I’m what you might call a casual fan of Beyoncé — the type of fan who will probably never listen to one of her albums straight through, but who will sing and dance with unbridled enthusiasm if “Say My Name” or “Jumpin, Jumpin” comes on after I’ve had a few drinks (fellow straight men, don’t act like you’ve never done this).
But while I dabble in catchy pop music once in a while, I’ve always believed that big-time artists ought to use their platforms for the greater good: spreading positivity, sharing knowledge, uniting people…stuff like that. Of course, I’m also a realist. I recognize that the music industry is still a business like any other, and many artists could care less about the messages in their music as long as they’re bringing in the dough.
I’ve always placed Beyoncé squarely in this category, though I’ve never held it against her. I get that not all musicians can be political, and anyone who doesn’t respect Beyoncé’s razor sharp business acumen is just a hater, pure and simple. But you can understand why I was so shocked earlier this month when I started getting feverish messages from friends asking if I’d heard Beyonce’s new “politically charged” track “Formation.”
‘Could it be?’ I thought to myself. ‘Could Beyoncé really be throwing her painstakingly manicured image to the winds in an attempt to make a powerful statement on race in America??’ I had to see it for myself, so I pulled up the music video and gave it a run through, making sure to pay close attention to the lyrics so I could hear Beyoncé’s take on racial strife, inequality and social justice in America today.
When the video ended, I found myself feeling confused, unsure of what to think about the song. Where were all the bold political statements? I figured I might have missed them, so I decided to watch the video again, this time with the lyrics pulled up next to it.
At the end of this second listen, there was no question how I felt about “Formation”: extremely disappointed and even a little offended. Here’s why.
For one, I couldn’t get past the fact that it took Beyoncé years to jump on the bandwagon of black politics in earnest. As Jeff Guo of the Washington Post puts it,
“Beyoncé waited until black politics was so undeniably commercial that she could make a market out of it.”
That’s not to say that Beyoncé has been completely silent on issues of race. In 2013, she released an 8-minute mini documentary on racial injustice; in 2015, she made headlines (along with hubby Jay-Z) for bailing out Black Lives Matter protesters from jail; and just earlier this month, Bey and Jay’s new music streaming service Tidal announced that it would be donating $1.5 million to the Black Lives Matter movement (though it’s worth noting that the announcement coincided with the release of “Formation”).
Still, in the three years since Black Lives Matter hit the scene in 2013, Beyoncé has gone to great lengths to avoid making any real, substantive statements on black politics — to the point where even her fans at Salon started calling her out on it last fall. And when she finally did get around to making a supposedly political track, she didn’t really say much of anything on it. Let’s do a quick breakdown of the most notable lines in “Formation”:
“My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama”
→ Beyoncé reppin’ her Southern roots while alluding to a bit of black history (“bama” was a slang term used to describe working class blacks during the Great Migration) — I can dig it. However, this section also conveniently glosses over the history of colorism that’s baked into Creole identity. Here’s a great explanation from Yaba Blay, a black writer and professor from New Orleans:
“Having grown up black-Black (read: dark-skinned) in colorstruck New Awlins, hearing someone, particularly a woman, make a distinction between Creole and “Negro” is deeply triggering. This isn’t just for me but for many New Orleanians.
For generations, Creoles—people descended from a cultural/racial mixture of African, French, Spanish and/or Native American people—have distinguished themselves racially from “regular Negroes.” In New Orleans, phenotype—namely “pretty color and good hair”—translates to (relative) power.
In this context, people who are light skinned, with non-kinky hair and the ability to claim a Creole heritage have had access to educational, occupational, social and political opportunities that darker skinned, kinkier-haired, non-Creole folks have been denied. In many ways, among those of us who are not Creole and whose skin is dark brown, the claiming of a Creole identity is read as rejection. And I’m not just talking about history books or critical race theory. I’m talking about on-the-ground, real-life experiences.”
“I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils”
→ These two lines promoting black beauty are probably the most political lines in the song, which is why they’re also my favorite lyrics. That being said, how often do you see Beyoncé rocking her own natural frizzy curls? If you’re not sure, try doing a Google image search for “Beyoncé’s hair” and see what you find.
The reference to the Jackson 5 is also a little ironic considering Mike’s unfortunate nose job history, but I digress.
“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”
→ A lot of black people like hot sauce…hardly political, but okay.
Aaaand that’s pretty much it in terms of lyrics that could be seen as making statements on race, other than Big Freedia saying, “I like cornbreads and collared greens, bitch” during the interlude.
