- Derek Carlisle
When it comes to Beyoncé, Brooklynite-by-way-of-Cache-County, Kevin Allred, wrote the book. Specifically, Ain't I a Diva?—freshly squeezed by Feminist Press—is a study that parts from the concept that pop culture is not just a guilty pleasure but an access point, and frames subjects like race, gender and sexuality against Queen Bey's lyrics and music video iconography.
It might not add up on paper, but as poet and essayist Cheryl Clarke says in the book's foreword, "Anyone who, like Allred, is such a staunch believer in Black women and Black feminism is alright with me." Clarke goes on to praise her former student for building a "host of Black feminist conceptual frameworks and theoretical inspirations in order to parse out the titular diva's work."
In the sweltering New York City heat, Allred arrives at my not-so-luxurious room inside the storied Hotel Pennsylvania a few minutes late after deciding to drive into the city. He's wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message "Fox News hates me" (more on that later); its royal blue cotton contrasting against his heavily inked arms. No one can accuse him of not being committed to his work. His latest tattoo is his book's ISBN number. "I'm just always in the market for another tattoo idea and that seemed like a cool thing, since it's tied to the book forever," Allred says, "like a Social Security number."
Nearing a decade after mapping the syllabus for the first "Politicizing Beyoncé" class he taught at Rutgers University, and half a dozen years since leaving Logan for more metropolitan pastures, much like his inspiration, Allred is about to experience a Homecoming of his own, with a book signing on Saturday, July 27, at The King's English Bookshop (1511 S. 1500 East), and an inevitable visit to the homestead.
In a frank chat with City Weekly, the author talked about growing up queer in Utah, his own white privilege and, yes, Taylor Swift.
- Enrique Limón
What brought you here? What's the story of the kid from Logan who ended up in Greenpoint?
Well, I kind of bounced all over a little bit. I lived in LA, I lived in Boston for grad school—a Ph.D. program at Rutgers. I went back to Boston and met my boyfriend, who then got a job in New York, so we came for his job six years ago and now here we are still.
What was your experience growing up in Logan?
It was heavy, I guess (laughs). I don't know how to describe it. It was a lot. I mean, at first realizing, "Oh, I'm gay," that took awhile. I was raised Mormon, so I wasn't one of the lucky few that was raised non-Mormon in Utah. Well, I'd call them "lucky few." So all of that and just being around that culture was super oppressive, but it made me who I am now.
What was that path like of coming into your own and becoming an author?
Well, that took forever. Like I said, I've bounced around to different cities. I also thought I was going to be a songwriter and musician and I used to play, you know, little folk songs and play at Pride events and all that kind of stuff. And then, I went back to school because I wanted to be a teacher and the writing came from the teaching aspect, I think. And weirdly, I see performing and writing and teaching all kind of connected. Being in front of people—well, the writing you don't have to be in front of them at the time—to convey something. I never had some grand ambition to be a writer. I always loved reading and I wrote a little, but it wasn't ever my main focus. It all just came out after being a teacher, having this Beyoncé class and then it kind of snowballed. I was, like, I want to tell the story of the class in a book, so I have to write it.
Would you describe yourself as a stan?
(Laughs) of Beyoncé? Now I would. I wasn't always. I kind of talk about it in the introduction of the book, but it didn't really happen until B'Day came out for me, and then I was, like, "Oh, OK, Beyoncé."
What was that spark?
I don't know. I just heard that album and it shook me in a different way. I obviously knew all the other songs and earlier in my life, I listened to Destiny's Child. Then I went through singer-songwriter phases and different musical phases—a punk rock phase—so I wasn't zeroed in on Beyoncé. And then when I heard B'Day, that was 2006 so I was 20-something, I was, like, "Oh damn." The sound was so different and intense and "Déjà Vu" particularly, that song was, like, whoa. Because I was in grad school at the time, I'd read an article by Daphne Brooks where she reviewed the album and she was, like, "This is so political," and no one was saying anything like that at the time. That really interested me, because it married these different interests I had in politics, in pop culture and music especially.
How do you map that into a college course?
