Beyoncé and Beckham: selling out for performative allyship?

When Beyoncé takes the stage, the whole world seems to stop and look. Her recent performance in Dubai, her first full-length concert since 2018, was no different, with fans clamouring for any footage of the private event on social media. However, some fans feel betrayed that she would perform in a country where queer relationships are illegal, especially in light of the reverence her recent album Renaissance paid to the queer community.

The private concert for 1,500 guests was held to mark the opening of the luxury hotel Atlantis The Royal. Beyoncé’s hour-long performance included such hits as “Drunk in Love”, “Halo”, and “Crazy in Love” as well as the live debut of several songs from her 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift. Blue Ivy, Beyoncé’s daughter, appeared on stage to perform their Grammy-winning collaboration “Brown Skin Girl” together for the first time. Many fans noted, however, the conspicuous absence of any music from her album Renaissance which was released last year.

Renaissance is a celebration of house music and the Black queer ballroom and club scene which brought it into existence. In crafting the album, Beyoncé included elements from club classics like “Show Me Love” by Robin S. and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, as well as voice clips by New York nightlife icon Kevin Aviance and TV personality Ts Madison. Rapper Big Freedia, who helped popularise bounce music in New Orleans, is sampled on the chart-topping “Break My Soul”. On Instagram Beyoncé dedicated the record to “all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognised for far too long” and to her late uncle Johnny, who died from complications related to HIV. In a 2019 speech at the GLAAD Awards she praised Johnny for having “lived his truth” and being “brave and unapologetic at a time when this country wasn’t as accepting”.

Fans were eager to see Beyoncé perform songs from the record after the album received little promotion upon release. However, none of the tracks from Renaissance were in her Dubai setlist, and it’s easy to see why. Under United Arab Emirates law, itself in accordance with Sharia law, same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death. The influence of queer culture on the songs from Renaissance would not have been a good fit for performance in Dubai.

Why, then, did Beyoncé agree to perform in Dubai in the first place? It is reported that she earned $24 million for performing there, but some have argued that she didn’t need the money. If she did, she probably would’ve promoted Renaissance a lot more last year. Music journalist Abigail Firth told the BBC that it seemed like a “really misguided choice” for Beyoncé given that her recent work is “indebted to LGBT culture”.

Some have compared Beyoncé supposedly selling out for this grand hotel opening to David Beckham, noted for his gay activism in the past, being paid £10 million to be a brand ambassador for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Qatar has also persecuted queer people, with male homosexual acts being outlawed and Muslims who are convicted under Sharia law facing possible capital punishment. Drag queen and television personality Kitty Scott-Claus tweeted asking if it is “one rule for one and one for another” as some fans are hesitant to condemn Beyoncé’s performance.

It is important to recognise that these two situations are different. Beckham was paid by the Qatar government to be an ambassador for the World Cup, while Beyoncé was paid by a private company to perform at a private event. Performing in a country is not the same as espousing the policies of that country’s government. In 2008 George Michael performed in Qatar and it’s obvious he didn’t share their views.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything questionable about Beyoncé deciding to perform there. Atlantis Resorts, the company which owns the Atlantis The Royal, is a subsidiary of Kerzner International. South African business magnate Solomon Kerzner founded Kerzner International and was involved in numerous political and business controversies throughout his life. In 1984, he made a deal with the government of Bophuthatswana, a nominally independent republic from South Africa at the time, to advertise apartheid in return for tax breaks for his hotel company Sun International. He was also named in Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘little black book’. While he died in 2020 and Kerzner obviously was not involved in arranging the performance, it seems odd that she would choose to work with a company founded by such a controversial figure for her return to performance. Beyoncé famously takes great care with her performance arrangements, so her team must have been aware of these details about the parent company of the hotel.

While you cannot truly compare Beckham’s ambassadorial role for the Qatari government with Beyoncé performing at a Dubai hotel, it is questionable why somebody of her stature would choose to give her first concert since 2018 in a country with such oppressive laws and at a hotel whose company’s founder had such immoral business dealings. Artists with Beyoncé’s platform and status should make choices that consciously support marginalised groups, and while some fans could argue that this performance is a step forward, she did not use the performance to speak up about attacks on the queer community. Instead, she just spent an hour performing her hits, like she has done at so many other private functions in the past. This time, though, it’s come back to bite her.