Of course, many people argue that the music video is where Beyoncé really gets political, from her use of exclusively black extras to the scene where a young boy in a hoody dances in front of a line of police in riot gear. But like her reference to Creole culture, the biggest political statement in the video — Beyoncé’s use of post-Katrina New Orleans as a backdrop — is highly problematic.
For one, none of the filming was actually done in New Orleans. None of it. All the footage of the city (the shots of the neighborhoods, the people, etc.) was yanked from a 2012 documentary called B.E.A.T, which focused on New Orleans bounce music. To make matters worse, the creators of the documentary didn’t even know that their footage was being used until after the “Formation” video dropped.
“New Beyonce video used hella clips from the doc I produced and directed by @abteen …but why?!?!” filmmaker Chris Black wrote on his Twitter account after learning about the music video. He added, “Was the budget not big enough to spend a week in New Orleans and actually build with the people?”
At least credit the filmmakers that followed their passions and did the actual work.
— chris black (@TheBlack) February 6, 2016
The bigger issue, however, is Beyoncé’s appropriation of the horrific tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. Listen to how Maris Jones, a Katrina survivor who now writes for the site Black Girl Dangerous, puts it:
“Showing Hurricane Katrina inspired images and inserting yourself into the storm narrative is just as insensitive as using Katrina’s aftermath as a conversation starter when you meet a New Orleanian. Our trauma is not an accessory to put on when you decide to openly claim your Louisiana heritage.
Dear Beyoncé, I have to be real with you: Katrina is not your story. You were not there. You were not watching the murky waters submerge your city. That trauma is not yours to appropriate or perform.”
Blogger Isayaah Parker was a little less restrained in his criticism:
“We see Beyonce having a high-fashion couture shoot on top of a police car that’s supposedly drowning in the waters of Katrina. Hurricane Katrina was not a high-fashion couture shoot, Beyonce! Hurricane Katrina was not a situation where a black woman could get up in her full face of makeup and gracefully drown on top of a goddamn police car! Hurricane Katrina happened some ten years ago, and now here you are, some ten years later – a decade later – and having the nerve to brush over that shit for profit.”
Profit. For Beyoncé, that’s always the bottom line at the end of the day. And once you make it past the smattering of half-hearted political lyrics, you quickly realize that “Formation” is really just another ode to wealth, to luxury and grandeur, to slaying your haters by buying all the newest Jordans, flying in helicopters and just generally pissing money all over the place.
“I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress”
→ Nothing more empowering than dropping a few thousand dollars on a piece of clothing, right?
“I twirl on them haters, albino alligators / El Camino with the seat low, sippin’ Cuervo with no chaser”
→ Must be nice! But again, not really empowering or political in any way. (Also, if you’re going to drink Tequila, why pick Cuervo??)
“When he f*** me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay / When he f*** me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay / If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay / Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay”
→ …no comment.
“I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay / You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay”
→ Wanna overcome racial injustice? Pay me a million dollars for a feature and you might become the richest man in America! …probably not, but maybe!
If you’re still not convinced that Formation is more about profit than politics, consider this: within 24 hours of the song’s release, The Formation Collection was already available for purchase on Beyoncé’s online store.
Items include: a $36 baseball cap with “HOT SAUCE” embroidered on it, a $70 hoody that has the words “SMACK IT” written four times in big bold letters across the front, and a handful of tees and hoodies bearing pictures of Beyoncé, though the images seem to be more about her breasts than her face. What do any of those items have to with black politics and empowerment? Beats the hell out of me.
At this point, I think it’s necessary to point out once again that I’m totally okay with Beyoncé putting her business interests above all else — I get that she’s all about her paper, and that’s perfectly fine by me. What I’m not okay with is her throwing a few token crumbs of black culture into a song about how rich and powerful she is and calling it black empowerment. I’m sorry Beyoncé, but we deserve better.
J. Cole captured our pain when he said, “All we wanna do is break the chains off / All we wanna do is be free.”
Common explained that, “The movement is a rhythm to us / Freedom is like religion to us,” while John Legend ensured us that, “One day when the glory comes / It will be ours.”
And Kendrick gave us comfort and solace by reminding us that no matter how great the challenges we face, “If God got us then we gon’ be alright.”
Beyonce, on the other hand, told us to, “Slay trick, or you get eliminated.”
At the end of the day I’m glad that Beyonce is at least trying to incorporate black politics into her music (finally), and I applaud her for it. But if you’re going to step into the political arena, you better come correct… ’cause ain’t no such thing as halfway woke.
Edit: Make sure to check out this counterpoint article from Nia Wesley: Counterpoint: Dear Black America, Give Beyonce Some Credit for “Formation”!