How Beyoncé's Celebration Of HBCUs Builds On A Black Pride Tradition

by Shakari Briggs
Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment

In her headlining sets at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2018, Beyoncé performed an awe-inspiring show aimed at celebrating a culture rooted in the historically black colleges and universities experience — twice. But the artist did more than just reference traditions, she honored and elevated them, and the Netflix concert documentary Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé details how and why she put together this history-making event.

“So many people who are culturally aware and intellectually sound are graduates of historically black colleges and universities, including my father,” Beyoncé says in the film. (Matthew Knowles attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.) “There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected.”

And while Beyoncé didn’t go to college herself — though she says that she "always dreamed of going to an HBCU"— she brought college to Coachella by paying homage to the nine Black Greek Letter organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council and the rich history of HBCUs. She even belted out her rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is often referred to as the "black national anthem."

In her set, which made Beyoncé the first black women to ever headline Coachella, she brought more than a century's worth of customs to the biggest musical festival in America. From the depiction of Greek life to marching bands to homecoming, the artist was devoted to her chosen theme, meaningful not just because of its scope, but because of the setting.

”When I decided to do Coachella, instead of pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella,” says Beyoncé in the film. She chose not to assimilate into the predominant aesthetic of the trendy festival, but instead to show her audience a side to a culture they may not have been exposed to otherwise.

“To do this and have the Pan and the sororities and things that black families who value up on a stage for the world to see and understand us a little more, it’s just a blessing,” says Edidiong Emah, a choreographer and dancer, in the film.

The film documents the months leading up to Beyoncé’s performance, after being away from the stage to give birth to twins Rumi and Sir. It chronicles the rehearsals, costume fittings, bus rides, and even pep talks by Beyoncé to her stage crew ahead of the monumental show. Beyoncé’s attention to detail is apparent in every facet of the performance, from the synchronized steps of the dancers on the pyramid-shaped risers to the glitz and glam of the costumes. And every one of the 200 performers on stage with her was important.

“I wanted all of these different characters and I wanted it to feel the way I felt when I went to the Battle of the Bands, because I grew up seeing those shows and that being the highlight of my year,” Beyoncé says in the doc. “So, I studied my history. I studied my past and I put every mistake, all of my triumphs, my 22-year career into my two-hour homecoming performance.”

On Howard University’s website, they describe homecoming as a “feeling of intense excitement and happiness that you get when you come home and reconnect. It’s Black love. It’s steeped in excellence, truth and service.”

“Homecoming for an HBCU is the Super Bowl,” says Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University alum Tallie Brinson, actor and dancer, in the film. “It is the Coachella. You’ve got all of your people coming back that you haven’t seen in for however long. You get all this tradition. You got all these eyeballs wanting to see if it’s going to be better than the last homecoming. All of these elements are right here.”

Voorhees College alumnus Jamal Josef, who was hand-picked to help Beyoncé choreograph her moves for Beychella, used his dance background mixed with steps learned as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. to create the Divine-Nine inspired routine in the show.

“It was a creative idea to bring awareness to HBCUs — the bands, the frats, and the dynamic culture,” says Josef of the show. “I hope [the audience] felt we what we lived every day.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, HBCUs were established in the 1800s to serve the educational needs of African Americans thus pave a way for any and all students wanting to feel that unmistakable pride. With 107 institutions across the United States and more than 200,000 students enrolled today, HBCUs continue to play a critical role in providing equal opportunities for students.

“For more than 100 years, HBCUs have been educating minorities and giving them economic opportunities and instilling great values,” President and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax wrote in a Medium piece, citing lowers costs that "narrow the racial gap" and "meeting the needs of low-income, first generation students" as a few of the benefits of these institutions. “Not only have they consistently produced leaders in their communities and across the nation, but HBCUs today are consistently and affordably producing leaders of the future.”

Of course, Beyoncé’s Beychella performance isn’t the first pop culture ode to HBCUs. Since the debut of A Different World in 1987, fictional HBCUs have served as the settings for several TV shows, with BET’s series The Quad being the most recent. Thirty years later, A Different World and its Hillman College continue have a lasting impression on black culture, inspiring many viewers to attend HBCUs themselves.

Morehouse College alum Spike Lee's cult classic School Daze brought his experiences as a student at the liberal arts HBCU to life in 1988, preceding films like Drumline, Stomp the Yard and The Great Debaters. In 2017, Howard University made a cameo in the hit NBC show This is Us, and Winston Duke's Us character memorably sports a Howard sweatshirt for most of the film. Artists such as Biggie, Rick Ross, Common, Wale and Drake have named-dropped HBCUs in their lyrics.

For six seasons, BET followed the lives of students at historically black colleges and universities across the country on College Hill — the first black reality show. In shows like Martin and In Living Single, characters frequently sported paraphernalia from real HBCUs.

But Beyoncé’s show brought black culture to a global, mainstream stage. In step with those who came before her, she uplifted the heritage of those higher education institutions, shining a light on their greatness. And her commitment to HBCUs can also been seen in her recently established Homecoming Scholars Award Program. Through her #BeyGOOD initiative, four students are awarded a $25,000 scholarship from participating institutions. The program was announced just days after her historical performance in Indio, California.

However, not everyone in Beyoncé’s life was sure that her set would be as successful or well-received as it was. Her mother, Tina Lawson, took to Instagram at the time to voice her initial concerns with her daughter’s performance. It was Beyoncé’s reasoning that reassured her.

“I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominantly 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,” Lawson wrote. “She said, ‘I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice and at this point in my life and my career I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.'" Lawson also added that Beyoncé hoped the performance would “encourage young kids to enroll in our amazing historically black colleges and universities.”

As the tradition continues, so will the celebration of it in media. And Beyoncé's Coachella set will surely inspire the next generation to put their own spin on HBCU pride in their own creative ways.