I guess it's still changing and happening, because I'm still working with an artist who's still making things. At first, before I even made the full class, I gave students that [Daphne Brooks] article to talk about and analyze the "Déjà Vu" video in a bigger Women's Studies 101 class. They always were, like, "Whoa dude!" They all had opinions, no matter if they agreed or disagreed. I was, like, oh shit, this is something to harness, because a lot of times when you're just trying to pull things out of students, they don't care. I was, like, OK, so Beyoncé is going to make this fun and easier and interesting, plus I'm a fan, I'm excited to talk about the music—and it helps when the teacher is excited about the material as well. So then, I had this opportunity a couple of semesters later, where it's like a special topics class where you get to choose the whole thing. I was, like, why don't I try and put together a full class? It wasn't about Beyoncé, necessarily, in terms of the readings. It was all black feminist history, but trying to draw out the same themes and analyzing a Beyoncé video by drawing out a theme that is talked about in this other writing or speech or piece of art and get the students to think about race and gender and sexuality in critical ways. I taught it first in 2010, so she didn't have as much material, clearly, so I would sprinkle other artists and other songs in it. But now, of course, there's so much Beyoncé, that it's too much for one semester even, so I don't have to do that anymore; it's all-Beyoncé-all-the-time.
Does she know of your course's existence?
Yeah, I think she does. I haven't talked to Beyoncé ...
Yet. But her publicist came to the class a few years ago. We got to go on a field trip to the first On the Run Tour with all my students, she gave us all tickets. She came and sat in on the whole class and she participated and was telling us stories. Afterward, she told me, "I think Beyoncé would really love what you're doing, 'cause she wants to be seen as an artist, and what you're doing is analyzing her music as you would any other artist and she would think that's so cool." I've stayed in touch with some people from [Parkwood Entertainment]. They have the book now, I signed a copy to Beyoncé and sent it off to them.
You gave her your autograph?
Right? I just wanted to write her a note. So hopefully it gets to her and she reads it and likes the book.
Did people in the school and students perhaps at first think it was a joke? Or that you were punking them or something? From looking at you and the tatts and everything ...
I didn't have all of these when I started, so I was a little less conspicuous. This all happened as we were going. But people thought it was a joke. Once the media got wind of it, it was jokes about, "Oh you're learning the 'Single Ladies' choreography" or "Oh, do you quiz them on her birthday?" First of all, that wouldn't be very hard, because everyone knows her birthday; it's in the song. But there was a misconception around what actually was part of studying Beyoncé in a college classroom. I think now, more and more pop culture classes, and even Beyoncé classes, have popped up, so people accept it a little easier, but there's still this resistance to studying her as an intellectual figure.
How has the progression of her career deepened or informed your class?
It's just given us so much to work with. A lot of it is analyzing the visuals, not just the lyrics because she's now such a visual artist. She always was, but now everyone accepts that, and she's become more political herself. At first, when I called the class "Politicizing Beyoncé," everyone was, like, "You can't do that; she's not political." Now, I've run a course where I have to revise what we're doing, because there's so much now being written about Beyoncé and analyzing the politics in her [work], especially Lemonade, that it's kind of come full circle to where I was assigning all of these texts that now people are using.
I think it was easy not to consider Beyoncé a political artist, and then Super Bowl 50 happened. Was that a defining moment for your course as well?
Yeah, well really even more than that, I was saying she's political. All these things are in there deeper, you just have to tease them out more. In the Super Bowl, she's definitely just saying, "This is it, we're dressed up as the Black Panthers, we're marching out onto the field, we got all these black references in the song 'Formation.'" But the moment that really knocked me off my feet, was the feminist moment from the self-titled album, because back in 2010, I was trying to say Beyoncé is a feminist and people were, like, "No she's not, she can't be a feminist. She dresses the way she dresses, that's not feminism." And then Beyoncé herself came out, and is sampling Chimamanda Adichie and claiming feminism, and for me that was the most defining moment where I was, like, yes I think something is here. Now it's going to be seen because she's saying it, too.
How do you grab all of that that's so informed by visuals and the moving image, and turn it into a book?
It's not easy; with a really good editor that helps me. A lot of my inclination was to just describe videos, and my editor kept telling me, "They'll have seen the video; you need to bring out different stories." It's not just the analysis; there are stories from the classroom, stories about myself listening to Beyoncé, there are other threads that come into the book itself. I wanted it to feel like you were sitting in a class, and that you have taken the class afterwards. But because so much of it is conversation between students and me and each other, that's a hard thing to capture, so I try to also leave a lot of space and encourage people to read the things I'm citing. Like, go read this, this is what I assigned. Create your own conversations—whether it's friends reading the book together or pair it with a different piece of literature from a different novel. I don't know if I've done a super great job at it, but I was trying to leave those spaces, because it's a hard thing to capture when it's so in the moment. I'm very comfortable in a conversation, because it can change by the next day. But putting it down in one thing where it's going to be like that forever, presumably, or at least until you update and revise a book, was hard for me.
