One night while walking alongside a highway, Mathew Knowles, music executive and father of famous singer Beyoncé, remembered having to hide while a Klu Klux Klan rally passed, saying at a talk at Cornell on Thursday that he was not able to process the event fully until later since he was only five at the time.
“Can you imagine had they saw us, what the outcome would have been at 10 o’clock at night in Marion, Alabama?” Knowles said. “That’s where the ‘eyes of the child‘ [comes from], I’m telling this story from my eyes that started from me at five years old.”
On Thursday, Knowles spoke about how this experience inspired his book, Racism: From the Eyes of a Child. He also discussed his other book, The DNA of Achievers: 10 Traits of Highly Successful Professionals.
Knowles was joined by Prof. Riché Richardson, Africana studies and feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and Prof. Marla F. Frederick, African and African American studies and religion, Harvard University. Prof. Gerard Aching, Africana and romance studies, moderated the talk and discussion.
Knowles said the motivation for the book came from wanting to understand more about himself and his background. Prior to his research, he did not even know the name of his great-grandfather’s name. Through his inquiries, he found out a lot about his family.
“I didn’t know that my grandmother Hester Holt had twin brothers, Sidney and Gitney,” Knowles said. “But that explains the DNA of Beyoncé having twins.”
Knowles also talked about how he wanted people to have the “social courage” to speak about injustices, such as racism being a force that tries to erase the experiences of others. He referenced the actions of President Trump in relation to former president Barack Obama’s legacy as an example of this.
“Think about our current president and how he tries to erase everything Obama has done,” Knowles said. “I wanted to talk about it.”
“I wanted to have the social courage, the responsibility that all of us have to speak up, speak out sooner quicker faster about xenophobia, homophobia, racism,” Knowles continued. “We should have the social courage to do that.”
Education was also a central theme in Knowles’ memoir. The first time Knowles went to an all-black school was actually during his college years. Growing up he went to integrated schools in Alabama. At the first college he attended, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he was one of fourty black people out of thousands of students .
However, after he transferred to Fisk University his junior year, a historically black university, he experienced colorism. At the time, the paper bag test, a test measuring if one’s skin is lighter or darker than a paper bag, was prevalent. Black people with lighter skin were treated better than black people with darker skin.
He believed he wouldn’t have been accepted due to his darker skin tone if he did not play basketball. It was his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, that helped him feel like he fit in college.
“Fortunately for me what saved me was my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi,” Knowles said. “That was my instant connection to brotherhood because I had so many I could call upon.”
Changing gears to the entertainment industry, Frederick asked a question about how Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé found “crossover appeal” and what Knowles did to engineer that.
Instead of relying on a record label’s multi-million dollar budget to promote the music, Knowles seeked brand deals to reach a wider audience. He focused on gaining major endorsement deals with brands such as L’Oréal where he could increase his audience from potentially ten million to forty million.
In addition to the endorsement deals, he created a brand through the types of songs the group sang. The brand that was built for Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child was around female empowerment, as shown through songs like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Survivor.”
“When I got into the industry, people were selling records, not building a brand,” Knowles said. “There is a major difference in building a brand.”
He predicts that visual media will take over the music industry. According to Knowles, now is a great time to get into the communications and the media industry. Since technology is always evolving, there will always be new innovations such as the advent of streaming he said.
“You no longer hear music, you will see music,” Knowles said. “Everytime you experience music, you will literally see a video with it because it brings it to life.”
When asked about his superstar daughter Beyoncé and what it is like to be her parent, he mentioned that he is proud of her humble and kind nature. Knowles added that he the most important thing in live is to live your passion. Once you find your passion, the work-ethic should come naturally. This is one tenet his daughters exemplify.
“The most successful people are the nicest, most humble people,” he said. “They don’t have a sense of arrogance, ego. Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity.”
Gayatri Somaiya ’22 contributed reporting to this article.