Last week I watched two films about extraordinary Black women performers. Amazing Grace was an unedited live film of Aretha Franklin recording a gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. Homecoming was a highly structured, technologically sophisticated documentary about Beyoncé and her headline performance at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. In both cases I was left feeling culturally removed from the experience I was watching.
Because I have often spoken at celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sponsored by African American churches, I was familiar with the call and response and physical engagement of the audience in the film about Aretha Franklin. Familiar, but always feeling very much like an outsider. A spectator rather than a participant.
Homecoming made me feel like an outsider in a different way. The last time I attended a big outdoor rock concert it was the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels Tour before most of the Beyoncé audience was born. And truth be told, that is probably the last time I really paid attention to contemporary popular music. I switch my satellite radio stations and apps among rock and roll oldies, opera, classical, jazz, and country with an occasional Sinatra channel thrown in. But if I didn’t read about them in the media or see them in films like Dreamgirls or the most recent version of A Star is Born, I would be hard pressed to name today’s stars or their songs. Beyoncé’s music, choreography, and physicality were amazing. But the film was a glimpse into a world of cell phone wielding young people that I can visit, but will never inhabit.