Beyoncé – Formation (2016)
From Foxy Brown to Foxxy Cleopatra today…
Yeah, yeah, we know. Look, it won’t be often that a Beyoncé song’s tune of the day, but it obviously hasn’t been chosen solely for its musical merits. Put simply, this is a landmark political pop record and accompanying video. Some of the song itself is far from perfect politically, of course – there’s a big jump from paying your own bills to the more recent fully merchandised capitalist wet dream and talk of her enormous wealth (her “paper”) – but that’s besides the point here.
Whilst the Daily Mail would like you to believe that Black Lives Matter “hijacked” Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 performance, the fact that Jay Z’s TIDAL and Roc Nation donated $1.5m to the movement in the same week and that Formation’s video contains graffiti that reads “Stop Killing Us” tell a different story. Not to mention the fact that Beyoncé was clearly leading a troupe of Black Panthers in an X formation. It really couldn’t have been clearer. (Her own black outfit, meanwhile, was a homage to Michael Jackson‘s own Super Bowl performance.)
Formation is important because not only does it ooze black pride, from “afros” and “Jackson 5 nostrils” to “hot sauce” and “Red Lobster”, but because it doesn’t shy away from the more painful issues such as the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the deaths of black citizens such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Black Lives Matter isn’t just about discriminate police brutality, it’s about black pride (of course), but also feminism (black history and ‘herstory’), as well as being “queer affirming” and “transgender affirming”. That, along with her own New Orleans roots, is the key to understanding how this multifaceted political piece has a cohesive message.
It’s no accident that Beyoncé features gay New Orleans bounce rap star Big Freedia on the track, whilst the voice at the start is Messy Mya, a youtube personality (again from New Orleans) of ambiguous sexuality who was himself gunned down in the street (although not by a policeman).
New Orleans continues to be a key theme throughout with clips from the NOLA parade and references to the Sundance award winning Trouble the Water documentary. It’s worth pointing out at this point that Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland set up the Survivor Foundation over a decade ago, which provided aid to many affected by the hurricane.
As well as the aforementioned graffiti, the video features a b-boy (who’s literally a boy) squaring off against a whole line of riot police (shades of 30 Cops or More). His dance routine ends with him putting his hands up. In response, the police unexpectedly put their own hands up too. Has there been a realisation amongst them that it’s not actually that hard to not shoot somebody, or are they (representing the establishment) really that intimidated by this black child? I’d like to think it’s the former, but who knows.
There’s also a man holding up a copy of a newspaper called The Truth, featuring the headline “More Than a Dreamer”. It’s about “the real legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”, asking “why was a revolutionary recast as an acceptable Negro leader?” It’s this moment that helps put Formation into perspective. It’s not that nobody has written a political song touching on some of these themes before (although ‘the protest song’ is something of a lost tradition, sadly), nor is Beyoncé comparing herself to one of the most important civil rights figures the world has ever seen. She’s a popstar. Arguably, she’s the popstar. That’s the reason there’s been a backlash in America, she’s mainstream, ‘acceptable’ and perhaps it’s assumed that today’s cultural leaders should hold sanitised ‘American’ views. If you look some of the songs written specifically about Ferguson, or the more recent political songs by Kendrick Lamar for example, they can can still be filed and dismissed under ‘rap’ by those with little interest, within a country where Donald Trump has a chance of getting into the White House. What do you do with Beyoncé?
Her Super Bowl performance even led to a planned protest at NFL HQ yesterday with the objective of telling the NFL that people didn’t want “hate speech & racism at the Superbowl [sic] ever again”, calling Beyoncé show-stealing performance a “race-baiting stunt”. In the end, nobody showed up (or at least the three people that did were comfortably outnumbered by those who turned out to protest against any protest). That, at least, is somewhat comforting.
In the UK we find it hard to understand the scale of the historical and ongoing race issues in America (as well as their laws around firearms, although we too now have some armed police). We’re far from perfect ourselves when it comes to race though, especially with regards to duhumanising and victimising refugees fleeing war zones and the emergence of groups such as Britain First. Here too there’s been some slightly comforting evidence that the whole world isn’t mad, however, with Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen having been arrested this week and banned from Luton town centre where they were spreading their ignorant, damaging message of hate.