When Beyoncé’s “Formation” caught us all by surprise on Saturday night, it marked a powerful act of celebration, solidarity and defiance. This is a track and video which sees Beyoncé unleash her most overtly political statement to date, made all the more potent because of her public visibility and far-reaching influence. Directed by Melina Matsoukas, the video showcases diversity in skin tone, body positivity, feminism, and – of course – an unapologetic blackness, all arriving at a time that has never felt riper.
Breaking in on a gravelly tone, within the first line Beyoncé is defiant, tearing down her critics. “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess,” she sing-speaks to the camera; a lyrical eye roll towards the long-withstanding conspiracy theory that she is Queen of the Illuminati. Most notably, however, she says this while lounging atop a New Orleans police car that is sinking into water – a symbol that references the treatment of black New Orleanians during Hurricane Katrina. “Katrina is not just a historical event,” explained Harvard professor Regina N. Bradley. “It is a springboard for re-rendering southern trauma and its association with blackness. Trauma is the springboard of southern blackness. But its foundation is resilience and creativity.”
This theme of pride and defiance continues throughout the video. Beyoncé was born in Houston, Texas, and if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that she wants us to know where she’s from and that she’s proud of it. “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma,” she sings, while the video recognises New Orleans bounce music and the Mardi Gras festival. Her mixed-heritage doesn’t dampen her blackness, and I feel like she uses the out-dated word “negro” again in a push towards reclamation.
The camera then cuts to a shot of her daughter Blue Ivy, whose natural, afro-textured hair has been criticised for being messy and “nappy”. She sings, “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros”, in a proud affirmation of her black identity. “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” she goes on, celebrating her black features, along with one of the most legendary black bands of the 20th century.
There is a pointed irony in the fact that most of the Jackson family had nose jobs to slim down their broader African features. Beyoncé calls to them as the brothers of a generation where being a black pop star was surely even harder. The pressure to “whiten” their features reminds me of a story my mum told me about when I was first born, and my black grandmother came to visit me. She began stroking my nose in a misguided attempt to make sure that when I grew it would be straight and pointed like a white persons, because she knew that the whiter I looked, the easier my life could be. This attitude is still a truth for many, and Beyoncé is fighting against it.
Crucially, “Formation” is a story of reappropriation – in parts of the video, Beyoncé is the mistress of her all-black household in a southern American plantation-style house. Black portraits adorn the walls – in one instance, showing a family dressed in peony-pink traditional African dress, while another depicts a dark-skinned woman almost blending into the backdrop of the painting. This feels like reclamation of the southern slave legacy, and Beyoncé is there, regally spinning her cream parasol, and dancing in defiance. This brazen nod to African history shows that the forcible shipping of African people from their motherland hasn’t been forgotten, especially in the south, where slavery clawed on for so long.
Interestingly, the only white people to feature in “Formation” are a militarised line of police, looking on at an unarmed black boy who dances freely, and beautifully, before them. In 2015, 1,134 young black men were killed by police officers, and were nine times more likely to get killed by police officers than any other Americans, despite only making up 2% of the population. The image of the young boy set against the police is poignant and powerful. It becomes even more so when it is the police who raise their hands in apparent defence at the little boy’s signal, rather than the other way around. “Stop shooting us” reads the graffiti on the wall – the message fearless and bold in its simplicity.
It should be noted that Beyoncé, who has supported the Black Lives Matter movement (she helped bail out Baltimore protestors last year) will also be donating over £1 million to the campaign in the coming months through Tidal, the music service which she co-owns with Jay-Z. Deray McKesson, a Black Lives Matter organiser, is one of the ten people she follows on Twitter.
Her video also marks an unapologetic celebration of black women. “Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, cause I slay,” she demands. This formation of ladies symbolises the collective power that black women have, and it’s always nice to see a diverse range of skin shades, tones and body shapes dancing rather than the flat, white norm we are used to in pop culture. As with Beyoncé’s nod to Blue Ivy’s hair, the natural curl patterns on display as the women dance in a basketball court help to emphasise the fact that Beyoncé is telling the world to accept black people’s beauty the way it is, in all of its natural and diverse glory. This is something that felt particularly potent at last night‘s Superbowl performance. While some might have expected her to dilute her political message for the American masses, there she was, dancing alongside a posse of beautiful black female dancers, who were all dressed like 1970s Black Panthers. Needless to say, her powerful celebration of blackness at such a widely-viewed event is not just iconic – it’s historical.
Arguably, Beyoncé has matured and become more woke since the feminist-lite works of “Flawless” and “Pretty Hurts”, and to drop this during Black History Month, in an era when racially divisive politicians such as Donald Trump are shooting up the polls, surely makes a statement. As Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith take on the Oscars and advocate a boycott due to their lack of diversity, it truly seems like black celebrities are no longer afraid to be political. The disparity between this excellent video which honours Beyoncé’s blackness, and Coldplay’s music video for “Hymn For The Weekend” released last week which earned condemnations of cultural appropriation, couldn’t be more stark.
Of course, the video has not come without criticism. The backdrop of a flooded New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and the use of footage taken from That B.E.A.T., a documentary by Abteen Bagheri, has been called out for not being credited. While Matsoukas has since reached out to the documentary makers on twitter, and seemingly rectified the problem, some New Orleans residents have labelled the video unforgivably triggering – a commodification of their suffering. Although, while the video’s triggering potential cannot be denied, as a friend wrote on social media: “in my eyes Beyoncé drowning atop a New Orleans police car is saying these are my people and we’ve been being murdered and they are me and I am them”.
Beyoncé’s message and actions in “Formation” remind me of a passage in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which is based around the plight of the African American woman in the reconstruction-era masculinised and racist American south: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order,” says a character named Sixo about a woman he loves. With “Formation”, Beyoncé has undoubtedly become the gatherer that black people need.
Follow Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff on Twitter here @CharlieBCuff