One reason I’ve let the weeds grow over this blog over the past couple of years is the sense that there are enough opinions already. The intersection of politics and pop music has never been as thoroughly examined as it is now and I often wonder what I can add. Miss out on the initial online feeding frenzy and you’re left with nothing but bones and scraps and the feeling that everything has already been said.
There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about Beyoncé’s song Formation, which she performed at the Super Bowl on Sunday. I’ve read gushing hagiographies that left me thinking she was getting too much credit and snarky dismissals (primarily, inevitably, from older white men) that convinced me she wasn’t getting nearly enough. The second reaction annoyed me much more. By any metric, one of the world’s biggest pop stars performing an unapologetic celebration of blackness in one of the citadels of mainstream American culture is a big fucking deal. This level of debate around a protest song? It just doesn’t happen. If you think it matters less because she’s rich or because she wears hotpants, then you’re just not paying attention.
Sceptics say that Formation is too simplistic and self-aggrandising to be radical, but they miss the significance of firmly stating: “I am a black woman and I am powerful.” That assertion has weight and heritage. You can hear it in Jesse Jackson’s Wattstax chant “I am somebody”, or Kendrick Lamar’s chorus “I love myself” or the name of Black Lives Matter — simple claims really, but radical in the context of American life. (Something clearly lost on white people who reply: “All Lives Matter.”) Even in the early days of hip hop, when very few rappers were engaging with politics, every song had the subtext: “I am here. We are here. Listen to us.” Beyoncé isn’t fastening onto a new issue but digging deeper into who she is and what her success represents, tapping into her own dormant power. She states the obvious because it still needs stating.
In The Blacker the Berry, Kendrick itemises his black features through the lens of a racist: “My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round/You hate me don’t you?” Beyoncé does it with joy: “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” Note the historical weight of “negro” in 2016, and the implied reference to the racial psychodrama of Michael Jackson’s ever-changing nose. There’s pride in those lines, and the shadow of the opposite of pride. (Note also that those lines come from a woman who just the other week was attacked for having “blonde hair, green eyes and seemingly bleached-out skin” — for insufficently black.)
Beyoncé’s not just saying she’s black — she’s Southern black, born and raised in the former Confederacy. Hot sauce, cornbread and collard greens are signifiers of a heritage she has rarely addressed (the 2006 B-Day bonus track Creole is a little-heard exception), while the New Orleans bounce rhythm nods towards her mother’s Louisiana heritage. The video, without which the song wouldn’t be half as effective, drives this home with historically resonant images of black women occupying an old plantation mansion, like the joyful victors of a non-violent coup. On NPR the writer dream hampton cleverly describes the video as a “visual anthem” and says: “It’s about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it’s beautiful.”
During the current controversy around the lack of racial diversity among Oscar nominees, it’s been noted that movies about black people only get recognised by the Academy when they’re about slavery or civil rights. Black characters have to be struggling and overcoming and delivering a tough but ultimately uplifting message to white viewers. They can’t just be living their lives in all their complexity. The Formation video acknowledges the struggle — the floodwaters of Katrina, the small boy dancing defiantly in front of steely-faced riot policemen, the graffiti reading “Stop Shooting Us” — but it shows so much more, from the church to the hair shop. There is celebration as well as resistance. In fact, the celebration is a form of resistance. To quote Syreeta McFadden’s wonderfully lyrical piece in the Guardian US:
“It’s old and new south; it’s dark and dirty south; it’s Chantilly lace and denim jacket south; it’s baby afro, baby hair and pink and purple wig south; it’s second line and pentecostal holy ghost south; it’s southern gothic and bounce south; it’s my granny, grandaddy, auntie, uncle, cousin south. It is us, it’s for us, and it’s not concerned if white people understand.”
Another criticism of Formation is that it’s only about Beyoncé but that’s not true. She certainly trumpets her own achievements but she also celebrates her parents, her daughter and her husband and “I slay” mutates into “We gon’ slay” as she moves towards the Black Panther-echoing rallying cry, “OK ladies, let’s get in formation.” (Or “information”.) I confess I’m not quite as excited by Beyoncé’s obsession with flexing her economic muscle as Alex Macpherson in the Guardian. It’s true that black artists celebrating their wealth and power is inherently political in America (aka the Watch the Throne defence) but it isn’t inherently new or provocative. The implication here, though, is that the power isn’t hers alone. Unlike Kanye’s lonely, locked-in boasts, her bragging opens the door to other black women. The video makes this explicit, turning the camera on all the people around Beyoncé to make the celebration communal.
The Super Bowl performance added another layer, bringing Black Power salutes, Black Panther berets and an X (as in Malcolm) formation to America’s shop window. I couldn’t help thinking about the FBI’s relentless harassment of the Panthers in the 60s and 70s, or the famous use of the salute at another sporting event, the 1968 Olympics, and marvelling at how slickly Beyoncé brought that history onto the playing field. She’s canny enough to make a subversive statement while still ostensibly playing by the rules, unlike MIA and her middle finger (you can valorise the Black Panthers but by God don’t disrespect the NFL). This was blackness as pageantry.
If you wanted to sum up the song, the video and the performance in one phrase it could be an old one: “Say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud.” Like Beyoncé, James Brown was accused of not being black enough, of being an arch-capitalist, of treating his hair instead of letting it grow naturally, of pandering to white people, of being too self-involved to put his career on the line by taking a stand. He recorded Say It Loud as a slightly grudging sop to the Black Power movement and late complained that it alienated his white fans. The point is that he did it anyway, and that song meant the world to his black listeners. He meant it when he wrote it: maybe not a year earlier or a year later but in that moment he was telling the truth and being courageous. Before then, black artists didn’t feel able to commit the simple words “I’m black” to record. After Say It Loud, the floodgates opened. Do Brown’s myriad character flaws and compromised motives make that galvanising statement any less valuable?
I wouldn’t compare Beyoncé, as some people have, to Nina Simone. Simone threw herself wholesale into the civil rights movement, driven by volcanic anger and painful self-doubt, and she paid a high price for her outspoken black pride, ending up as a lonely and disillusioned cult figure. Beyoncé is an immensely powerful megastar and businesswoman who visits the White House and isn’t going to let politics derail her career . She’s far more James than Nina.
Some people expect too much from Beyoncé. I read some of the pieces calling for her to be more of a radical activist, even to reject capitalism, and I think of the 60s protesters who expected the Stones and the Who to write anthems for the coming revolution. That’s not how megastars operate. They work within the system and their occasional political statements are powerful precisely because they take place on an enormous, unignorable platform. A lot of people can write a protest song but how many get to perform it at the Super Bowl and start the whole country talking? That’s risky enough, and her and Jay Z’s donations to Black Lives Matter show that it’s not just a rhetorical posture. She’s not as fearlessly direct as Kendrick but that’s OK.
I get the sense from Formation, like I did from Flawless, that Beyoncé is testing the limits of her power, seeing how tough and provocative she can be, and that’s admirable. She doesn’t have to be a revolutionary superhero, any more than James Brown or Marvin Gaye had to be. She just has to make the right statements at the right time and signal-boost important conversations about race, gender, power and identity. That’s why I have contempt for people who claim that Formation is no big deal and suspicion for those who want to smother her with excessive praise. Neither gives due credit to the brave, imperfect experiment of Formation, which feels like a way station rather than a destination. Let’s be patient and see just how far she’s willing to go.