By the spring of 2018, Beyoncé Knowles was no doubt one of the most famous pop culture figures on the planet — a 23-time Grammy-winning artist who had already graced the world’s biggest stages, like the Super Bowl half-time show in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival had started in 1999 as an “anti-Woodstock” to make artists accessible to music goers but had turned into such an influential event that it attracted the likes of Clint Eastwood, Snoop Dogg and Cameron Diaz.
Then on April 14, 2018, both the singer and the music festival reached new levels of fame with Beyoncé’s two-hour performance which combined performers from HBCUs, surprise reunions and her greatest hits. Not only did Beyoncé impress with her performance and vocal chops, but as the first Black woman to headline Coachella, she also seized the opportunity to showcase African American culture in a way it had never been done before.
Beyoncé had a history of surprise Coachella performances
Beyoncé long had family ties to the festival held in the desert in Indio, California. When her husband, rapper Jay-Z, headlined in 2010, she popped out to join him in a duet of “Young Forever,” shocking the audience. Four years later, she again surprised the crowd when she joined her sister, singer Solange Knowles, on stage in a choreographed routine to “Losing You.”
So when it was announced that she would be performing her own set at Coachella in 2017, it almost seemed overdue. But there was another due date looming: Beyoncé had announced she was pregnant with twins, and according to doctor’s orders, she had to pull out of the long-anticipated performance.
Fans who already had their tickets were disappointed. There was an upside: She was able to take a rain check and confirm that she’d headline the 2018 festival.
The new mom had to undergo a rigorous diet and exercise schedule to prep for her performance
While welcoming her twins Sir and Rumi in June 2017 was a major milestone for the singer, she admitted that the process had changed her body in ways that she didn’t recognize. “I was a woman that felt like my body was not mine,” she said in a YouTube video.
As a performer, she felt the need to take control, sharing in her documentary Homecoming that she was 218 pounds the day she gave birth via c-section. “I had to rebuild my body from cut muscles,” she said, noting how hard it was to balance that with spending time with her newborns.
Knowing that she had Coachella on the calendar in April 2018, she set out on a strict nutrition plan, showing that she weighed 175 pounds on Day One of rehearsals, calling it a “long way to go.” While she went on Marco Borges’ 22 Days Nutrition Program for 44 days, which included cutting out carbs, sugar, dairy, meat, fish and alcohol, and successfully fit into her desired costume by the end.
Beyoncé also went on a strict exercise plan, saying in the video, “It’s time to work, so I have to get in that zone. It’s like a different headspace. Me getting the weight off, was so much easier than getting back in shape and my body feeling comfortable.”
She was intimately involved with every detail of the planning
With her physical transformation in the works, the Houston-born star then focused on the performance itself. And she didn’t want it to just be another flashy performance — this time she wanted to put some meaning behind it.
The singer had “always dreamed of going to an HBCU [Historically Black College/University] ,” as she said in Homecoming. She had visited Prairie View A&M University and rehearsed at Texas Southern University, and her father had gone to Nashville’s Fisk University — and she always loved their Battle of the Bands marching band showcases. “I grew up seeing those shows and that being the highlight of my year,” Beyoncé explained.
So she set off to recreate the experience exactly the way she remembered. “I personally selected each dancer, every light, the material on the steps, the height of the pyramid, the shape of the pyramid,” she explained. “Every tiny detail had an intention.”
She paid special attention to portraying each element accurately. “I wanted a Black orchestra…I wanted the steppers. I needed different characters, I didn’t want us all doing the same thing,” she explained further. And their talents even impressed the chart-topper. “The things that these young people can do with their bodies and the music they can play… it’s just not right. It’s just so much damn swag.”
The set honored Black culture and had several surprise performances
For her performance, Beyoncé’s already iconic library of hits was reimagined through the lens of an HBCU marching band halftime show. There were trumpets, trombones and nearly 100 dancers, singers and musicians backing her up on stage.
She dropped in vocal snippets of Malcolm X and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and honored Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” and Pastor Troy’s “No Mo’ Play in G.A.” And, in one of the most poignant moments, she sang what is often called the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
She upped her star status by bringing onstage those in her life who had played such a crucial part of her career. First, she returned the favor to her family members, with Jay-Z joining her for “Deja Vu” and Solange for “Get Me Bodied.”
But one of the biggest highlights was a Destiny’s Child reunion, when Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams — who Beyoncé called “my sisters” — surprised the already enthusiastic crowd with a medley of their songs, including “Lose My Breath.”
The performance went down as one of historic measures
Even those involved were surprised by just how massive the performance — which was live-streamed to audiences around the world and then repeated again for Coachella’s second weekend — turned out to be.
“I don’t think any of us were expecting it to be this big of a thing,” JaQuel Knight, one of the main choreographers told The New York Times. “It’s still blowing my mind. We even had a quick conversation with Bey as we were rehearsing for Week Two. She was like: ‘Wow. People really loved the show, huh?’”
University of Maryland guitarist Ari O’Neal, who also was part of the show, told NPR, “I knew it was going to be an amazing show, but I didn’t know that impact that it would have… Being [part of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority of Black college-educated women] and being in the Black Student Union at school, to see those elements made me so excited… To see all the positive feedback made me feel so good.”
And Beyoncé herself was so taken that she decided to commit $100,000 in scholarships to four HBCUs: Bethune-Cookman University, Tuskegee University, Wilberforce University and Xavier University.
Even though Beyoncé has performed on some of the world’s biggest stages, the historic nature of her performance was not lost on the Grammy winner who expressed her gratitude mid-performance, saying, “Thank you for allowing me to be the first Black woman to headline Coachella.”