Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella was historic, epic and unrivaled. Beyoncé was the first woman of color to headline Coachella and did so in a way that spotlighted the beauty of black culture for all the world to see. Her performance also spotlighted our most precious black institutions — historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The problem with the performance is that while it did shine a light on HBCUs, it did not empower them. Black entertainers must begin using their celebrity to build black institutions, not simply spotlight them for white audiences.
Most of the commentary on “Beychella” has been around the genius of Queen B incorporating the tradition of HBCU bands into her performance. Apparently the 125 member band she used at Coachella was comprised of HBCU band alumni and some current members. Now, because of the celebrity and genius of Bey, the entire world is talking about HBCUs. But HBCUs — which graduate more poor black students than white universities — still have paltry endowments relative to PWIs and scarcely have the funds to recruit deserving black students. In many cases HBCUs are struggling to keep their doors open. By way of comparison, last year Coachella grossed $114 million — nearly twice the endowment of Clark Atlanta University. Bey’s performance will undoubtedly take this year’s gross beyond $114 million, evidence that her celebrity has the power to actually help build and empower HBCUs across the country, not simply borrow from their creativity.
This is not just about black colleges. For far too long black celebrities have failed to discern their true power. They jump at the chance to endorse products made by white companies and break their necks to make money for them — all the while they complain about the lack of racial justice in our world. Black entertainers determine what brands consumers buy. Unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly choosing to make kings of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and other brands that have no stake in the freedom of black people. They have cashed in the power of their celebrity to build white institutions when all along they’ve possessed the power to build black businesses, banks, schools and culture at large. Black celebs have not only done a disservice to the culture but unbeknownst to them, they have cheated themselves.
Magic Johnson said he made the biggest mistake of his life when he turned down a deal to endorse Nike. Nike was sort of a startup at the time and could not offer Magic the cash Converse could. Instead, Nike offered Magic stock — ownership — to endorse the brand. Had Magic taken the deal he would still be profiting from every Nike sale today. Ownership is permanent, cash is temporary. This is a lesson our black celebs need to learn and quickly. Mary J Blige was reportedly paid $2 million to appear in a Burger King ad. Burger King was never going to pay her one cent more. Diddy, on the other hand, inked a deal with a little known vodka brand that was selling 40,000 cases annually and now sells millions, purely based on his celebrity. What makes Diddy’s deal with Ciroc unique is that in exchange for his celebrity (which is driving sales), Diddy shares a 50/50 profit split with the vodka brand. That’s knowing your value and getting your worth.
Diddy’s deal is great but would be better if it benefited a black owned startup. Clearly Diddy, Queen B, LeBron and so many others have the power to drive demand. They are kingmakers and their celebrity is enriching quite a few people who are indifferent to black suffering. Why not for the benefit of our own institutions? Why should they continue to enrich entities that have no commitment to black freedom and in the end have no ownership? If Diddy can take Ciroc from 40,000 cases annually to millions, even a B-list rapper could take an ownership stake in Garner’s Garden and make it a household name. Rappers are driving sales for fashion brands worldwide so why not become part owners of black owned brands and build them up? If Bey can help Coachella gross well over $100 million and raise over $44 million for Hurricane Harvey relief with other black stars, that same celebrity could build black institutions 365 days a year.
After publishing it was announced that Bey is helping to award $100,000 in scholarships to students at Xavier, Wilberforce, Tuskegee and Bethune-Cookman, all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). One student from each school will win a $25,000 scholarship for next school year. This is a great gesture and a nice step. We should stay focused, however, on the larger argument. Black entertainers have the power to go beyond charity with respect to black people and institutions. The celebrity of black people actually empowers and enriches white companies and other institutions regularly. We must now love ourselves to prioritize empowering ourselves, first and foremost.