billion dollars on an elevator" in the Nicki Minaj-assisted "Flawless" remix.)
It is unclear exactly what’s happening in the Knowles-Carter household — other than the fact that the couple is selling out stadiums across the United States — but if rumor eventually proves to be fact, it will be black women who suffer most.
As a black woman, witnessing the blissful moment between the couple filled me with bittersweet pride. While their quick kiss was sweet, it also had an undercurrent of needing to prove something: They had to prove that their marriage has a passion that can't be extinguished. Prove that their family unit is still intact. Prove that no matter what, they're in this marriage for keeps. Prove that black marriages last, and that successful black women don't alienate their spouses.
I am unashamed to admit that I have a vested interest in the Knowles-Carter marriage. They're a successful black couple with a gorgeous, Afro-clad daughter. Beyoncé's success doesn't threaten her husband's ego. He seems to bask in her accomplishments as much as she does. The world tells me that a black woman as ambitious and driven as I am can't afford to be distracted by a spouse. Beyoncé proves it can be otherwise.
Some feminist scholars, like law professor Melissa Murray, argue that marriage is an industrial-complex that was historically used to punish women. Yet for black women, who were once forbidden from getting hitched in America, a union can be an act of agency. And when that black woman is one of the most powerful women in the world, it presents us with a high-profile model for love, equal partnership, and motherhood.
Losing that model isn't something many of us are prepared for. Because Beyoncé's marriage isn't just a marriage — it is a crucial cultural symbol.
Multiple sources have been reporting for months now that the Knowles-Carters’ marriage is in trouble. The speculation comes several months after Solange Knowles attacked Jay Z in an elevator and weeks after Beyoncé changed the lyrics to her stirring ballad, "Resentment," seemingly to signify her husband’s alleged infidelity. It is unclear exactly what’s happening in the Knowles-Carter household — other than the fact that the couple is selling out stadiums across the United States on their tour — but if rumor eventually proves to be fact, it will be black women who suffer most.
Black women have few public models for what a healthy marriage can and should resemble. We’ve had fictional couples, like the Cosby Show’s Huxtables, and real-life couples, like actors Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith (who've also been plagued by rumors). But the Knowles-Carters are today's highest-earning and most en vogue attraction and the biggest names on the hip-hop charts.
Prior to the arrival of the Knowles-Carters, the most famous male figures in hip-hop thrived on their singleness. Some, like rapper Fabolous, hid their spouses and children from public view, while others boasted a public "player" facade while attempting to be family men when the cameras were turned. In an interview with the Breakfast Club Power 105.1, rapper Ja Rule, who has been married 13 years, explained that he couldn't dedicate as much of himself to the beginning stages of his marriage because his dedication to a hip-hop lifestyle was in conflict with it. Even the host of Breakfast Club Power 105.1, DJ Envy, admitted that he often cheated on his wife because it wasn't considered cool to be married in hip-hop.
Or look no further than Jay Z himself, who once rapped in "Big Pimpin" that "You know I — thug em, fuck em, love em, leave em/Cause I don't fuckin' need em/Take em out the hood, keep 'em lookin' good/But I don't fuckin' feed em/First time they fuss I'm breezin'/Talkin bout, 'What's the reasons?'/I'm a pimp in every sense of the word, bitch."
These days, he can be found sitting with his daughter in his lap as his wife performs a feminist anthem. Beyoncé and Jay Z's relationship is a tangible expression of hip-hop growing up.
Their passion for each other both on- and off-stage offered a shift in the hip-hop culture. Suddenly, marriage was something to be valued. T.I. and Tiny and Waka Flocka Flame and Tammy are just a few of hip-hop's many couples to now proudly display their love. Sure, the Obamas are also an aspirational example of what black marriage can look like, but marriage, committed relationships, and even gender equality weren’t considered a goal in hip-hop until the Knowles-Carters made it cool.
Of course, no marriage is perfect, but the Knowles-Carters have crafted a brand that signifies perfection. As writer Kevin Fallon concludes in the Daily Beast, their marriage is “the business of being #flawless.”
After all, the first couple of the music industry has carefully, in the years since they began dating, built a brand and image based on perceived perfection. They were two artists at the pinnacle of their careers combining their respective star powers into one nearly blinding supernova. They honed a balance of coolness and class that not only bolstered their popularity, but has worked to create an expectation of infallibility. The words “perfect couple” aren’t used lightly, and Jay Z and Beyoncé have parlayed that branding into a pop-culture empire that rests delicately on that very word, “perfect.”
The couple even built their relationship in a traditional, heteronormative way that many would deem "perfect." They did it the “right way” — marriage first, child second. (Despite the fact that many celebrities have happily done things in the opposite order.) But ironically, it's the fact that they're really actually flawed that makes them such a perfect model, since no one can actually achieve perfection in marriage. While we’ve been privy to their relationship turmoil in the past (the entire B’Day album, anyone?), most of Beyoncé’s fifth studio album is an ode to the extreme highs and lows of love and marriage. From "Drunk in Love" to "Jealous" and "Mine" to "XO," the Knowles-Carters make it plain that marriage requires effort and sacrifices from both parties — and that’s not something we’re culturally accustomed to seeing as black women.
If Beyoncé is, as writer ZZ Packer explains, “the all-around compliment-by-comparison for any black woman,” then it follows that her marriage is also an aspirational goal for many of those same black women. Because we didn't grow up with Disney princesses who looked like us, her story is our fairytale.
Perhaps we're aiming for a relationship like theirs because of the discouraging stats we hear, like the fact that 70 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 have never married. Sure, these shocking statistics don't account for the multitudes of black women who marry before 25 and after 29, but figures like these tell black women that we’re undesirable, unwanted, and incapable of finding or harboring love.
When we see Jay Z and Beyoncé onstage, we’re reminded of how alive and thriving black love really is. Of course, marriage doesn't automatically equal happiness, but it sure is nice to believe that sometimes, it does.
Seeing the tumultuous but prosperous 25-year union between my parents taught me the value of marriage. It taught me that relationships don’t operate like romantic comedies. There are times of unrest, as we may be witnessing in the Knowles-Carters marriage. Separations are sometimes necessary.
My parents' relationship taught me that the foundations of a successful marriage — love, trust, loyalty, and communication — are essential to avoiding the divorce attorney. But some black women aren’t privy to those models in their homes, or even on their televisions.
Beyoncé offers me, and legions of other black women, an alternative to the cultural narrative that says the happy ending just won't happen for us. That is why the survival of her marriage matters. And that is why I'm sure she can feel the pressure.