Like most, as soon as I got a notification that Queen Bey dropped a new video, I ran straight to my computer. I got chills the first time I watched the video. Not only is it hauntingly artistic, but her message is so powerful and I believe to be incredibly pertinent to the growth of our society. I have grown tired of reading White Conservative drivel that bashes her halftime performance and video, claiming that it’s an attempt to elicit Malcolm X-type behavior out of the young black community.
I came across this article, and sharing it on my Facebook was not enough. I wanted to share it with the masses.
Enjoy, and share your thoughts! Please be reminded that none of us here at B&B endorse the poor treatment of others, so any hate-speak will be deleted and blocked. Thanks for the read, beautiful humans and non-humans.
On Saturday night, I sent a group text to several friends as we were on our way to meet for drinks. It consisted solely of a screen capture from Beyoncé’s new video for Formation and the words: “We must discuss this shit.”
Everyone knew exactly what I was talking about.
My best friend’s answer: “Did Beyoncé just make a statement about the black feminine body defeating the police state?”
Formation is both provocation and pleasure; inherently political and a deeply personal look at the black and queer bodies who have most often borne the brunt of our politics. All shapes and shades of black bodies are signaled here and move – dare we say “forward”? – in formation. Even the song’s title is subversive, winking at how we have constructed our identities from that which we were even allowed to call our own.
Formation isn’t Beyoncé’s first foray into the political but, in her latest collaboration with director Melinda Matouskas (who has directed eight of Beyoncé’s videos since 2007), Beyonce’s narrative and aesthetic comes in sharp relief. The video articulates multiple identities of southern blackness, while social critiques of the nation’s crimes against its darker skinned citizens acts as ballast.
Bookended by the flooding of the city of New Orleans after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina – and by which the city’s black residents were disproportionately affected – and a black child in a hoodie dancing opposite a police line and a quick cut to graffiti words “stop shooting us”, Beyoncé morphs into several archetypical southern black women.
The potency of Formation doesn’t come from its overt politics: it comes from the juxtaposition of lyric with the images, which organically present black humanity in ways we’ve haven’t seen frequently represented in popular art or culture.
There is in it a litany of blackness, of what we love, of our diverse selves, of our intersections – class, sexuality and gender – woven so neatly in the visual that the lyrics and music seem secondary, but are intrinsic to communicating this celebration of southern fried blackness. Even Beyoncé retells her own history and by extension, marries the contradictions of black identity in her declaration: “My daddy Alabama, Mama Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bama” – an insult that, perhaps, only Beyoncé was ever capable of reclaiming.
Beyoncé’s use of “slay” is an additional embrace of the language of the black queer community and, in its repetition, it’s an incantation that can slay haters, slay patriarchy, to slay white supremacy.
Formation is a protest and celebration, concerned with and in love with the very particular paradox of the black American identity and experience. The images, which are deeply layered and particular to a black Southern vernacular and aesthetic, beg to be catalogued: Creole and Black American, Mardi Gras Indian, crawfish, Black cowboys, wig shops, socks and slippers, corsets and parasols, parades, high school basketball, step team moves, bounce queens Big Freedia and Messy Mya, cotillions, “twirl on dem haters”, braids, “bama”, black spirituality (church and hoodoo, maybe even a nod to Mami Wata), black mama side eyes, drawls, Blue Ivy black girl magic fierceness.
It’s old and new south; it’s dark and dirty south; it’s Chantilly lace and denim jacket south; it’s baby afro, baby hair and pink and purple wig south; it’s second line and pentecostal holy ghost south; it’s southern gothic and bounce south; it’s my granny, grandaddy, auntie, uncle, cousin south. It is us, it’s for us, and it’s not concerned if white people understand.
I can’t help, while watching and re-watching Formation, being reminded of this Nina Simone interview, in which she defines her role as an artist aligned with activism and black cultural aesthetics.
I think what you are trying to ask is why am I so insistent in giving out to them that blackness that black power that black … pushing them to identify with black culture. I think that’s what you’re asking … my job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there and just to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them.
In this spirit, Formation compels its viewers to acknowledge the beautiful complexity of history, culture and customs, with levity and passion. It compels us to reclaim the black American narrative from its margin and make it center.
These representations of black life are critical renderings of the range of our humanity, and they seem so unique here – as they did in Kendrick Lamar’soffering last year – because we are so underrepresented in our beauty and diversity in television and film. (One notable exception is the documentary The B.E.A.T., from which Beyoncé and director Matouskas sourced some of their New Orleans footage with permission of the Sundance Channel, which owns the rights. They later thanked the directors publicly and noted that they were credited appropriately for the footage.)
But the politics were not an afterthought for Beyoncé: the date of the release of this work can’t be ignored, given that February is Black History Month in the US. Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans have already begun. More to the point, last Friday would have been the 21st birthday of Trayvon Martin, killed by George Zimmerman in 2012 in a shooting widely attributed to racism; Sunday would have been the 29th birthday of Sandra Bland, whose alleged suicide in prison in 2015 after a brutal and poorly justified arrest captured on camera led to unsuccessful calls for further investigation into her death.
Both were considered formative moments for the women and gay men who have been at the forefront of Black Lives Matter and, more broadly, the movement for black lives.
Formation as a work of popular art is clever in its acknowledgment of the labor of black women as soldiers and leaders in social justice movements, even though popular culture has been more interested in the role of men and of male performing artists – like Usher, Kendrick Lamar, Common, Pharell, J Cole, and John Legend, Run The Jewels – in the wider conversation and activism around the crisis of police violence and black community.
But the image of black women synchronizing their bodies in dance juxtaposed with the lyric, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation” is signifier for many of black women who have felt ignored and marginalized in their own movement. Beyoncé’s almost exclusive use of black women and black queer bodies in Formation underscores the gender inequity of the visibility of black lives lost to violence (and the movement dedicated to eradicating it), in which the pain and death to which black women and black queer and transgender people are subjected, become invisible and subordinate to black cisgender men and the white gaze.
Formation exists in a canon of black protest art and may now formally align Beyoncé with other black artists who have supported and boosted social justice movements by black Americans. (Tidal, the music service owned by Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z that currently has the exclusive sales rights to Formation,announced a $1.5m donation to Black Lives Matter and related charities on Friday.)
Beyoncé’s work shows that revolution can be beautiful; protest and celebration are not contradictions when imagining a black future that isn’t overrun by images of black pain and death. In the video’s concluding sequence, the black child in a hoodie “gets light”; his dance is a challenge to, but still in dialogue with, a police line in formation. His dance concludes as he raises his hands up in surrender; the police line raises their hands up in response. (Should the message be unclear, a quick cut to a graffiti wall with the words “stop shooting us”.)
And then, tantamount to a sacrifice, Beyoncé, using the weight of her own body, sinks a police patrol car into the flood waters to birth a new future. Women and children can bring that future to pass, it says; maybe, it’s saying, only women and children can.