Long time since I did a music video review; but when Queen Bey drops a nuclear musical bomb like this – errbody needs to be on high alert! This is not a drill; this is Code Black.
Critics are raving, law enforcement is cringing, Right white conservatives are shrinking, and the black rights movement is blinking. Beyoncé transcended her pop superstar legacy into what will now be known as the Bey Politic. The power of Bey a force to be reckoned with. Don’t you love how even autocorrect knows to correct beyonce to Beyoncé but goes dead on you for “ducking” everything else.
So what really happened?
The day before Super Bowl 50 Bey released her new video and song titled “Formation” exclusively through Jay-Z’s newly acquired Tidal – a high-quality music streaming service that boasts the ability to rival Apple iTunes, Spotify and Pandora. Her first new release since 2014, the main difference in this one is —everything.
We all know Beyoncé is black. But this time her blackness is deeper, louder, sharper and more rooted than anything we’ve seen before. Her last album with hits like “Flawless” and “Partition” was personal. This is publicly more sensitive and ripened for our time. There is nothing implicit about her agenda. It’s a clenched activist’s fist pumped into our racially turbulent air calling for our attention, and then organized formation. The politic radiates because it is situated in the real, and Bey wants everyone to know that she has been paying attention: Trayvon Martin, police brutality, Katrina, and also male chauvinism and the need for greater female empowerment.
The song, video and Super Bowl performance are so rich it’s hard to even pick a spot to unpack this cultural baggage.
The intro lines by Messy Mya “[w]hat happened at the Newwalins?” is not a question. The opening line of the song and the first take of the video situate this artwork right in the wounded political environment and national dialog arena it came to rip open. NPR is calling it a “visual anthem”. The widescreen shot of Bey atop a police car (significant allegory) in what looks like a post-apocalyptic New Orleans jolts our blotchy memories of Katrina. Then the irregular flashing sound takes us in and out of different images, all significantly black: bounce, police, hood and church to name a few.
But then the assault begins. Beyoncé’s actual first three words being “Y’all haters corny…” telling us that she ain’t happy and she’s here to address some issues. After stamping out the Illuminati conspiracy theories leveled against her she goes on to undoubtedly reaffirm her black heritage. She picks it apart with needle sharp references from the patched quilt of black culture which really, has no singular locus though this effort draws from the South. So many quotable lines in this song it’s a drive-by spraying lyrical and visual mastery at every turn.
Like any typical hip hop song there’s brand names and name dropping for product placement – Givenchy, Roc necklaces, and Adidas shoes and Red Lobster (whose sales, I might add, suddenly shot up by 33% after Beyoncé’s song – talk about power). But the difference here is everything is intentionally tied to represent perceived black identity, be it the “hot sauce” in the bag or her love for “negro noses” and them “Jackson 5 nostrils”. Razor sharp references are deliciously specific, and her raw honesty of her Southern lineage situates our previously “whiter” Beyoncé in a different light when she blurts that “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama”. Bama, a typically derogatory word used in the South for misfit, is inverted by Bey and flipped on its head and then redefined as something desirable—I mean their union gave birth to and created her.
For a satirical take on White reaction to Bey’s song watch “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” by the SNL crew.
In drawing from her past, even the at times seemingly low quality 90s MTV music video type quality of the video just takes you back. And that’s the intent – to take you back to black, letting you know it never went anywhere just like how she notes she “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me, I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag”. We are transported back to her roots. But she situates it so devastatingly in the present. The last scenes of police lines and hands up in the air are an ode to the recent issues with Trayvon Martin and Ferguson. The little black boy with the black hoodie symbolizes a form of misunderstood innocence, and his MJ-like dance moves are a form of black magic that innocently disarms. The use of children in the shoot, especially Blue-Ivy her own daughter, alludes to the generational impact that’s at stake with the issues she wants our attention on. As a mother her concerns are now beyond the personal.
In her Super Bowl performance, as in her video, her “X” formation is a nod to Malcom-X, alongside the homage to the Black Panther-esque wardrobe. Though Coldpay was supposedly the leading act – let’s be real who knew. We all know Chris Martin was obliterated onstage by the sheer force of Beyoncé; unfortunately even for Bruno Mars, it wasn’t just Queen Bey’s height that made her tower over him but her presence, and the message she had brought with her. On a national stadium with 112 000 000 people watching, Bey used the airtime strategically to send strong messages of black resistance to oppression and rallying cries for empowerment both systemically and financially – “You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay; I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making”. The NFL now is facing outrage (which I think is also a bit of exaggerated media hype) but everyone will survive. And then we got the commercial ($4 million price tag) that her world tour is nigh.
But really, where to from here? Can art like this really make a difference, or does it need to be honed into targeted activism to have tangible outcomes for our troubled world? If anything it’s a rise and a good first step from one of the stalwarts of our time. Others have heard and will now follow suit we presume. After all:
“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”. Adieu.