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The Chicks Image by Wasted Time R at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons; Beyoncé Photo by BBGunBilly from Minneapolis, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons; Artistic Rendering of Image by Carter/Reddy

How to Be an Outlaw: Beyoncé’s Daddy Lessons

Excerpted from Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions

This exclusive feature is a part of the OA's Country Roots: Web Edition, an online extension of our annual music issue. Pre-order the Country Roots Music Issue and companion CD here

On November 2, 2016, a few days before the fateful presidential face-off in the United States between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the fiftieth-anniversary presentation of the Country Music Association Awards (CMAs) featured an unlikely, if now notorious, collaborative performance: the r&b icon Beyoncé and her band joined the Chicks (known at that time as the Dixie Chicks: Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Burns Strayer and Martie Maguire) to sing Beyoncé’s country music–inflected “Daddy Lessons,” from her wildly successful 2016 album, Lemonade. This joining of a country and r&b performance was especially timely, given that the past year had seen an intensified and often volatile bifurcation of racialized public discourse. It was a moment that asked us to believe the lie that these performers are from completely different worlds. But as I watch Beyoncé performing this undeniably country song together with the Chicks, I am further reminded that African American music can be and has always been a part of country music’s sound and history. At the same time, Beyoncé’s Black female country outlaw performance brings to the fore Black women’s anger, freedom, and resistance through this song—beyond the worlds that their daddies may have dreamed up for them.

“Give it up for the Dixie Chicks,” Beyoncé demands of the slightly stunned CMA audience, using her dazzling presence and authority to get the song going. She’s rocking a sequined dress that screams “Sexy Ma Ingalls,” hair worn Crystal Gayle straight. Maines, Strayer, Maguire, and Beyoncé trade a series of calls and responses of “Texas!”—the location of their shared roots, however distinct their individual experiences of that Texas might be. “Daddy Lessons” is a song about a rough-around-the-edges daddy, from a daughter’s loving, if critical, perspective. Throughout the performance, Beyoncé and the Chicks convey mutual support and admiration, clapping and whooping it up in encouragement, harmonizing with one another, completing one another’s sentences, leaning into one another, even briefly sharing a mic (though it is rare for any diva to give up a mic). About four minutes and forty seconds in, the song segues into the Chicks’ “Long Time Gone,” their Grammy- and CMA-winning hit from 2002, their own song about daddys and old lessons that we might have outgrown. “Keep those hands clapping,” Beyoncé instructs.

I want to be an outlaw like Beyoncé. I want to show up where I’m not expected and rock the house, bring the people to their feet. Sing with my friends, lead a horn section, whoop and yeehaw, shake our bodies without shame. I want to swagger and twerk and ride a horse down my city street, like Beyoncé does on the videos for “Sorry” or “Hold Up.” Stop traffic and borrow a bat to swing into a window or two, open up a fire hydrant so that the small children can dance with glee. Drive a monster tractor, crushing muscle car rooftops, all while balancing on glorious high-heeled sandals. Tired of being invisible, of being polite, of swallowing my words and pain.

Maybe by being born a Black woman, and a queer one at that, I am already an outlaw, whether or not I choose to be. There is a difference, of course, between the outlaw that others dream up for me and my own resistance. That difference means everything. “So it is better to speak, remembering/ We were never meant to survive,” Audre Lorde wrote in her poem, “A Litany for Survival.”

The CMA performance was noteworthy on many levels. This was Beyoncé’s first appearance on the awards show, and she and her band were some of the very few Black people present at a ceremony that has always been predominantly white. (Also included on stage that year were the three-time CMA Award winner Charley Pride and the Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas, who were presenters.) This was the Chicks’ first appearance on the CMAs since being blackballed by many mainstream country music institutions and fans angered by their leftist politics.

Many country music fans and commentators took issue with Beyoncé’s and the Chicks’ performance at the CMAs, some alluding to Beyoncé’s vocal support of Black Lives Matter and the Chicks’ criticism of George W. Bush during his 2003 invasion of Iraq. Brad Paisley, country music nice guy, host of the 2016 CMAs and a controversial crossover artist himself, tweeted his support the evening after the show: “Frequently country crosses over. But every now and then a major pop superstar wants to be a part of this, too. Welcome, Beyoncé.” But the very first reply on Twitter to Paisley’s message was that of an angry anonymous country fan: “Fuck Beyoncé she supports thugs plus her music is garbage.” Another angry fan tweeted, “Figures they would pair up. One who has no respect for the American military and another who has no respect for the American law enforcement. Ashamed they would be allowed to perform at the CMAs at all.” These angry tweets reflect an identification of Beyoncé and the Chicks with a progressive politics that some would claim to be counter to country music values. After the CMAs, Natalie Maines reportedly said that she would never return to the Awards show, disgusted by the chilly treatment that Beyoncé received backstage and by the critiques of the performance by conservative country fans.

