The day before her Super Bowl half time performance with Coldplay, Beyoncé released her new song “Formation” with an accompanying video. Since then, controversy surrounding the song, video and her performance have been everywhere.
The lyrics of “Formation” focus on some of the familiar self-confidence themes that Beyoncé is known for (see: ***Flawless, Bootylicious) but in a manner that is more politically direct and critical than any of her previous work. Lines like “My Daddy, Alabama / Momma, Louisiana / You mix that negro with that creole / make a Texas bama” highlight Beyonce’s sense of pride in her home and race as well as the differences that have put her in a marginalized demographic for her entire life. The song is full of such epigrams that convey both the power she has as a superstar and the oppression that is a very real part of America.
One criticism, which is admittedly minor compared to other buzz, of the song is that it excludes white women. I find this notion ridiculous. Beyoncé does not pull a Meghan Trainor and insult one group in order to elevate another. Rather, the song’s message is targeted towards women of color, a group that has traditionally been excluded not just from the body positive movement but from feminism as a whole. Lines like “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” shows pride in characteristics that have been repeatedly underrepresented or ridiculed in mainstream culture. Others can still enjoy this song and support the feminism that it is promoting without being the target audience of the song.
The “Formation” video examines the issues of oppression and race in an even more tendentious way than the song alone. Among images of southern culture like antebellum mansions and Mardi Gras dancers are scenes with Beyoncé squatting on top of a New Orleans police car submerged in water, bringing to mind memories of Hurricane Katrina and the neglect that the black community in New Orleans faced following the tragedy. Toward the end of the video is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, which famously protests the inequality in the criminal justice system, specifically police brutality. Policemen in riot gear stand opposite a young black boy dancing, bringing to mind children like Tamir Rice, then both the cops and the child throw their hands up in a “don’t shoot” gesture. Graffiti reading “Stop Shooting Us” is on a wall behind the scene.
Perhaps most controversial has been Beyoncé’s performance at the 50th Superbowl halftime show. She and her dancers wore attire that has been described as a “tribute to the Black Panthers and, by extension, the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Many people reacted negatively to these themes of black empowerment.
“I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers,” sad former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani the following day. “Let’s have decent, wholesome entertainment.”
Giuliani’s statements really miss the main idea of the show and video and suggest that Beyoncé’s performance wasn’t suitable for “Middle America.” It seems to me that if a 12-year-old can be killed in his front yard due to problems in our justice system, then the decent, wholesome people of America can see it referenced during a football game.
Giuliani’s worries are not completely unreasonable. Even though violence towards police is at an all time low, such sentiments that the police are the enemy endangers officers as well as the general public and ignore the good police do. However, he implies that the Black Lives Matter movement itself endangers the police and the public, and he ignores the fact that there are overwhelming racial disparities in police work which often result in innocent people being hurt or killed. By criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement and its place on primetime television, Giuliani shifts the focus from the systemic injustices that have led to this movement and promotes the idea that the movement is about threatening the police and white people.
Other criticisms have focused specifically on the Black Panther imagery. The Black Panther Party (BPP) was a far-left revolutionary political party concerned with combatting police violence, though it later evolved into a group devoted to anti-racism. Individuals in the party have been criticized for violent and criminal actions during the civil rights movement, including the killing of police officers. While members of the BPP have been behind appalling acts, many of which were committed against police officers, to dismiss the party as a whole would be a mistake. The BPP are also responsible for free school lunch programs and health clinics, as well as having a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement. Comparing the Black Panthers to the KKK, a terrorist organization, is unfair and offensively inaccurate. Beyoncé’s performance has reopened discussions about the place of the BPP in the U.S. today, especially as civil rights issues are coming into focus in the mainstream media. To see this as a threat is to misunderstand the performance.
“Formation” is prompting conversations about equality and bringing more attention to very real problems in the country outside of the context of the news. As Spencer Kornhaber said, “All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change.”
Here is a video from SNL poking fun at people who were alarmed by Beyoncé’s “Formation”: