by Matthew Gamble
On Saturday February 6, 2016, Beyoncé dropped a new single titled “Formation” by surprise along with a music video, uploaded to YouTube, all to the delight of fans. The same song she would perform a day later at Super Bowl 2016.
With boldness and confidence, Beyoncé comes out onto the field, wearing a black leather jacket and high heels with the company of other leather-clad and black women who rocked afros quite. Consequentially the song, music video, and performance have all garnered praise, as well as controversy. However, its backlash should not be seen as a surprise given Beyoncé’s widespread fame and this nation’s confused ideas on race.
Though ordinary people of minority groups have been scrutinized for speaking about social issues on a day to day basis. Many entertainers who are minorities, have used their fame and success to address the issues that the minorities face. From to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album. Socially conscious songs are not new, though many of their meaningful lyrics may go unnoticed by inattentive listeners. However, Beyoncé’s decision to include a music video and a powerful live performance has forced the American public to take note to what her lyrics are trying to say. Because of that decision, Formation has achieved widespread attention and controversy.
The music video opens with audio of the New Orleans resident and late YouTube sensation Messy Mya, “What Happened at the New Orleans?” Beyoncé is seen on top of a police car which is floating in the waters of a flooded New Orleans. Alluding to Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophe that it was to the population. Beyoncé proudly references her parents’ origins, her mixed heritage, and her Texas upbringing. She proudly affirms that she likes “baby heir with baby hair and afros” with Blue Ivy proudly showing her natural hair. And confirms to the audience that she’s still Black and still Southern despite her financial success.
The Queen of Bounce music and Black LGBT icon, Big Freeda is also featured in the song. One of the most poignant scenes is a little Black boy with a hood on, dancing in front of a swarm of armed White police officers. The boy finishes his dance and raise his hands up and the cops raise their hands up in unison. A blatant reference to “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”. The scene then transitions to a wall with graffiti pleading “Stop Shooting Us”. The lines in the song are filled with strong inspiration such as “you just might be a black Bill Gates in the making” and “now let’s get in formation” and “the best revenge is your paper”. The obtainment of education, wealth and success as a Black person is the best revenge against systemic racism and White supremacy.
The video ends with Beyoncé laying on top of the floating police car and sinking into the waters, assumedly to her death. Symbolizing the loss of lives due to Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the police and government to take action.
Another important element is that this video featured many Black people from various backgrounds in Southern Black communities. This video succeeds in painting an extremely accurate depiction of Black culture as it really is, for it is not a monolith, for we are all diverse and unique from one another as any other race. However, despite the differences, we all share a culture, history and a legacy and formed a community. Beyoncé is celebrating all types of Blackness and is representing every side of Black culture that is marginalized.
Controversy around the song arose mostly due to the Super Bowl performance. The imagery of the performance features Beyoncé wearing a black leather jacket which serves as a tribute to Michael Jackson’s jacket that her donned for his Dangerous tour. While her backup dancers have afros covered with black berets which is a tribute to The Black Panther party whose 50th anniversary was this year.
Much of the backlash towards Beyonce has been from Fox News. Former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani said it was outrageous that she used the Super Bowl to promote an anti-police agenda. Bitter viewers have tried to start a movement called #BoycottBeyonce. Making claims that she is racist, antipolice, and that the song is a form of “hate speech”.
Many people, fans, and critics have praised Beyoncé for being unapologetically Black and supporting Black Lives Matter. In fact, Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, personally thanked Beyoncé and welcomed her to the movement. Also, The National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party has also thanked Beyoncé for making a statement on national television despite the risks that come with it.
In response to the backlash that Beyoncé has been receiving, many have come to her defense. Rapper Killer Mike asserts that the video has nothing to say about White people and was intended to speak to a Black audience instead. Jessica Williams, a correspondent for The Daily Show, also criticized the backlash. According to Williams, it is hypocritical that Beyoncé is being criticized for voicing her views when other artists have done the same. Overall, it is safe to say that Beyoncé has garnered massive controversy because of the fact that she is refusing to go along with the illusion of a “race free” America and is proudly embracing her heritage. Using the platform of pop music, she has chosen to go deep into a territory that is often ignored.
The territory of social consciousness. America may or may not be ready to handle the fact that one of their major pop icons who was long been viewed as “safe” and “inoffensive”, is now choosing to tackle deep and gritty issues with her success. Beyoncé is rumored to have a new album on the way, the details of the new album are currently unknown. We can all hope that this new project can be a platform for Beyoncé to delve into more heavy-handed sociopolitical and cultural topics and possibly make an album that can speak for our generation. An album that is both raw, thought-provoking, and can stand the test of time.