Formation: Beyoncé’s Unadulterated Self-Hood & Who Can Claim It
Put simply, Beyoncé’s Formation is an ode to her identity and those who share it with her. The song and video function as a bold, artistic political statement, not unlike Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance. If you’ve been living under a rock and somehow missed Beyoncé bringing all this to the Super Bowl, you won’t have seen her and her dancers (all black, afro-toting women) decked out in outfits paying tribute to the legendary Black Panther activist group. You will have missed arguably one of the most eminent musical voices in the industry today presenting, to America’s most-widely watched televised event, some sorely needed racial truths. Of course it may have been the large amount of controversy Beyoncé drew when she did this that brought you to watch her performance; this is criticism that many have highlighted as indicative of social misogynoir, due to the disparity in negative responses between Kendrick Lamar’s aforementioned performance and Beyoncé’s.
It isn’t difficult to discern why Formation garnered the disapproval that it did. It’s the impetus behind the #AllLivesMatter response. It’s white privilege and ignorance paired. It’s entitlement.
Kate Forristall writes in her Formation thinkpiece, “I’m here to say […] if you check the ‘caucasian’ box on a job application, your place is in the bleachers for this dance”, teaching us all a lesson about allyship. It is also important to note that non-black POC, such as myself, should not insert themselves and their problems into the discourse Beyoncé has opened up with Formation. Blackness is a specific experience, and should be treated as such: this is what Beyoncé has done here, she’s made Formation personal, specialised it with references to be enjoyed by those who understand them. And Formation really is personal above all. A notable illustration of this is Beyoncé’s confrontation of the Eurocentric disdain for black features, frequently inflicted upon her family members by the media. The ambiguous language she uses here exemplifies the concept of ‘the personal is political’:
“I like my baby hair with baby hair and afro/I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils/”
Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy
With the video’s imagery, Beyoncé (aided by Melina Matsoukas, the director of multiple Beyoncé videos, including Pretty Hurts) takes it upon herself to fill a cultural chasm in mainstream media. She draws attention to the racially disproportionate devastation left by Katrina in 2005, sprawling herself across an abandoned cop car in a flooded wasteland. She certainly doesn’t neglect to cast a spotlight on the very current reality of modern police brutality. One scene featuring a small black boy standing against a dark fence of policemen, fully equipped with riot gear: this is the ugly actuality, an exaggerated, violent police response to something only perceived as a threat through a severely warped set of prejudices. She provides the gaps in colonial history with striking visuals that emphasise its fantastic intricacy. Of course these empty spaces are the consequence of it being white men who write the history, leaving these blanks due to a mix of shame and self-righteousness. While one does hear about things like black slavery and poverty (we have Black History Month of course), rarely do people delve much deeper into these things or give them the attention and representation white history seems to merit. I mean, how many black period pieces can you name?
Beyoncé claims her place in black history throughout Formation: she won't forget her roots by any means, nor the unexceptional black citizen she could have been. This is perhaps most powerfully exemplified by the video’s conclusion, in which Beyoncé lays spread across a police cruiser that sinks, burbling into the murky floodwaters of New Orleans. However, Wesley Morris notes that it is unclear whether “the shots constitute a baptism or a drowning”. I believe this duality represents both her solidarity with her black brothers and sisters as well as her power to incite change.
"You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation".
Columnist Jenna Wortham calls Beyoncé’s use of the phrase 'Texas bama' an “ultimate power move” as it is the reclamation of a term used to describe someone from the country who is uncivilised. Author Jesmyn Ward, someone previously subject to the insult, writes that she was occasionally made to feel like all the things the phrase carried; she was made to feel like an “under-educated, ignorant, foolish rube”. Beyoncé pays homage to her heritage in many ways during Formation, one manifestation being her statement that the country will never been taken out of her and her black identity. The reference to the Southern chain Red Lobster is another allusion to her former class, being a sit-down restaurant it would be seen as a place for special occasions to the area's residents but 'red-neck' and trashy to onlookers.
She owns her image and her sexuality completely and, as Jon Caramanica writes, “upends gender roles easily […] giddily reducing men to accessories”. The subversion of rewarding her male partner for sex isn't really revolutionary more than it is simply enjoyable from a feminist standpoint. Caramanica underlines the parallel that Beyoncé is addressing here is male rappers allowing their girlfriends to purchase in exchange for their sexual agency.
And Beyoncé has proven herself time and time again to be that independent woman she’s encouraged us to become since the onset of the millennium. She's scorning those who insinuate she hasn't been instrumental in the creation of every piece of her empire, even with claims as ridiculous as the Illuminati’s aid.
She flouts her power completely, nonchalantly mentioning her absolute influence over the radio. CEOs and billionaires today are still almost exclusively white, and so the claim she is "black Bill Gates in the making" is a powerful comment on how far Beyoncé has risen from her social standing, in addition the benevolence she has brought to that position of power: her recent donation of $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter is one of innumerable examples of this.
The final line, in which Beyoncé tells her listeners the "best revenge is your paper”, is undeniably capitalistic. This is something that Beyoncé has received criticism for before, most notably by lauded feminist Dr. bell hooks. Despite this, her words also comprise a very pointed comment on black excellence. Beyoncé encourages her black listeners to transcend the barriers put up by oppressors just as she has done, to take after her example. By asking her companions to get in formation, what she’s doing is telling people to mobilise — this is the root of the success of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Words by Jenna Mahale
Sources & References: Okay, I'll slay: Beyoncé and the lessons learned from Formation | gal-dem / Formation doesn’t include me— and that’s just fine | Medium / Beyoncé's Formation reclaims black America's narrative from the margins | Syreeta McFadden | Opinion | The Guardian / Beyoncé in ‘Formation’: Entertainer, Activist, Both? | The New York Times / We Slay, Part I / Beyonce’s “Formation” vs. Monolithic Blackness | Scott Woods Makes Lists / In Beyoncé's 'Formation,' A Glorification Of 'Bama' Blackness : Code Switch : NPR / Beyonce's little Bee