Beyoncé’s Performance: Implications for the Nonprofit Field and Social Activism

On Sunday, February 7th, Beyoncé made a powerful statement during her performance at the Super Bowl, a day after releasing her song Formation, where she touched on historical and still-present issues of structural racism.


Photo credit: Tony Webster

After the performance, Ronnisha Johnson and Rheema Calloway, organizers with Black Lives Matter and the Last 3 Percent, asked Beyoncé’s dancers to hold up a sign that read “Justice 4 Mario Woods,” which brought the story of the 26-year-old Black man who was killed by San Francisco Police to a national stage of more than 112 million people.

Beyoncé’s performance has many nuances— she has extended her influence to touch on issues of police brutality, community activism, and the future of #BlackLivesMatter in mainstream media. Here are my reactions to the implications of her Super Bowl performance:

The still-present and highly relevant issue of police brutality. In Beyoncé’s Formation video, a Black boy in a hoodie is seen in front of a line of police, with the phrase “Stop Shooting Us” in the background. By highlighting this issue, Beyoncé is once again reminding the general public that the police violence problem is not yet solved.

According to Mapping Police Violence, police killed at least 336 Black people in the U.S. in 2015, and Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. San Francisco, where Mario Woods was killed, is one of 17 of the 100 largest U.S. cities in which police killed Black men at higher rates than the U.S. murder rate in 2014. In the end, there is also little accountability, where 97% of these police killings in 2015 did not result in any officer(s) being charged with a crime. Also, to put these statistics in context within the San Francisco Bay Area, consistent structural racism has contributed to the increased gentrification of the Bay, as well as callous policies to hide the homeless during the establishment of “Super Bowl City.”

There is potential to fund innovative Black Lives Matter work, not only by artists, but also by the nonprofit field. Artists have the potential to commit to field-changing anti-racism work through their influence and media reach, but those in philanthropy should fund current issues, as well as new and innovative ways to focus on structural racism.

Funding should be provided to organizations that are outside of the legacy institution spectrum and doing game-changing work, such as Concerned Students 1950, Organization for Black Struggle, BlackOUT Collective, or the Berkeley Black Student Union. One issue that arises when funding innovation is the level of risk associated with it, especially when it comes to sustainability. Unless a grant has a clear strategy to be sustainable, when it runs out, a nonprofit could completely reset and shift issue focus areas.

If we are really trying to bring about real change, why do we wed ourselves to being easily swayed due to shortsighted and short-term strategies? We need to ask ourselves—what actual projects lead to tangible results? What really helps the communities we care about? And what are we willing to sacrifice to solve the problem, where we can refuse to simply repeat ourselves in reports and issue briefs?

Artists and the media should make space for impacted communities to share their stories. This is especially prevalent when media networks (including social media) have such a wide reach on national audiences. By providing a platform for individuals who have been less visible due to injustice from the criminal justice system and law enforcement violence, this will help restore balance to the social justice conversation. Since many systems are slower to change, due to conflicting political will and red tape around policy reform, artists and the media can offer an outlet for the #BlackLivesMatter movement to sustain momentum.

Artists can also bring awareness to important issues in spaces where people of color haven’t been historically represented. One example of this is John Legend’s Free America initiative. Legend has not only spoken about mass incarceration at the Oscars, but also has #FreeAmerica guide a national conversation on criminal justice policy and the potential for legislative reform.

The negative reaction to Beyonce’s response highlights the fact that white privilege continues to dominate many spaces. While this conversation is occurring on a national stage, the discussion is also a personal one, where we can reflect on our own privilege, and consider how we can personally be a part of this movement.

What comes to mind for me is Stephen Colbert’s interview with activist Deray McKesson, where McKesson told Colbert what he could do with his white privilege, “What you can do is extend that role so you can dismantle it,” McKesson said. “You can create opportunity for people. You can amplify issues in ways that other people can’t, and you can use resources to create space for people…I'd love to know what you plan to do now that you understand your whiteness a little better, to dismantle it?"