Country music has made room for its white male country outlaws, even if it doesn’t always make room for outspoken Black women. The outlaws movement of the 1970s—which included Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash—while not necessarily always progressive, did provide a space for a performance of anti-authoritarianism that was often allied sonically, and sometimes visually, with Blackness. Jason Mellard points out that outlaw country’s turn to American roots music to demonstrate its authenticity includes Black traditions of old-time and blues. Thus, the outlaws enjoyed an association with Black culture, though usually implicitly. As the Man in Black, Johnny Cash could stand up for injustices against incarcerated folks and other outsiders, his Black shirt, hat, and jeans trademarks for his heroically critical stance. Blackness’s association in mainstream white culture with danger, illegality, and outsiderhood was put to use in Cash’s career to lend an element of authenticity. These moments reveal how, for these white male outlaws, proximity to Blackness—particularly metaphorical Blackness—is the ultimate expression of outsiderhood. Perhaps in these examples we see a continuation of the ways that white artists have trafficked in Blackness by embracing “everything but the burden.”

“Daddy Lessons” thus became a lightning rod for public arguments about the politics of race, genre crossover, gender, and country music, soon to be joined by Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” in 2019. But these debates weren’t new; there was the country outlaw backlash against countrypolitan pop country crossovers in the 1970s and fan pushback against the “shotgun marriage of hip-hop and country music” in the form of hick-hop artists like Cowboy Troy, Kid Rock, Nelly, and others. Despite the CMA protests and the rejection of “Daddy Lessons” for consideration for an award in the country music category by the Grammys, “Daddy Lessons” features many country elements, including a harmonica solo, banjo, twangy guitar, a stomping 2/4 beat, plenty of yips and yeehaws, and a central country music storytelling trope: the outlaw, gun-brandishing daddy. At the same time, the song includes sonic elements drawing from r&b traditions, including a brass section evocative of New Orleans second lines, the instrumental and vocal structures of call and response, and, maybe most of all, an African American tradition of “diva” performance of spectacle: the audience command and sonic power that we see at play in performances by Nina Simone, Grace Jones, Diana Ross, and Beyoncé herself.

When I think of being an outlaw as a Black queer woman, I think of Lorde’s book Sister Outsider, looking from the outside in, with bell hooks’s oppositional gaze. I think about giving folks a piece of my mind, like Eula at the end of Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust; or roaring with rage on the back of a motorcycle like the righteous women of Lizzie Borden’s cult dyke film Born in Flames. I think of the joy that can come from being an outlaw, what the Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper calls “eloquent rage,” the rage of an anger passionate, precise, and owned.

Despite these inspirations, I’ve struggled all my life with seeing and hearing my anger, and then with what to do with it. How to create thoughtful change with anger’s pointed and strategic expression? And as the parent of a Black girl child, I struggle to find models for her to express her anger, especially as she grows older.

What does my anger look like right now, as I write this? It is not here on the surface but resides in my body, doing its violence quietly, churning acid in my stomach. Waking up after a night’s rest, I am reminded by my aching jaw, teeth smarting from the grinding. When I stand, big and small arrows of pain dart down my back to remind me that I sat hunched over my computer all afternoon yesterday, trying to find the right words. How to write it, how to tell you so you can hear it?

By the time Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks performed “Daddy Lessons” at the CMAs, Lemonade had already become a cultural phenomenon, embraced passionately by the Black women that I knew: my students, my colleagues, my friends. I came across passionate social media posts, blogs, and articles about the album. Candice Benbow, together with activists, professors, and pastors, created A Lemonade Syllabus, which began as a Twitter hashtag and has been used by many to teach lessons in Black feminism, reproductive justice, prison abolition, Black women’s history, music, and culture. I taught Lemonade in my own Introduction to African American Literature class that fall of 2016, and my students were excited for the chance to talk about Lemonade alongside Toni Morrison’s Sula and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The visual album first premiered on April 23, 2016, on HBO, then on Tidal (the streaming company owned by Jay-Z and Beyoncé), until it eventually made its way to iTunes and other sources on the internet, as well as being sold as a DVD together with the CD. Fans of modest means scrambled to view the visual album for themselves, so among my student and friend circles, we would share our passwords to Tidal or pass around the DVD so that we could all see the visual album in its entirety. The visual album carried us through the experience of suspicion, betrayal, anger, reflection, and healing that signified beyond Beyonce’s individual and isolated expression of jealousy and vengeance, to something deeper that we were all feeling in this time of racial unrest. Many of us were enraged by the recent violent loss of Black lives to police violence: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and many others. Many of us were still smarting from Satoshi Kanasawa’s infamous Psychology Today blogpost that suggested that men’s rating of Black women as least beautiful was “human nature” and the social media firestorm that followed. Perhaps beyond mere gossip, this was why so many Black women became obsessed with speculating about the real “Becky with the good hair”—the tantalizing “other woman” that Beyoncé throws under the bus in the song “Sorry.”

