Beyoncé’s headlining set at Coachella—the first ever by a black woman—will go down in history. In a review of the legendary two-hour performance, Jon Caramonica at the New York Times wrote, “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year.” Beyoncé is black excellence’s best spokesperson, continuously putting the strength and beauty of black people—and black women in particular—on display. She’s also arguably the most popular entertainer in the world, and whether it’s the Super Bowl or a music video, she uses her high-visibility performances to assert her blackness.
Her Coachella set was no exception. During the nearly two-hour event, she brought out a marching band and a step line, and performed the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Anyone who’s seen the show has noted how powerful it was, but Beyonce’s set was especially meaningful to those who saw themselves reflected on stage: black women who attend, or attended, HBCUs (Historically black colleges and universities) and/or were members of black sororities. ELLE.com spoke with 19 of them.
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Soraya McDonald, Culture Critic at ESPN’s The Undefeated, Howard University alum
My senior year of high school, I had a choice of whether I was going to go to University of Southern California or whether I was going to go to Howard. I decided to go to Howard. I remember being there my freshman year and still being completely intimidated. The dance team for the Howard marching band is called the Ooh La La girls. I remember feeling like I’ll never be like the Ooh La La girls. The whole Coachella performance just took me back to middle school, high school, college and marching band.
Part of what is so astounding is that Beyoncé doesn’t have to do this. She can do what she wants. For her to put that level of thought and dedication and effort into creating this show and celebrating this particular facet of back American life was really amazing to me. When I was applying to colleges I had to deal a little bit with my own parents’ internalized anti-blackness. I think they thought I would be better off if I went to a predominantly white institution. There was sort of a level of respectability politics that I think had infiltrated their minds that they didn’t even think about in terms of: find your black, but you don’t have to be too black. You don’t have to be “Ooh La La girl” black. To see all of these things celebrated and elevated in such a way was really, really significant.
Dr. Dorothy Buckhanan Wilson, International President, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. , Clark Atlanta University undergrad and Benedict College MBA graduate, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
HBCUs are a critical part of the African American experience. These schools graduate a large percentage of professionals, particularly in the STEM fields. They are effective and positive portals for many students of color. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which was founded at Howard University 110 years ago as this nation’s oldest sorority for college trained African American women, has a long history of supporting HBCUs. We currently have an international effort “ThinkHBCU” to generate awareness of these national treasures and to raise significant funds. Since 2014, our sorority has raised $10.5 million dollars and channeled thousands of scholarships to HBCUs.
Beyoncé Knowles’ outstanding Coachella performance further underscores the value, contributions and heritage of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She is to be commended for this beautiful showcase of the sights and sounds of HBCUs which may not be familiar to many Americans.
Asha Castleberry, U.S. National Security Expert, Military Officer , Fordham University Professor, Hampton University, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Marching Band
Beyonce’s stellar performance was undeniably breathtaking. Her adaptation of HBCU’s cultural expression was honorable and humbling. Being the first African American female to headline Coachella, Beyonce’s infectious message has paved the way and raised the bar for the next generation to own their craft and never hold back God-given talent. As a lifetime member of the Hampton University Marching Band and a member of a Black Sorority, I immediately identified with her theme.
that deserves national attention.
#Beychella signifies beauty, energy, and charisma. Her message of female liberation through excellence will resonate our historical posture in the crosshairs of American culture for many years to come.
Tonya Faulk, Teacher, Hampton University, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Drum Line
Beyonce’s instrumentalists were from my alma mater, Hampton University, and other HBCUs. HBCU band members are some of the most creative and talented individuals and this was evidenced by their performance. Beychella embodied some of my favorite social aspects of HBCU band experience, HBCU culture, and sorority and fraternity showmanship. Beyonce is a role model for all working mothers – raise your own standard of excellence and continue to outdo yourself. Can you keep up!?! Yes Queen!
Alexzandria Chill, Content & Communications Manager, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority
Not only did she make “her”story as the first woman of color to headline Coachella, but Beyonce once again used a prominent and public opportunity to debunk monolithic narratives of Black culture in an authentically grand and gracious way that America isn’t used to but we as the Black community has always loved and cherished.
Representation matters deeply to our community because it helps humanize us in the eyes of others and validates the importance intricacies and nuances of our identity. Thank you for taking an active role in providing that validation.
Angel Lenise, Lead Video Producer ELLE.com, Clark Atlanta University, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Atlanta’s a college town. There’s Emory. Georgia State. SCAD. Georgia Tech. And at least 20-something other campuses in neighboring zip codes. But when I say I graduated from Clark Atlanta University, I’m often met with an awkward, “Oh… cool.” When I go on to say that it’s an HBCU — which stands for historically black colleges and universities — the response is normally an unsure, “Yeah, I know about that place.” Now, I can point them to Beyoncé’s unprecedented feat at Coachella. She knows that hearing brass blow “hay in the middle of the barn” puts me back in Panther Stadium.
She knows that singing The Black National Anthem — written by James Weldon Johnson, who graduated from Atlanta University before it consolidated with Clark College to form CAU — fills me with pride. And she did it on the biggest stage in the world. In front of an audience unfamiliar with the beauty and excellence and magic that makes the black collegiate experience unlike any other. She is us. She sees us. And she’s making sure the rest of the world does, too.
Daphne Lee, Miss Black USA
Making history as the FIRST woman of color to headline Coachella, Beyonce truly exemplified #Blackgirlmagic and showed women of color how creative, daring and groundbreaking we are. Having Beyonce’ share the HBCU theme helps to celebrate and uplift these educational communities and their relevance to the advancement of the black community and also makes those that didn’t attend and HBCU feel inclusive and still part of the culture.
Shaton C. Menzie, Intellectual Property Attorney, Howard University
I was moved by Beyoncé’s Coachella performance. It was a display of artistry that resonated with me on so many levels. Her performance felt deeply personal, which is truly a remarkable feat, given that I watched online. Beyoncé held a Howard University/HBCU Homecoming, a black woman praise session, a dance party, a Greek probate/coming out show, a black church revival, and a fashion show all at once! She sang the black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and I immediately welled up with pride, instantly transporting back to 2009 when Reverend Joseph E. Lowery recited the same while giving his benediction following President Obama’s first inauguration, and even back further to 2002 when I committed the song to memory during my time as an undergraduate student at Howard. She played Nina Simone’s sultry voice singing Lilac Wine on the very day that Ms. Simone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a well-deserved yet belated honor, coming decades following her death. Queen Bey provided those and many more culturally celebratory delights right there in front of the world, and a before a well off and mostly white crowd, yet dared anyone whose head those references didn’t go over to complain about it.
Stacie Smith, Beauty Brand Manager, University of Pennsylvania, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
I was proud, elated, entertained across the senses, motivated, and self-assured. As I often do with Beyoncé performances, I walked away feeling inclined to step further into my own greatness and live my purpose.
This performance brought me back to my formative years at the University of Pennsylvania when I decided to pursue my interest in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc and dedicate my life to sisterhood, scholarship and service. It took me to the daily, personal and social experience that black women know all too well – being neglected, yet overcoming; undesired, yet beautiful; mistreated, yet powerful; and then despite it all, still being celebratory, loving and unapologetically authentic. The space we’ve had to create and continue to create for our existence, our education, our excellence, our culture.
Mykela Marshall, CEO of Fashionably Greek, Auburn University, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Beyoncé’s Coachella performance gave the world an honorary HBCU experience. HBCUs have a rich history that has been responsible for giving opportunities to African Americans when they had no other options for higher education. She broke a major barrier by being the first black woman to headline Coachella.
everyday by working hard to be the best of the best.
Erin Cagler, student at North Carolina A&T State University, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
Beyoncé has always been an admirer of the different aspects of the black experience. She never hesitates to re-invent herself both as an artist and as a black woman by giving the time and energy needed to give black culture, or in this instance HBCU culture, a new twist. As an artist, highlighting these aspects give women of color and HBCU’s a platform to be unapologetically accepting of themselves. With her 2018 Coachella performance, the debate of whether HBCU’s are still relevant today is struck down by the roar that is Beyoncé. The Queen has spoken.
