Well, that was black.
Cornbread and collard greens black. “Hot sauce in my bag” black. Southern black. Dirty South black. Your grandma telling you to go cut down a switch black.
Did you know Beyoncé was black?
If you didn’t know, if you thought she was some ethereal, raceless, colorless transformative nymph who could doo-wop pop whatever you projected upon her, then you found out you were wrong on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, when “Formation (Dirty)” dropped.
“But I don’t like ‘ratchet’ trap Beyoncé,” says someone, somewhere who wishes she’d go back to singing “Single Ladies” or “Irreplaceable.” Someone who likes their booty-popping as far removed from Louisiana bounce as possible. Someone who can’t handle all this blackness and just learned that the world “ratchet” was a pejorative, another way of saying “ghetto.” Another way of saying something is black. Another way of calling you “hood,” “thug” or “n—ger.”
To that person I say, “You’ll be all right, because Beyoncé doesn’t belong to you.”
She belongs to herself, herself who apparently loves Red Lobster, the Jackson 5’s original noses and her baby girl’s Afro.
What’s the point of being in the game as long as she has and not being able to openly embrace your full self? What’s the point of having all the money in the world if you can’t give back to those you love? What’s the point of creating art, but putting handcuffs on yourself because someone might not “get” it?
Beyoncé’s not going to read your YouTube comment anyway. She’s too busy slaying.
Yes, she doesn’t give many interviews. Yes, she’s the only artist who could drop a surprise album/song/video and crash your mental hard drive with excellence. Yes, she’s still popping and prancing in a onesie. Yes, being mysterious is an indelible part of her brand. Yes, she doesn’t have to play the same game everyone else is playing. Yes, the traditional rules no longer apply (if you’re Beyoncé).
Does this blackity-black thing Beyoncé has created—the excellently crunk, Louisiana-dipped, Big Freedia-approved “Formation”—mean Beyoncé is political now? What if I told you that Beyoncé was always political? Even when she was doo-wop popping in Destiny’s Child? What if I told you that to be black in a public space, with all eyes on you, and choosing carefully how to handle that spotlight is a form of politics, a negotiation between the self and the world that all black people must make? That even then, Beyoncé was a) country, b) kind of a crappy interview, c) confident and d) black?
Now, was she quoting prominent feminists and saying “Stop killing us” in videos back then? No. But she was a child star who spent most of her life onstage, not in a Black Queer Studies class.
Much as Janet Jackson got increasingly political the further away she got from her toxic stage dad, Beyoncé has done the same since ditching her father as her manager. Artists grow into themselves. We watch them develop. She doesn’t have to play it pop-safe anymore, and this show hasn’t been PG-13 since “Drunk in Love” dropped.
Beyoncé is grown. She wants to have grown conversations with her audience. You can’t get much more grown than talking about police brutality and gender studies. So let’s reciprocate and meet the Queen Bey on her level. Let’s get all that “conversation” going that she alludes to in “Formation.”
“So why now?” says someone still frustrated with this video. “Why have police with their ‘hands up’ and a little black kid in a hoodie dancing? Why drown a cop car? Why have male booty-popping footage? Why is she giving the middle finger while dressed like a Creole witch? And what is a Creole? What is a Texas bama? And how can she be pro-black with a pro-black anthem if she has 10 pounds of blond weave on her head?”
Well, to answer those questions …
1. No one knows exactly when Beyoncé became “woke.” Maybe she was always woke, but she’s definitely “woke” now.
2. Because Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and countless others.
3. See above.
4. Because they’re excellent at it.
5. That was specifically for you. Just you. She knows you and knew you would ask these questions.
6. Google is your friend.
7. She literally says what this is in the song.
8. Because black hair, while political, doesn’t have to be. You can have a weave and be liberal, and you can have an Afro and be conservative. It’s just hair, not the sum of your being.
Blackness is complex. In this video she points out all those complexities and how they exist in her, in all of us. I am bougie. My sisters are not. We were all raised in the same house by two people from the segregated Deep South who are college-educated and unapologetically black. They taught us to love our black skin, and we celebrated Black History Month.
I know what a fried bologna sandwich tastes like because it was my favorite food from age 4 until age 6. I prefer mustard and turnip greens over collards. I pledged a black sorority in college and haven’t been active since never, but still have love for the Divine 9. I claim my mom’s hometown of Newport, Ark., as much as I claim St. Louis, where I was born. I’m not a member of the Bey Hive (in the ’90s, I picked Mya over Bey because she could tap-dance … make of that what you will), but I recognize greatness when I see it.
This video was greatness. Black woman greatness. Let’s write 10,000 think pieces about it and debate what it all means. I hope she performs “Formation” at the Super Bowl and that Cam Newton dabs to it, creating “peak blackness.” And I hope black people embrace it. After all, she made this for us.