A few months after the CMAs, I stepped up to serve as chair of my English department, a job that I was good at but also found stressful in its invisible labor of diplomacy: counseling a Black male graduate student who felt afraid on campus, ducking security guards’ suspicious looks to find a safe place to read before his night class; and that same afternoon, listening while a white faculty member confessed that he was afraid of this same student’s anger; writing in support of an indispensable administrative assistant whose hours were being chipped away, until she was forced into early retirement. On the drive home, I’d blast Lemonade from my aging Honda Fit’s speakers, Beyoncé trading lines with the rapper Kendrick Lamar, their fury matching mine with a beat strong enough to march a protest to:

I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!

Lemonade evoked a strong collective response among Black women like me who were stunned and heartened to see and hear its powerfully intimate expressions of pain, anger, and resilience enacted by this worshiped, seemingly invulnerable, diva. I heard it in that line from “Freedom”: “I need freedom, too”—Beyoncé’s insistence that she was not an exception because of her celebrity. As Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Lemonade disrupted our inner ear, throwing us off balance as we confronted the breadth of all we have missed, ignored, and submerged by pushing Black womanhood, even our own, to the margins.” The album’s imagery, sometimes jarring, sometimes intimate, moves from home movies of weddings and living rooms to surreal plantation landscapes to starkly lit spaces where entertainment and sex work seem to meld, speaking to the past and present violence that haunts Black women. The marriage of song and image is reinforced and amplified by pieces of poetry by the Somali British poet Warsan Shire. Shire’s poetry reinforces and sometimes complicates the song’s lyrics, read dramatically by Beyoncé herself in a voice hushed and immediate, as if she were curled up next to me, whispering in my ear.

The daddy in “Daddy Lessons” teaches his daughter to fight. In encouraging her to “be tough,” learning how to shoot his rifle, riding motorcycles duded up in classic vinyl and leather, the father encourages his daughter to both defend herself and to take care of her mother and sister—that is, to take the place as the head of the family, a place usually reserved for sons.

When Beyoncé’s and the Chicks’ voices meld in harmony with those lines about the father, gun and head held high, there is glory and dignity in this image, and I picture someone who might be immortalized on a statue in a small-town square or, well, in a country music song. Except, of course, this is a Black daddy. And armed Black men are not usually the subjects of patriotic statues or most country songs. We are reminded of this daddy’s Blackness both sonically and visually in the Lemonade visual album. At the opening of the visual, as the rhythms bring us into the song, we hear a chorus of male hoots and snaps and yeahs and gruff “go go gos!”—sort of a downhome version of the Black male voices on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” (In the version of “Daddy Lessons” performed with the Dixie Chicks, the background “yeehaws” have a different resonance, with a heightened female vocal presence.) As the trumpet solo begins, we watch a circle of young Black men, hanging out together, dancing, joking, and laughing in front of a corner store. We see a closeup shot of a young Black girl on a stoop, watching, thinking, and listening. The video then cuts to Beyoncé in a puffy-sleeved country-style dress cut in West African fabric. She sings and dances next to a seated Black man in a cowboy hat, a snappily dressed elder playing a red electric guitar. This sonic and visual fabric of male support bolsters Beyoncé’s storytelling and figures Black men as collaborators as well as listeners.

Beyoncé’s song recollects “Daddy” with affectionate nostalgia but also a questioning eye, one that acknowledges his human failings, his whiskey in his tea. When she sings:

Daddy made me fight
It wasn’t always right
But he said, “Girl, it’s your Second Amendment”

In that “but” is the sense of struggle, of weighing two different versions of morality, one supported by Daddy and the Constitution, the other, her own.

As the song heats up, it shifts from a memory to a warning, this time to a man who is doing her wrong. As the song’s attention shifts to this other man, the man who is hurting her, the song gets more ambiguous. Is Daddy one of the men who protects her from trouble, or is Daddy also one of the troubled men, like “you”?

