Queen Bey and the Utility of Nefertiti
In her poem “Homage to Black Madonnas,” poet and visual artist Marianne Burroughs writes of the "magnificent black women” of the world. Continuing her reverential efforts, Burroughs honors those of us who have been ignored. To these women, she writes that “poets and singers have been remiss/have sung too few poems and songs of you/and the image makers have not recorded your beauty/.” Burroughs speaks of Sheba, Nefertiti, Zaiditu, and Cleopatra–the African beauties she believes that time has forgotten or distorted. To her, these African women represent the “mother original,” the foundation for the bridge between ancient Black women and the women who have been “bartered, sold, insulted, raped and defiled, debased and debauched for four centuries.”
In the midst of these ancient icons, the names of more contemporary Black women help to anchor the poem. Hansberry, Truth, Tubman, and Hamer maker their schedule appearances. After them are the strong women, the women forgotten, the gentle Black women, the humble women, the resourceful Black women, the militant Black women, the discerning Black women, the courageous Black women, the angry Black women, the heroic Black women, the Black women of genius, the magnificent Black women, and the sisters with all women. These women are the subjects of Burroughs’ admiration, the beings she holds in high regard, whether anyone else will. On Saturday, April 14th at 11:05 p.m. Pacific Time (2:05 a.m. EST), Beyoncé debuted an homage of a different kind on the mainstage of the Coachella festival, in which she conjured the image of late Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
The first Black woman to headline the nearly twenty-year-old Music and Arts Festival, Beyoncé came to the stage demanding the very recognition that women like her are too often denied. Armed with an arsenal of cultural symbols, a referential catalog, and a marching band of her own making, Queen Bey, as she is often called, led her own call to worship, honoring all the people and things that make up her Black Southern alter. Among her honorees, was Nefertiti, the 14th century B.C. queen of Egypt and wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten during the wealthiest period in Egypt’s history.
Following the performance, Beyoncé released new merchandise inspired by the artistic vision of her set. Beyoncé “BΔK” sorority jackets, bandanas, gym shorts, and t-shirts became available for purchase, some of which featured Nefertiti herself. On the sorority crests, four emblems signify the singer’s chosen symbols: the bust of Nefertiti, a black panther, a clenched fist, and a bee. On some of the merchandise, though, Nefertiti appears as Beyoncé, or Beyoncé appears as Nefertiti, depending on how you look at it. Reveling in her crown and glory, the singer reigns over the t-shirts and hoodie on which this image is offered.
In African-American women’s art or iconography, it is not uncommon to see tributes to Nefertiti. In her 1943 poem, “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why),” poet Nikki Giovanni casts herself as the mother of Nefertiti, asserting an arrogance rooted in African ancestry and proximity to Nefertiti. She writes, “my oldest daughter is Nefertiti/ the tears from my birth pains created the Nile/ I am a beautiful woman.” For Giovanni, Nefertiti is the key to a rich history, and thus, an icon for whom she feels an almost maternal bond.
According to writer Toni Morrison, many Black women nurture a "desperate love” for the queen. In a New York Times piece, entitled, “What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib,” Morrison argues that Black women have been drawn to the image of Nefertiti in resistance of more sinister caricatures of Black femininity. "Unlike Nefertiti, an archetype that black women have appropriated for themselves, Geraldine and Sapphire are the comic creations of men,” she writes. As Morrison puts it, Nefertiti is the “romantic black queen with the enviable neck,” she is attractive to young Black women primarily for existing. Nefertiti is “remote enough to worship,” and thus, she has become a useful symbol for the expressive needs of African-American femininity. She is a distant beauty, made inaccessible by time, and more powerful due to its passing.
A historical figure who represents, for some, a time of Black female reign and majesty, Nefertiti continues to retain a kind of cultural potency. She has been a malleable symbol for many who insist on constructing a notion of Black regality. So little must be known of Nefertiti for her iconography to be imprinted upon those who might consider themselves her modern subjects. In this way, it could be said that Beyoncé’s relationship to the Egyptian queen reveals her adherence to the African American tradition of adopting the icon for political and artistic purposes. But, at second glance, it appears that this is not the primary lens through which the superstar is appropriating the image of Nefertiti. Rather, Beyoncé’s connection and continued loyalty to the icon may be rooted into something far more compelling: a kind of self-identification.