How long did it take you to actually write the book?
Years, in total. Part of it was hard, because I had a whole draft done before Lemonade came out, so obviously that changed everything. So I had to rearrange and rework things, figure out how Lemonade would fit in the narrative of the book, so in total I'd say I'd written little pieces here and there, but sitting down and writing and thinking and editing was probably a three-year process. Because halfway through that, Lemonade came out and I had to basically start over (laughs).
What did your friends think about you doing the course then writing the book? Were you like an odd duck or was it an encouraging process from the get-go?
A little bit of both, I guess. Friends that were in school with me or other grad students, they thought it was cool. Sometimes there would be a little more pushback from an older generation of professors and teachers: "This doesn't really deserve study." Although, again, that's changed with time, as Beyoncé has become more acceptable to bring into the classroom.
It's obviously launched onto a public platform. How do you marry being a white dude from Logan with writing the definitive academic story of this black empowering badass?
Well, one way is, I don't consider this a definitive version. This is a story of my class and what I love about Beyoncé. I don't like that academic thing about owning a certain idea. You know, people like to claim they were the first to do whatever. I do think it's cool that in 2010, I think I was the first class. I haven't been proven wrong so far, but if I am proven wrong, I'm happy to give credit to that. It's a balancing act with how I am in the classroom and how I am in the book, trying to let the text the black women who are writing, speak for themselves, bringing in their quotes, let Beyoncé's work speak for itself and just kind of put them in conversation with one another.
You mean with the students?
With the students. Or like in the book, too, I try and thread the ... whether it's a Toni Morrison novel, and show why this quote mirrors this scene in the video. It's the same as with any academic paper. Like, you're supporting it with evidence and so it's not about my experience. I also think everyone should read black women's work—no matter who you are—because it shows us what's wrong with society. You should read any kind of work by people written at the intersection of oppressions, because that teaches you how to fight them and challenge them. So I'm always trying to keep my own privileges and identities in check. But, if me speaking ... like, if someone will listen to me over someone else—which shouldn't be the way it is, but obviously a white man can get in places that other people can't sometimes—then I think that's a good use of privilege as well. I want it to be not a definitive text, but more like an intro text for them to take, go read all these other articles, maybe go take a class taught by a black woman who can bring experiential stuff into it as well, because I think all of that should work together.
- Enrique Limón
Speaking about convergence and being an ally, it's also published by Feminist Press. There goes another offshoot, right?
Well, yeah. And even in the cover design and putting it all together, Cheryl Clarke writes the foreword ... she was a teacher of mine in grad school as well but a super-famous black, lesbian poet in the '70s and '80s and still today, representing the older generation. The cover illustration is done by a young Afro-Latina artist, Emerald Pellot. So I'm trying to, when I can, bring those things and put them out there and celebrate those other voices. That's what I try to do throughout the book; that's why I only cite black women throughout the entire book. That was a choice I wanted to make, because that's the way I do it in the class, too.
It's so interesting how certain iconography within the music videos speaks to you and triggers something based on what you know. I put this marker on your book where you're citing the stigma of African American women and talking about eating disorders, for example. How do you even relate that?
There's that scene in "Pretty Hurts" where it looks like, Beyoncé mimes some kind of eating disorder in a bathroom stall. I mean, it was just reading and searching out sources that can speak to that issue. I'm typically teaching 18 to 22 year olds—and in women's studies, also, you're going to get a lot of women students—and so that, eating disorders and body image, is a huge thing that people want to discuss, anyway. Looking for a source by black women talking about that, I found very few memoirs or anything like that, except for this one book called Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, which is even more interesting than these other memoirs, because it talks about class and race and how food insecurity creates ... you know, usually we just talk about it on this surface level of white girls with eating disorders, and we don't get into these other issues about how they are all tied together.
What are some of the other unexpected topics that you think something has sparked that perhaps hasn't been noticed by the mainstream?
Beyoncé has a huge queer following, but her music isn't analyzed for the ways it brings in choreography from queer communities or other things like that. I do a paring with "Single Ladies" and "If I Were a Boy." The I Am... Sasha Fierce era, I try and think of it in terms of the history of drag performances, and I use Janet Mock's Redefining Realness to talk about Sasha Fierce as a queer drag queen kind of thing. That's something I don't think many people look at or talk about. Of course, with the newer stuff now, people are talking about all these different aspects of it. But I even talk about Sasha Fierce returning on Lemonade, because Beyoncé said she killed her after 2010 or whenever that tour was over. I think Sasha Fierce comes back in Lemonade but I think she's played by Serena Williams, not Beyoncé, so there's all this masculinity/femininity stuff going on through the characters Beyoncé plays.