Kristen Shipley, Journalism & Mass Communications Student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
Beyoncé is iconic. She is one of the most talented performers in the world, and I love the way she highlighted HBCUs front and center at one of the biggest music festivals, Coachella. She embodies what it means to be a queen and inspires other women to be confident, as well. Her performance felt authentic and I am glad she incorporated HBCU alum (including NC A&T!) and members of Black Greek Organizations. On that stage, Beyonce reminded everyone that
Safiya Songhai, Filmmaker, Howard University, Delta Legacy
Beyoncé is like an army of Malcolm X soldiers, inside a curly blonde Trojan horse, waiting for the right moment to descend upon the kingdom of Coachella. As a third generation HBCU graduate, I feel that Beyoncé captured the pride and evoked the message of unity, activism, and solidarity that is planted in the bedrock of HBCU hallowed ground. At a time where schools like Howard University are embroiled in multiple scandals, Beyoncé reassured us of the indomitable might of the myelinated continuing in the same vein as she introduced in her 2016 album ‘Lemonade.’ Beyoncé is not only the mother of Blue Ivy, Rumi, Sir, she is giving birth to a new era of Pan-African identity using the bait of bubble-gum pop to reach droves of people.
Tiara Hargrave, Sony Music and co-host of The Oprah Rose Show podcast, Howard University, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
I knew Beyonce would touch on themes of black empowerment and girl power but never did I imagine it was going to hit so close to home with a full on, incredible HBCU experience! Mid-show I thought how proud I was to be a black woman and attend an HBCU (Howard University). She’s the GREATEST because she took a risk and gave us the performance of a lifetime.
Jacqueline Laverne Alston, Student at North Carolina A&T State University, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority
What time is step practice? After watching Coachella, I mean Beychella, I’m ready to whip out my Zeta boots. Beyoncé’s iconic performance was a representation of my womanhood at its peak. As a black woman, HBCU alum and member of a black sorority, I am glad a positive light was shed on all three aspects at once. It felt like homecoming: an elevation of power and pride in the black community. It’s 2018 and we still are putting “the first black…” in front of titles.
When I eventually use that phrase for an extraordinary milestone of mine, I will remember that so many women paved the way, including Queen Bey.
Jennifer Snowden-McKay, Principal Designer at Studio ID, Florida A&M University, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Beyonce’s performance took me back to the absolute BEST time of my life—being an undergrad at Florida A&M University. We all have our reasons for going to an HBCU, mine was because I had never been in an environment that exemplified black excellence so beautifully, authentically and unapologetically. Everyday felt like a celebration of our people, our culture, and our brilliance. Beyoncé took that entire experience and bottled it up in the best performance I’ve ever seen. She gave us everything from Fela Kuti, Malcom X, and Nina Simone to Juvenile, Crucial Conflict and DRAM. She gave us life, energy, and an immense amount of pride—as did our beloved HBCUs—and for that, we will love them both forever. — Jennifer Snowden-McKay, Principal Designer at Studio ID, Florida A&M University, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Stephanie Smith, Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy Development, University of Michigan, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Beyonce is the definition of success, but she refuses to be lonely at the top. I love that she continues to elevate her entire crew up with her. She had her girls (AKA Destiny’s Child), her sis, Solange, and her man, Jay-Z, right there with her on the Coachella stage. It says a lot when someone is willing to share the spotlight.
We should all learn the lesson she’s teaching us. As black women, let’s stand together. Let’s lift each other up.
Jaleesa Lashay Diaz, Film Expert & TV Host, Spelman College, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Powerful. There’s no words to describe the impact Beyonce has on us as black women. With each performance, she continues to recognize us. The homage to HBCU’s is the icing on the cake, especially given the lack of respect shown toward HBCU’s outside of the black community. As a graduate of Spelman college, I take pride in having attended an HBCU.
for corporate america, mainstream, etc. Beyonce reminded me why I chose Spelman in the first place, and showed the world why HBCU’s are special. She did it all while in heels with three children at home.
Niyah Brooks, North Carolina A&T State University Alumna
As an active #Beyhive member and proud HBCU alumna, this performance perfectly aligned my love for Black womanhood and culture. Beyoncé perfectly executed the bravado of traditions and culture found at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It is truly special that the performance that has been deemed as her defining career moment was one that could only truly understood and processed by those familiar with the Black experience.
Jalina Porter, Press Secretary of The Truman Project, Howard University, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
For the first time in my life, I have never before felt so full and represented both as an African American female and performer. My adolescence was spent going to Bayou Classic every year in New Orleans idolizing the marching band and renowned Dancing Dolls of Southern University, my mother’s alma mater. I later came into my own as a performer during my time at Howard, first as a cheerleader and then as one of my sorority’s hand selected stepmasters for our step team. I know full well the time and dedication of blood, sweat, and tears it takes to create a meticulous, interactive, and highly entertaining step show for the most sought after event during homecoming season. The masterpiece that Beyonce and her entire team created was a deeply moving and humbling ode to all of us who have been there.
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.