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"If this were a Beyoncé show and you said it was ‘on the way,’ your ass would be on the way," he shouts at her from the stage. It’s not the best burn, but we get the gist.
The room is silent until another usher appears with two fresh microphones so the audience Q&A can get going. Weirdly, it takes a few minutes before the crowd loosens up.
It’s been an exciting couple years for Mathew Knowles, best known as Beyoncé’s estranged dad and former manager. After managing his daughter’s career since the days of Destiny’s Child, Knowles was dropped in 2011. His firing followed a media mess that featured many of the Scummy Showbiz Dad hits: a longtime mistress requesting child support, Knowles denying paternity, a positive paternity test, and Tina Knowles divorcing him. Then: a second mistress, a second child. It wasn't too wild in the grand scheme of Things that Can Play Out in the Media, but when your brand is as PG-13 and enormous as Beyoncé’s, it was a years-long sore spot.
Between the divorce, losing his manager salary, and paying child support for two new kids, Knowles has reportedly been in rough financial shape, and every few months a sad headline will bubble up. In late 2014 he sold a bunch of Beyoncé memorabilia on his front lawn. The Sony leak revealed he’d been lowkey emailing executives trying to see if they’d be interested in doing a Destiny’s Child biopic.
Which brings us to October 2015: Knowles has a new book out, "The DNA of Achievers: 10 Traits of Highly Successful Professionals," and is a visiting professor teaching music business classes at Texas Southern University. The seminar I attended is a 10am to 5pm workshop meant to cover a lot of the themes in the book. TMZ caught wind and referred to the event as "Beyoncé 101" or "Beyoncé Boot camp" — phrases Knowles didn’t use in the print materials, but which definitely contributed to the story going viral.
Which is how this event caught my attention. I’m less a Beyoncé fan and more someone-who’s-deeply-invested-in-the-Americana-of-Beyoncé-and-the-feminism-of-Beyoncé-and-the-humanity-of-Beyoncé. The narrative of an extremely talented, beautiful, and powerful woman worrying how her success might impact her dad’s self esteem is so gourmetly intersectional. Ed Sheeran will never have to do press on whether his success threatens how his mother feels about herself, but Beyoncé gets to do an Oprah interview. Beyoncé gets to spend the first 10 minutes of her documentary diplomatically explaining how hard it was to decide to fire someone who, had he been anyone else, would’ve been fired years earlier.
So I wanted Mathew Knowles to prove me wrong a little bit. To prove he was a person worthy of the generosity his daughters and ex-wife have shown him in the press. I wanted Beyoncé to be right. I got a ticket.
It’s 10am at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston, Texas, and even though the two-tiered Zilkha Hall is built to seat 500 people, there are about 30 of us in the audience. Outside, Hurricane Patricia has been pouring moderate-to-heavy rain on the city for hours.
Even though the two-tiered Zilkha Hall is built to seat 500 people, there are about 30 of us in the audience.
The audience is a mixed bag of aspiring artists and entertainment professionals decked out in full looks, and they shake hands and smile big while exchanging elevator pitches. If it were a party, the theme would be "American Idol audition." As I make my way to my seat, a popular local DJ dressed like Future chats up a pair of pop songstresses who recently started a YouTube channel. An R&B singer who flew from Nigeria just to be here introduces herself and hands me her demo CD.
I opted for the $299 VIP ticket, which means my seat is in a taped-off area with good views at the front of the theater. I’m the only person in my row, so I spread out a bit.
The lights dim, then go out, and a movie trailer-sounding voiceover starts to list inspirational business nouns over the sound system.
"Drive, determination, vision."
A projector screen at the front of the theater illuminates to show someone’s Windows desktop and a cursor frantically clicking between programs. It eventually finds the Quicktime player and maximizes it, and we’re treated to a three minute introduction to Mathew Knowles’s story. He was born in Gadsden, Alabama in 1952. He was a successful executive at Xerox before retiring to manage his daughters. He loves to give back to the community.
After the video ends, we sit in the darkness. Another male voice comes through the sound system, and this one is Mathew’s.
The lights remain off, but Europe’s "The Final Countdown" begins playing at a high volume.
"Would it be okay for us to play that again?" he asks. "Can y’all bear with us as we are recording this?"
It’s then that I notice a man with a steadicam standing near the stage filming us.
The video starts again, and this time it goes perfectly from start to finish. We wait in the dark momentarily, and we hear Mathew over the sound system again.
"That’s my light cue," he says, audibly irked.
The lights remain off, but Europe’s "The Final Countdown" begins playing at a high volume, and you can see Knowles’s shadow crossing the stage in the dark. When the spotlight turns on, it finds him waiting at center stage.
He thanks us all for braving the weather to come out and tells us how excited he is to start the day, when yet another male voice booms over the sound system. It's God.
"Hi, Mathew with one T," God says.
Mathew chuckles and says hey to God, who it turns out is a fan. The two chat about how great this seminar will be, and the conversation ends with God saying, "Mr. Knowles, I have something to ask you: can I get a picture?"
Then a phone camera sound effect blasts through the theater.
We are 10 minutes into a seven hour day.
The first half of the seminar is dedicated to getting a read of the room and doling out general business tips. He starts his talk off by telling us he’s been working on it since the idea came to him a year and a half ago.
"I was planning on giving this to a sold out room," he says with a closed-mouthed sigh, and suddenly it feels like the sparsely-filled seats are the audience’s fault, not the theater’s or his team’s or his. He’s very good at that.
He lists different specialties within the music business and asks us to stand up for the ones that apply. If you’re a singer, stand up. If you’re a rapper, stand up. He does it for songwriters, producers, managers, and social media experts too. One woman stands up for everything.