So you've put it out. You're in this exciting yet vulnerable post-release haze. What specifically are you looking forward to in going to Utah and presenting it?
I don't know exactly; it's been awhile since I've been back there. People love Beyoncé everywhere, but I don't know. Salt Lake City has certainly changed a lot since I've grown up or been back to visit. So I'm just excited about going back and sharing that. I mean, Utah is still a very white place, so bringing these issues back in the place I grew up and felt so ... different.
Do you ever see yourself putting Beyoncé on the back burner and starting anew with a completely different pop icon?
Yeah, I mean I'm always going to be interested in Beyoncé. Like I was saying, who knows what she'll do next? It could be even more explicitly political, and so maybe I've written myself out of this, 'cause now she's taking over and putting the politics on the front-end of it rather than all the subtle layers. But I am thinking already that my next thing will be more memoir-based about my own story. Everyone tells me, "It would have made sense for you to do it the other way around." And I was, like, yeah, it probably would have, but I never do anything that makes sense. So, I wrote the Beyoncé book, then I'll go back and kind of try and tell my own story, but it's a lot harder for me to write about myself than it is to have a topic that I can just sit there and analyze and write about. A lot of people have said, "You should tell your story about growing up and being Mormon and being excommunicated," and all the stuff that came later, when I got in trouble and the NYPD came to my house because students were upset about this class. It was after Donald Trump, that's a whole other aspect of my story.
You didn't hear about this part? The day after Trump was elected, a student in my Beyoncé class called the cops on me—or their parents called the cops on me—and they [said] I forced my students to burn an American flag and threatened to kill all the white students in the room, which I hadn't. I did have an American flag to be fair, and I asked them if they wanted to burn it but they didn't, so I took it back to Target where I had bought it earlier that day. Then, the comment they twisted the other way, was something about how maybe conservative white people would care more about gun control if they were the ones being targeted in the streets by police or whatever. So, the NYPD showed up at my house a week later and took me to Bellevue and made me have a wellness check and then I got fired from Rutgers because of it. Then I sued the NYPD, and actually just this week, I finally heard that I've been awarded a settlement from the City of New York for the violation of my civil rights. So that's another weird thing people say I should write about (laughs).
Jesus, I didn't know. So do you see yourself switching gears and starting with another pop diva from scratch?
It's hard. I mean, maybe somebody will come along. I think Janelle Monáe is someone who has a lot of intention and interesting stuff going on in her music. I probably don't want to choose a white person, because I find that a boring avenue to ... not boring, but I mean, like, I'm interested in race, gender and sexuality, all these things.
Not Taylor Swift is what you're getting at.
She's my nemesis, I don't like her at all. I think she's the anti-Beyoncé in a lot of ways. I would be interested in doing a class on her, if it's all about the ways she co-opts Beyoncé's strategies and then gets credit for them later. I've stopped tweeting about her, because every time I do, her little minions come and try and get me fired from jobs—jobs I don't even have—so I'm like, go ahead. But I don't know who right now could provide as much as Beyoncé does, because I'm also interested in the visual and the lyrics together.
You have the Utah connection. Perhaps you could do Marie Osmond?
Haha, yeah maybe. Is she on a Weight Watchers commercial now?
Nutrisystem! The political nature of the Nutrisystem campaign. She has ranch dressing in her purse.
Oh yeah, instead of hot sauce.
Is there anything else you want to say to the queer kids who are considering a career, in either academia or writing, based on your own experiences?
It's hard. But just do what you are passionate about, because—and even with something like this—getting the deal for the book was super hard, too, because nobody believes in it except that one person. It's kind of cliché, but when you do find that one person, that makes a difference. Everyone can tell you no, but there'll still be one person who believes in it. It doesn't matter if it's the most prominent press or the person with the most social media followers or whatever. When you find that, that's what really puts it out there and gets it going. Because I tried to get deals for this book and so many people were, like, it's too academic or it's not academic enough or it's written by you, so we don't want to hear it, you know, all of these different things ... this isn't really good advice. Do what you feel passionate about, even if no one believes in it and don't let all the noes stop you.
Conversation was conducted at the Hotel Pennsylvania on June 29. Transcription by Isaiah Poritz. Interview was edited for clarity and length.