Based on the events of the past weekend related to Beyoncé, it’s entirely possible that she’s trolling America, all of it.
Beyoncé dropped the video for the song “Formation” on Saturday, converting (my) Facebook into a de facto Beyoncé fan site. “Formation” is an unapologetically black- and Southern-ass song and video. The words to the song (as has been covered here) invoke the nostrils of the Jackson 5, baby hair and Afros, Red Lobster, and hot sauce in a purse, which I think we can all agree is about as black a list of things to mention in one song as possible. The video includes braids, slave imagery, New Orleans underwater after Katrina, Beyoncé sinking a police car and graffiti that says “Stop Shooting Us” as police throw their arms up.
It’s impossible to triple down on this blackness, right?
Her Super Bowl 50 performance included black fists, Black Panther berets, multiple on-air mentions of the word “Negro” and an X formation that I’m guessing was a dedication to Malcolm. Then she announced a 40-city Formation World Tour and launched an initiative to help with the water crisis in Flint, Mich., which is absolutely going through the shit right now. If nobody goes to prison, it will be an even more significant miscarriage of justice than has already occurred.
The entire time all of this was happening, my only question was this: When the fuck did Beyoncé become so unapologetically black? Some of the references in “Formation” go a bit overboard. For instance, ever since Red Lobster made their Cheddar Bay Biscuit Mix available for sale in supermarkets, I can’t think of a really good reason to grace the foyer of an actual Red Lobster, no matter how good somebody’s sex is. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s not really worth it to me to find out.
This may sound classist and judgmental—and I’m a dude who doesn’t mind chain restaurants—but a motherfucker going to Red Lobster for a seafood night out probably orders #flamingyoung. Now, obviously, Red Lobster isn’t “black,” in the same way that Kool-Aid isn’t “black,” but something about both Red Lobster and Kool-Aid feels a little more colored than it doesn’t. And if you could get Kool-Aid at Red Lobster?
I can appreciate this “Flawless” version of Beyoncé; I view songs like “Formation” as a continuation of that tradition. “I am who I am and I’m absolutely good with who I am” is on some “The Lion King Simba meets Rafiki by the water” realization-exercise shit. It is also an interesting direction to continue down for somebody who is a mainstream darling.
While I’m not sure everybody is a fan of her music, America does seem to be a fan of Beyoncé. It is a bold move to actively take a less-than-popular political stance (apparently, members of the National Sheriffs’ Association turned their back during her performance at the Super Bowl because they view her video as anti-police) among the mainstream that you hope will buy your albums and to go so hard in the paint for said stance and the movement that is attempting to apply pressure across the spectrum on the powers that be. It’s a move that I appreciate during a time when we typically complain about the lack of testicular fortitude shown by our entertainers, whether or not you think they have an obligation to show and prove it.
A few years ago when VSB had the pleasure of being asked to speak at Harvard for the Black Law Student Association Spring Conference, a friend of mine in Boston, who teaches at Emerson College, asked me to come speak to the students in her writing class. We talked about VSB, and she asked why we’d have articles that were both serious and poked fun at the black experience.
The answer is that we’re unapologetically black and that black is beautiful in all of its forms. We tell our stories our way so that we own the narrative. Sure, you take the good with the bad, but it’s still ours. The inability or lack of a desire to do so is why people are willing to trade Stacey Dash for
Don Lemon Adele in the racial draft, an idea that Dave Chappelle jokingly created for his show, which seems more and more like a necessity every day.
Beyoncé picked up that unapologetically black mantle from the end zone and ran it back 110 yards for the touchdown with her “Formation” video. She is who she is, and she isn’t afraid to put everybody on notice. She’s made all of your mainstream money; she owes the mainstream nothing. Now she’s speaking directly to her people. It’s a long way from the woman who wrote “Bootylicious” (a song also unapologetically black in nature but slightly less message oriented) or made music for the charts.
While I think that Beyoncé has always wanted to stand for something and represent for groups she’s a part of (“Run the World (Girls)” and “Single Ladies” come to mind), those efforts have often fallen flat. “Single Ladies” is her one song that will far outlive her, but she performed that as a married woman; it wasn’t her struggle. But it was fun and catchy and cemented the “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it” phrase that will outlive human existence. “Run the World (Girls)” didn’t quite have the teeth she wanted.
“Formation” isn’t a song that beats you over the head with its blackness à la Dead Mike from CB4’s “I’m Black,” but the imagery and subsequent video are about as black as you can get without blacking out the screen and saying, “Black shit is happening, but you can’t see it. Picture Detroit at night.”
I’m here for this movement. Maybe “Formation” is a one-off joint and represents some shit she needed to get off her chest. Maybe when she releases an album, it will be full of songs like “XO” and a really cute song for Blue. Or maybe Beyoncé is about to drop an album that is one big-ass ode to black self-esteem, no matter how ratchet or coontastic or uppity or bourgie. Maybe Beyoncé drops an album called No More Dreams Deferred and tells white America to suck it.
Who knows? It’s premature to label Beyoncé a willing spokesperson for the black American experience outside of being a black woman who sings, making all of her music black by default. But if she runs this race toward intentional and actionable blackness, anybody who has ever disparaged her will have to take back some of those things they’ve said about her being an empty vessel. Maybe, while you thought Beyoncé was staring out the window saying, “The sky is so good,” she was reading Seize the Time by Bobby Seale and Die Nigger Die! by H. Rap Brown.
And maybe she’s had enough.
Maybe she’s decided that it’s time to get in formation.