The visual imagery of “Daddy Lessons” in Lemonade presents its own angle on the outlaw, archetypal but with a different framework shaped by Black experiences of freedom, as well as gendered violence and experiences of surveillance. Built in is a sense of contradictions between this white outlaw ideal, her father’s sense of justice, and her own. A Black father and daughter ride together on a horse through a lush field. Later we see that man riding his horse down the street of a cramped, but orderly, Black neighborhood—denoting a quest for freedom within urban confines. Another Black man nestles his infant daughter against his chest in one shot and then, seconds later, takes a swing toward the camera. We see two young men stalking a residential street, checking for unlocked car doors, presumably to rob them. The cinematography is a little blurry, but the colors are Kodachrome bright, producing a nostalgia that is both sweet and bitter. We see the sweetness when the song cuts to a home movie, a small conversation between a young Bey and her father, Mathew Knowles. “What would you do if Granddaddy and Grandma were here?” her father asks her. “Have fun!” young Beyoncé replies. “Tell them!” the father demands. And at once, this earlier generation is summoned, whether living or dead, now also a part of the song. The video then makes a quick cut to an older Mathew Knowles playing with Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy, creating a chain of memories of fathers and daughters. Although Beyoncé’s actual father is not dead, the song enacts the desire to speak across time to the dead, to both love and grapple with daddys across the generations.

But those generational legacies are not always so sweet. In the interstitial section leading up to the song, we watch a little Black girl watching her mother and father fight. The scene has the blurs and emotionally imbued franticness of a barely suppressed memory. As the argument escalates, the girl holds her head and ears, crying. Beyoncé’s hushed voiceover asks, “Mother Dearest, did he bend your reflection? Did he make you forget your own name? Did he convince you he was a god? Did he make you sit on your knees daily? Do his eyes close like doors? Are you a slave to the back of his head? Are we talking about your husband, or your father?” In this sequence, men, specifically fathers, are both loving and unpredictable, and potentially violent. Beyoncé whispers, “I don’t know when love became elusive. What I know is, no one I know has it. My father’s arms around my mother’s neck, fruit too ripe to eat.” The image of her father’s arms around her mother’s neck is ambiguous, and could be one of affection, possession, violence, or maybe all three. Against the grain of nostalgia, “Daddy Lessons,” as framed by the album’s visuals and Shire’s poetry, forces us to think about the perpetuation of patterns of violence across generations, even as the song also evokes tender memories of fatherhood.

When Beyoncé sings of daddies, of course I think about my own. How far he seems from the gunslinger in “Daddy Lessons”: the first man I ever saw cry, this lover of Jesus and J. Krishnamurti, Langston Hughes and the MacNeil-Lehrer Report. My father’s gentle hands can pound human voice and heartbeat out of a drum, but he never hit me or my sisters or my mother, and he convinced my mother to abandon her occasional spankings, too. I’ve never seen him lose his temper. Sure, I’ve seen him get stressed out at our Christmas parties when small children play with the ceramic nativity scene or teenagers put their pop cans on his pool table. I’ve heard him get terse with uncooperative customer service representatives, lowering his voice to a quiet, well-enunciated tone.

My father’s gentleness is all the more noteworthy because of the physical violence that was a part of his everyday world, growing up Black, poor, and struggling on the South and West Side of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s. His own household had been violent: his father sometimes beating his mother, his mother sometimes beating him. My father told me how, as a teenager, it was common to be confronted on the street by other men for money, so he developed the habit of carrying himself hunched and protected, and he never walked alone if he could help it. When he was in college, my father found out that he was good at boxing. Despite his light frame, he knew from his life as a drummer how to get inside a rhythm, the one-two of shuffling feet, when to hit and when to duck. He thought that maybe this would be a way to pay for school. He kept winning his fights until one day he was matched with a fighter much heavier than he was and with fewer scruples. A few minutes into the fight, his opponent reached behind his neck and gave him a rabbit punch, knocking him out cold. He realized that boxing could kill him. Instead, he put his energy into school, and then more school, and with the help of scholarships and a night job at the post office and a day job driving a bus, stealing naps between work and school, he finished college, and then graduate school, eventually earning a PhD. He told me that it took years of living in green, surrounded by the open space and green lawns of campus quads, to unfurl his insides. Sometimes, when he’s debating a point at the dinner table, in his passionate precision I can see the ghost of that mean right hook. But whenever he wins an argument, he keeps coming back, gently turning the point over and over again to fully see the other side. From my daddy, I learned the lesson that to be gentle when life is otherwise is definitely a kind of a fight.

