This weekend was eventful to say the least. The excitement of the Super Bowl threatened to boil over Sunday morning after having simmered the entirety of the week before. However, while many were pumped to watch NFL veteran Peyton Manning, the oldest quarterback to play in a Super Bowl at age 39, take on Cameron Newton, this season’s Golden Child and bonafide It Man, in one of America’s greatest past times, the scheduled halftime performance for this year’s Super Bowl drew a significant amount of attention on its own. British rockers Coldplay were announced as the headliner in December, but the addition of 21st-Century crooner Bruno Mars and the Creole Goddess that is Beyoncé, two very recent Super Bowl halftime veterans, put a different spin on things, a spin that seemed to only accelerate after Beyoncé released a surprise music video for her new single, “Formation,” on Super Bowl Eve.
Anytime an artist of Beyoncé’s caliber releases new music excitement levels run high. With Beyoncé the excitement easily threatens to slide into hysteria. Men and women alike scatter to secure their edges in order to protect against the inevitable snatching before settling down to take in the new offering. It’s almost ritualistic. Saturday afternoon, however, none of us, fans, casual listeners and haters alike, were prepared to witness Bey’s latest project. From the very beginning “Formation” establishes itself as a no-holds-bar declaration of confidence and pride as a black woman and a celebration of Southern blackness. Beyoncé gives us a class act showcase of her roots. Over the course of almost five minutes weaving in and out of scenes of early 20th-century New Orleans and the city’s present day, Bey unapologetically reminds you why she is a bad ass (as if we needed the reminder) and the rich heritage of her family that helped mold her into the phenomenon that she is. Featuring cameos from New Orleans bounce artists Big Freedia and Messy Mya the song is solid and delivers on all fronts. Check out the video for yourself here.
Overwhelmingly the Beyhive was stoked. With this concept “Formation” was instantly the gift no one asked for, but immediately became what we all needed. What’s even more is for the Super Bowl, while we expected her to perform “Hymn for the Weekend,” a song from Coldplay’s new album on which she is featured, it was “Formation,” that made the cut for part of her contribution to the show. Despite the positive buzz around the new song, however, it was unsurprisingly met with scathing criticism, mostly from white people. The opponents of “Formation” fell into camps bearing one of two ideas: a) the song is garbage and lacked merit and; b) the song is racist.
Left field, right? Well, not exactly. Let me break it down.
The first critique, that the song doesn’t have merit, I completely expected. “Formation” does not sound like “Crazy in Love” or “Single Ladies,” two of the songs that helped propel Beyoncé forward in her whirlwind of a solo career. The contrast between these songs is that the latter two were created to appeal to the masses, an element definitely needed to become the tour-de-force international pop star that Beyoncé is. And that’s fine. “Formation,” on the other hand, is reaaally black. From the intoxicating hardcore trap beat to the minimal white presence of performers in the video (everyone featured in the video was black or some person of color except for the cops), the video and song really drive home Bey’s affinity for and connection to black culture and for the majority of her black fanbase this was very refreshing. For her white fans, however? Eh, not so much. Upon experiencing the song they were quickly faced with a side of Beyoncé that they weren’t used to—the unapologetically black side. This made them uncomfortable. No one is fooled. Beyoncé’s white fans are completely aware that she is black, but up until this point her blackness has always been packaged in such a way that made it more palatable to white audiences. The edge was removed. She’s not been “too ghetto.” She’s not been “too ratchet.” She’s been just the right amount of black to remain hip and cool, but respectable. It was the process that, again, established her as a pop artist rather than solely an R&B artist. “Formation” has changed things a bit. In her 1970 live recording of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (on the Black Gold album) Nina Simone says of the song “it is not addressed primarily to white people, it does not put you down in any way. It simply ignores you.” The same applies to Beyoncé’s offering. Now we find ourselves looking at a multidimensional Beyoncé, heftily seasoned with Lawry’s and Slap Yo Mama and if her white fans can’t relate, or at the very least, just enjoy this display of black culture…well…that’s just unfortunate for them. The rest of us will continue to get our lives.
The second critique of “Formation,” that it is racist propaganda, is again, not wholely unexpected, but completely annoying nonetheless. This claim comes solely from the imagery found in the video which makes a pretty clear statement of Beyoncé’s stance on the current social justice climate regarding race and police brutality. In the video one of the themes within the context of New Orleans is a sort of street standoff between police in riot gear and a young boy making a statement through an elaborate dance sequence, all of this ending with the cops raising their hands in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” fashion and the boy raising his hands in triumph. During this sequence there is a shot of a graffitied wall with the words “Stop Shooting Us” displayed prominently. All in all the sequence takes about 15-20 seconds of total time from the overall video. Another seemingly “problematic” aspect of the video are the multiple shots of Beyoncé standing atop a police car which is almost completely submerged underwater, a clear nod to the botched handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by the New Orleans government.
By far this is the most political message Beyoncé has ever made in her work with the exception of the song and video ***Flawless which established her as a prominent figure within the modern feminist movement. In addition to the aforementioned aspect of not being able to relate to black culture, the video brought out the best of the “All Lives Matters” contingent who relentlessly continues to ignore racialized police violence. How a little boy dancing before a line of armored cops sends the message of black insurgency to these people is completely lost on me. That the words “Stop Shooting Us” would incite rebuke is mindboggling. It apparently didn’t make matters any better that she formidably performed the song on one of the nation’s largest stages. Folks were uuuupset.
It really just goes to show the lengths that some white people will go to try and prove that “reverse racism” exists and that a “season of white oppression” is at hand. This crippling mindset is telling of a lot of different things, but none more potent than how American education has completely failed to educate its citizens on racism and how it rampantly works as much here in our present as it did in our past. When a black American woman who is perhaps the largest pop icon in the world can’t offer a minute of time to express her concern over injustices that affect her country, and more specifically, her family and community, a re-examination of what it means to be America is sorely needed. To not like the song and video because it’s not your musical forte is one thing. To dislike it because it forces you think outside of your comfort zone is another. It’s childish.
What I realized more blatantly this weekend is that all too often American consumers, the majority of which are white people, still feel entitled to blackness, and as a condition of this, feel entitled to control to which degree that blackness will be felt. This is a major source of our social disharmony. While we are no longer chained by physical manacles and overt Jim Crow laws the tendency of American society is to control, by social influence, how black people behave and present themselves. We as a people still struggle to maintain agency over our bodies, our communities and our culture. This is why the natural hair movement is so important, because it rejects traditional Eurocentric ideals of beauty and thereby liberates black people to unapologetically choose for themselves what is acceptably beautiful to them. This is why the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so special because it is a modern manifestation of a time when black people sought to reiterate their humanity and demand just and fair treatment by the institutions that govern them. This is why when Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter tells me to get in line because I might be a black Bill Gates in the making, I heed the call without hesitation because I have to. I am compelled to do so as a young black man to reinforce for myself and for those around me in this predominantly white space that I abide, that in my blackness, I am complex, multifaceted. I am woke and I am thinking critically. I am diverse and intersectional. I am the product of generations of hardworking black men and women who would demand for me nothing less than the respect and decency due to us as human beings. If *people have a problem with that, they can fall back. As for me, I can be found in formation, hittin’ the Quan and poised for greatness.