"You need to have a focus," he tells her. "You can’t have more than one focus."
It’s a tip he repeats throughout the day as artist after hopeful artist lists off their many-hyphened career aspirations and areas of interest.
"Be good at one thing first," he repeats. "You wanna fail? Try to do two or more things at one time. I’m not telling you you’ll fail, I’m promising you."
Somehow it feels like the sparsely-filled seats are the paying customers’ fault, not the theater’s or his team’s or his.
He gives a PowerPoint with slide titles like Passion, Work Ethic, and Vision, and intermittently calls upon audience members to perform on the spot. A girl group he’s currently developing, BLUSHHH Music, performs and he critiques them for us. He points out that one of the girls is wearing a belt "under [a shirt] that’s too tight" and that one thing going wrong "distracts you from the whole group."
"Failure is an opportunity to grow," he tells us.
The best part of the morning is when he invites one of the YouTubers to the stage to sing for him. She belts out the beginning of Dionne Warwick’s "I Say a Little Prayer," and he stops her halfway through the first chorus.
He asks her to close her eyes, walk him through the lyrics line by line, and visualize each image. So for "The moment I wake up," she describes her bedspread and her cat Mowgli. For "Before I put on my makeup," she describes the vanity near her bathroom door. After he feels confident she’s fully immersed, he has her sing the song again. She sounds much better.
We break for lunch, and my VIP ticket means I’ll be part of a group dining experience with Mr. Knowles. I’d assumed the lunch would be on-site in a conference room, but when we file into the lobby, ushers guide us out the door and to the rainy sidewalk where a black stretch Hummer is waiting for us. The limo holds about 20 people, and with Knowles’s team and guests included, the car has to take two trips to the restaurant in order to get everyone there.
Mathew posts up at the front of the Italian restaurant and lets us know that he’ll be there with a photographer if we’d like to take pictures — one of our VIP perks. In the event description, lunch was touted as prime "one-on-one time with Mathew Knowles," but it’s clear the photo will be the extent of the interaction.
I prioritize my tortellini over the photo line and chat with my tablemates — a gorgeous teen singer from Norway who read about the seminar online and convinced her dad to let her come, and a very sweet blonde woman who recently moved from Wisconsin to the Houston area to get her Golden Doodle’s modeling career off the ground. Both of them are at a loss to describe what we’ve seen so far, but optimistic that the second half will be better. Before Knowles leaves, I scramble to the front of the venue, past the professional photographer, and ask him if he’d mind taking a selfie.
He tells me to "be quick."
After a Hummer ride back, we arrive at the theater with the second half of the seminar already underway. Knowles welcomes a panel of industry insiders to the stage: publicist Stacia Pratt, music entrepreneur Barry Coffing, vocal coach Tom McKinney, and social expert Vonn Butler. The opening chat generates some good tips. 30,000 followers on any one social media platform lets them know you’ll be able to make money. Instagress and Filmic Pro are great apps for building audience and looking hot in Instagram videos. Dump your boyfriend.
When the format switches to an audience Q&A, the panel oscillates between administering practical advice and ruthless burns. A singer-songwriter from New York with 12 YouTube subscribers asks what she can do to get her videos out there, and the panel tells her that if her channel isn’t growing, she probably doesn’t belong in front a camera. Is it something that an agent or a manager might ostensibly say to her if she were in a meeting? Maybe. But for a seminar whose title asks the question, "How do I get in?" it’s not the most constructive response.
The panel oscillates between administering practical advice and ruthless burns.
"The reason that some of us fail is that we’re just not good at it," Knowles says. "Has that ever occurred to you?"
After that, several singers are brought to the stage to show everyone what they’ve got — some even get complimented by McKinney, who worked with Beyoncé for years — but a weird, hostile undertone has crept into the room.
It’s eerie to watch the rapid-cycling inflation and deflation of an enormous male ego over a series of hours. You can tell Knowles is humiliated by the audience size and general lack of technical precision from the staff at the venue. But he cannot for a moment handle us thinking that he’s not in control, so he constantly asserts his expertise over the audience and raises his voice, which, like Beyoncé’s, is very strong.
The day ends with the panelists leaving the stage, and Knowles opening the mics up one more time for a Q&A. The Nigerian R&B artist who was handing out her CDs at the beginning of the day steps up to the stand and tries to hand him a custom bookmark with her contact info on it.
"Do you think that’s gonna impress me? Really?" he snaps.
She tries to reply, but he cuts her off to tell us about the box where he throws all of the demos people hand him throughout the day. When the box gets full, he empties it "straight… to the garbage," and he promises her that’s where hers will end up.
Once he’s done, she reminds him that his Eventbrite page for this event instructs people to "personally hand him your demo CD or résumé!" and there is a long, satisfying silence before he says thank you and invites the next person in line to step up to the mic.
"Do you think that’s gonna impress me? Really?" he snaps.
A few more audience members pose questions about booking bigger gigs and making the jump from piano bar work to singing original material, and then the Q&A ends. Knowles stands center stage to deliver his parting statements.
"Today — I’ll be honest with you — I saw maybe four people who had the look." Everyone is at the edge of their seats, equal parts ready to leave and hoping for one last chance to make a connection with him.
And then, for the first time, Knowles speaks directly to the cameraman — still standing with his steadicam at the side of the stage.
"I don’t know how we’re gonna cut this all together," he says, looking into the camera and shrugging like Jim Halpert.
"Carefully," the cameraman replies, and Knowles chuckles.
"I like that. Carefully."