Fatherhood has long been a sore point in the Black community, where the history of rape and the breeding and selling of slaves made family structures difficult to sustain. But we have also always had other versions of family in the Black community, models that have been devalued and criminalized by white culture, or that just go under the radar: daddys who don’t live with their “baby mamas” but who are deeply involved in their children’s lives; daddys and mamas who live together but aren’t married; women-led households, multigenerational households, queer families. Maybe all of these could be considered queer, especially in the eyes of the law.

Daddy lessons, as they’ve been defined traditionally, may not serve us. We might need to push beyond them. Within “Daddy Lessons,” Beyoncé calls up family memory and names how those histories shape her current views of love as well as her fears for its loss. But maybe “Daddy Lessons” might also be a jumping-off point for reinventing what daddying can mean, for ourselves and for those we love. What might it mean to daddy ourselves? Perhaps this version of daddying can have a sharpened eye for justice. It can be gentle but also persistent, like my own daddy. We might be daddy for our daughters and sons, our partners, ourselves, and those outside our immediate family, claiming a more expansive vision of home.

Beyoncé rides on her horse, sky blue and crisp behind her, the afternoon sun almost blinding. At first, our view of her is framed by a car window, a car driven by an older Black man who smiles at her kindly as he watches, the gold from his sunglasses glinting in the light. Other shots from the song show a little girl riding with her daddy right behind her, holding her in the saddle, but as “Daddy Lessons” progresses, Beyoncé rides alone. The sun dapples her box braids and jeans and her simple white T-shirt, and she looks neither right nor left, but moves with the horse’s steps, upright and with grace, ducking an overhanging branch.

In the end, I see Beyoncé offering a revised model of rage that can be generative, and also inclusive and justice seeking, one that parallels the Black feminist view of “mothering.” Can we hold the lessons of daddys without being bound by them? What other frames can we see? I have gained strength by recent formulations of the revolutionary power of mothering ourselves. In her anthology Revolutionary Mothering, Alexis Pauline Gumbs is inspired by the Black feminist mothers before her, like Audre Lorde and June Jordan and Toni Cade Bambara, writer-activists whose vision extends beyond blood bonds, even beyond their deaths. These authors teach us that to mother is to bring care regardless of blood, reaching always outward, loving always with an eye to new possibilities—the transformation of our own hearts and of the world. Gumbs writes, “The radical potential of the word ‘mother’ comes after the ‘m.’ It is the space that ‘other’ takes in our mouths when we say it.” If mothering ourselves necessarily means transforming past ways of being a family, of partnering and loving, maybe we can transform our daddy lessons, too. This is the direction that I see over the course of Beyoncé’s Lemonade as she moves from narratives of intimate hurt, betrayal, and grief focused on the nuclear family to collective grief, healing, and then making change, in songs like “Freedom,” “All Night,” and “Formation.” As song number six in an album of twelve songs, “Daddy Lessons” is at that point of structural transition. I’d like to suggest that as we watch Beyoncé move first within her father’s framework of justice as retribution to something outside of that frame, beyond those past entanglements, justice is transformed.

The second half of the album meditates upon the collective legacies of slavery, healing, and redemption, and moves outward, beyond the album’s tight focus on the heterosexual romantic couple, marriage, and the nuclear family. By the time we get to “All Night,” the eleventh song on the album, we have been taken on a journey of critical looking, catharsis, and healing. As Beyoncé puts it at the opening of “All Night,” “My torturer became my remedy . . . so we’re going to heal, start again.” “All Night” takes us back to the personal, this time with couples of different races and sexualities, performing everyday acts of commitment and restoration: working a garden, getting matching tattoos, shopping at a neighborhood grocery store, caring for children. “All Night” also directly restores the tensions suggested by “Daddy Lessons.” The sequence includes a home movie from Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s (real-life) wedding, and we see not only that couple restored, but also Beyoncé dancing with Mathew Knowles, her father and one-time manager. One phrase from the song’s lyrics on healing could come from a daughter, a daddy, a lover, or a community: “Trade your broken wings for mine. I’ve seen your scars and kissed your cries.” We need “Daddy Lessons,” then, to take us through the grieving process, to name the problems and contradictions of patriarchy and perhaps move beyond them.

Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2022

Francesca T. Royster

Francesca T. Royster is a professor of English at DePaul University, author of Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, and Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon, and coeditor of “Uncharted Country,” a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies on race and country music.