You know you’ve made it when people recognize you by your first name. Cher, Robyn, and Madonna have all become single names, and now Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter has too.
One of the best-selling artists of all time, the multi-talented performer and businesswoman is a superstar to millions around the world.
But to the professor Kevin Allred and 32 students at Rutgers University, Beyoncé is something more—a feminist, a gay icon, and a powerful political figure.
Allred teaches a wildly popular women’s studies course, Politicizing Beyonce: Black Feminism, US Politics, & Queen Bey.
The class is at capacity, and the room is cramped—especially because Allred encourages students to bring their friends. But that doesn’t stop them from rocking out to Beyonce’s greatest hits.
“They usually sign up because they’re big fans of Beyoncé’s music, but they quickly start to make connections beyond just being fans,” Allred says.
Allred, 33, says he’s been a huge fan of Beyoncé for a long time, but he didn’t think of her as a political actor until he came across an essay by Yale Professor Daphne Brooks that linked the singer to black, female disempowerment.
“She argued that Beyoncé’s ‘B’day’ album should be seen in the same trajectory as more explicitly recognized black female protest singers,” Allred says. “I was compelled by the article and began to use Beyoncé in my teaching to spark students’ interest in having conversations around gender, sexuality, and race.”
Beyoncé’s music challenges many of society’s conceptions about gender, sexuality, and race, according to Allred, who says her prominence gives her political influence.
“Beyoncé is a political figure because she commands attention—perhaps the most attention of any entertainer today. People listen when she talks and people question things when she raises the question herself,” he says.
While Allred admits her influence isn’t explicitly governmental or legislative, he says she has the power to inspire cultural movements for change.
The Queen Bey wrote a note on gender inequality for the Shriver Report, hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for Barack Obama, is a champion of LGBT equality, and increasingly highlights feminism in her work.
“Her song lyrics also stress equality and partnership over traditional gender roles,” Allred says. “Some songs even go so far as calling out the ways relationships and the ways we perceive sexuality are bound to fail because they have been based on these outdated stereotypes.”
In a track from her latest album, Flawless, Beyoncé samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s viral TED talk on feminism. The image the track produced when Beyoncé performed it at this year’s Video Music Awards was unmistakable. In letters 12 feet high, “FEMINIST” lit up the stage.
“I’ve already had students in my Intro Women’s Studies courses that say they wanted to learn more about gender and take a class because they heard Beyoncé talk about it on the new album,” Allred says.
Gay men and women also identify with the artist. Allred says she frequently adopts lesbian styles by wearing suits and “men’s” shirts, carries herself with a masculine swagger, and often jumps between gender styles—especially as her alter ego Sasha Fierce.
Speaking on the issue of same-sex marriage, and in a reference to her song “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé said, “If you like it you should be able to put a ring on it.” Her husband, rapper Jay-Z, said, “It’s no different than discriminating against blacks—it’s discrimination, plain and simple.”
In Allred’s course, Beyonce’s music is paired with black, feminists texts, another love of his.
“That way, students are getting an education in the history of black feminist theory in the US, just using Beyoncé as the focal point,” he says. “I let them be pretty fan-oriented on the first day, but urge them for the remainder of the semester to push past that and engage academically.”
When he tells people what he does, Kevin says people are often surprised. “Tons of jaw drops, a lot of exclamations over how excited they are to hear that something like that exists. Overwhelmingly positive stuff,” he says.
“I’ve only ever had one really really nasty email that classes like mine would mark the end of the world,” he added, but I eventually made peace with the guy and he’s not so mad about it now.”