Opening her first show at Coachella, Beyoncé emerged as Nefertiti. With the signature crown atop her head, she merged her status as Queen Bey with the imagery of the late Egyptian queen, forging a juxtaposition she has enjoyed for some time. In her 2016 visual album, Lemonade, Beyoncé appeared in a braided crown shaped to evoke the image of Nefertiti. Here, the singer appears as a scorned figure as her song, “Sorry,” is woven into images of herself amongst other Black women on a Southern plantation. In the scene in which she wears the Nefertiti crown, however, Beyoncé is alone. There is no setting or color, and her arms are pulled behind her. As she threatens to leave the man who has failed to honor her, she uses the imagery of Nefertiti to restore her power in the face of destruction. It is as if she makes herself into the infamous bust in order to illustrate her own singularity.
Nearly a year after Lemonade, in her 2017 pregnancy announcement photos, Beyoncé positioned herself in conversation with both Nefertiti and the Madonna. Holding her protruding belly as flowers and grass sprouts up from the bottom of the frame, Beyoncé stands next to a bust of Nefertiti. While she recasts herself as the “mother original,”
Beyoncé places herself in alignment with the Egyptian icon once more. In the photo, Nefertiti is almost camouflaged. In the scene Beyoncé creates, the icon is so expertly incorporated, her presence is a seamless addition. This is no grand cameo, they are constant collaborators. Two queens parallel to one another.
In other images from the pregnancy shoot, Beyoncé’s first child, Blue, and her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, are pictured amongst her, identifying the singer within a matrilineal framework. But, in this image, Beyoncé, pregnant with twins, appears as an expectant mother communing with none but Nefertiti, an iconic queen who bore six daughters of her own. Royal babies in their own right, Beyoncé’s twins, who would later be known as Sir and Rumi Carter, would expand her kingdom and reinstate her connections to the Great Royal Wife, as well as her own legacy.
As of the 21st century, it is the bust of Nefertiti, currently housed, against the wishes of her people, in the Neues Museum of Berlin, which has come to signify her majesty. In sculpture form, as we know her today, Nefertiti is made of limestone and stucco. She is a woman with no body but immense beauty. Propped up by a long slender neck, her head confidently bears her elaborate gold-banded “cap crown.” Her face is a sight built by symmetry, making her one of the ancient world’s most remembered icons.
According to the history, under the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, the geographic and artistic landscape of Egypt was radically changed. The national capital of Egypt was relocated from Thebes to Amarna, and the regions art took on new life. Soon, the old governing principles were replaced and the art began to reflect the people, animals and objects with realism, as if they were all bound to pragmatism. Perhaps, this is why Nefertiti has become the icon of choice for those interested in power. She has come to represent a kind of cultural upheaval which, in these times, can seem obsolete. Contemporarily, Beyoncé’s ascendance and maintenance of her throne is due, in part, to her harnessing of the very control and vision that makes a queen not only powerful, but potent.
Besides her remarkable talent, Beyoncé’s reservation, discipline, and execution have made her into a living legend. Barricading her kingdom from the threats of celebrity, the singer is infamous for her preservation of privacy in the face of exploitation. Queendom requires inaccessibility. Monarchs must be guarded. So, the Queen keeps her distance. On DJ Khaled’s recent single, “Top Off,” Beyoncé choreographs her voice somewhere between singing and rapping, articulating her expectations of her subjects. Riding the beat as “B,” she quips, “If they're tryna party with the queen, they gon' have to sign a nondisclosure.” Setting the terms and conditions of our engagement with her, Beyoncé continues to give of herself in portions and projects. We will only see what she has allowed us to. Icons are built on myth and mystery, and she knows this well. But, queens incur great cost by electing solitude. By conjuring Nefertiti, Beyoncé articulates an arrogance of her own–one that is rooted in an understanding of her power and significance as a cultural juggernaut. With no true competition in the present, perhaps, Beyoncé has resorted to finding companionship in the ancient world. After all, who else can she relate to?