Beyonce, Kendrick, and the Freedom of Performance

The live performance of “Freedom” by Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, a host of dancers, and a shallow pool of water was one of the most impressive televised renditions of a song I’ve ever seen, if not the most impressive outright.

The production value itself must have been massive without figuring in two of the music industry’s biggest stars throwing down emotional weight with their performance that would put the Academy Awards to shame. Beyoncé and Kendrick have never shied away the more theatrical elements of performance, of course, but their work at the BET Awards just felt different, like there was more to it than just a fantastic show (even more so than both artist’s recent major-event performances, from “Formation” at the Super Bowl to the Kendrick medley at the Grammy Awards, links below). They both managed to pull off the trick of performing a highly-choreographed, theatrical performance while also looking like they were stomping and dancing around because they really meant it, like every thrashing limb and spray of water was a mirror of what they actually felt like. No pretension, just a raw translation of emotion.

All art relies heavily on psychology, emotion, and the ability to transfer the thoughts and feelings from the artist to the audience, the consumer, and the passerby. Most art has the advantage of some level of permanence that aids it in the transfer of meaning from art to audience. Books and poems maintain long after they’re written and continue to find new areas of exploration in the minds of their readers. Paintings, buildings, and other means of visual art stand as testaments to the brilliance of their respective artists and the moment of time in which they were created. Even music is written down, recorded, and sometimes provided with extra-musical visual elements to enhance and engrave a song’s place in cultural history, saved for centuries of listening to come.

The art of the live performance is fundamentally different than art that is recorded and saved because it has no permanence. Every passing moment has its meaning and that meaning stays in the moment with its corresponding performance. It may be able to be recorded, but it is inextricably bound to one moment, and then that moment passes.

Derek Truninger

And that’s exactly why live art is more immediately powerful than that which is recorded.

The life and abrupt death of a live performance makes performance art a unique, intimate moment between artist and audience that is extremely difficult to replicate in the more formal arts. The artist may not know its audience personally, but by looking into their eyes and revealing their creation, they are interpersonally transferring their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs to the audience.

Listening to “Freedom” on Tidal is a fundamentally different experience than what viewers, and better yet, the live audience at the BET Awards experienced on Sunday night. You can listen to the recording of “Freedom” over and over again to your heart’s content, and that recording might just be the sonically perfect rendering of Beyonce’s vision, but the song rendition and accompanying visuals at the BET Awards will forever be the only time that song will be sung in that manner and performed in that specific way.

The intimacy and immediacy of the live performance also affects the performer. You can’t tell me that Beyonce and Kendrick weren’t feeling it just a little bit. In the awards show that’s main goal is to promote and celebrate blackness and black culture, on a night when Jesse Williams set the world on fire with his acceptance speech, the opening act flat-out refused to be told that this was anything but the biggest event of the year, period.

They didn’t just sing “Freedom,” they stomped and snarled and danced freedom across the stage and into the living rooms of millions of people while they were at it. I didn’t just hear freedom, I saw it played out in a moment of sound and fury signifying everything. As good a song “Freedom” is on its own, the live performance that I witnessed (even just through a television screen) made me feel the weight of centuries of enslavement and subsequent rejection of all inferiority or oppression.

Performance art is often lampooned, skewered, and dismissed as an art form. Even theater, the great bastion of performance art, typically isn’t viewed in the same light as the luminaries of music, literature, and visual art. Maybe that’s because of performance art’s impermanence. But where the performance dies in reality, it lives on in the brains of its audience. Performance art will never die because it so quickly and effectively enters the imagination of it’s audience, making the audience actually feel the emotion of the artist.

I didn’t just watch a performance of “Freedom” on Sunday. I saw it on the stage and it was written onto my mind as surely as I could have read it in a book or listened to it on a phone. I saw it live, and for that brief moment, it changed me suddenly and irreversibly. 

Adam Whittaker Snavely is a poet, writer, and actor living in Lynchburg, VA. His poetry has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Tule Review, and LAMP Magazine, among others, while his non-fiction work has appeared on SB Nation and Gradient. When he’s not writing, he’s usually performing spoken word with The Listening, acting in local theater productions, or making coffee. He’s also married, so that’s pretty cool.