When this article is published, it will have been just over a week since Beyoncé released the song “Formation” and its video. Shortly after she released the video, the Formation tour was announced. People were excited per usual. It is Beyoncé after all.
Admittedly, I laugh when I imagine the white people who realized this song was not just another club anthem they could pretend to twerk to. Instead, they were greeted with a pro-Black anthem. Something appropriately released during Black History Month on the day of Trayvon Martin’s birthday and a day before Sandra Bland’s.
At a basic overlook, it is an amazing play-loud. The sound makes some Black people want to smile and dance, especially if you are Southern. It feels right to be able to envelop yourself in an identity that is all yours -- and to be proud of that.
Yet even while bobbing my head to it for the first time, something felt off. As with most songs, listening in depth to the lyrics and soaking in the video content brought some things to light that I was not happy to notice. When people began approaching me asking how I felt about the video, I found that I could not give a direct answer of “it’s great!” or “I really hated it.” Mixed feelings would lead me on a long rant of the song’s ups and downs or to pretend I loved it so as to avoid that conversation. I found that I couldn’t nod and smile much longer due to a looming issue. As opposed to songs by other artists which can garner immediate critique from articles and Facebook statuses within a day or two, the critique about this song came out slower than usual (from the African-American community), especially from well-followed publications.
So first, what is so great about it?
To give credit where it’s due, the beat made by Mike Will is killer. The sound is powerful and you feel a build up the entire time with the release bursting through the lyrics. It smacks of Beyoncé’s air – something you cannot turn away from no matter how hard you try.
The symbolism of carefree Black children is always worthy of note. The dancing little boy in front of a line of militant police officers tells police brutality: “we will be here no matter what.” And her daughter, who has consistently been made fun of for having natural hair out and about, is seen being a happy child just like she should be. “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros,” so who cares what you think about her?
Once again, my favorite fact is that it is purposely inaccessible to non-Black people. As in: it was never meant for anyone who is not Black. Here is something completely made for the Black gaze – whether it is to be loved or critiqued, it does not matter what you say unless you are from the community it is made for. People complain about the idea of one culture claiming ownership over media, music, art, food or anything thought to be universal. But after all, not everyone has a “negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” The references towards being proud of Black features and being engulfed in Southern Black culture are blatantly pro-Black American. It is nice to have something of your own every now and then.
Now, what is wrong with it? What causes my uneasy feeling once I delved into the deeper issues of the piece?
Messy Mya is the first voice you hear in the song. For those unaware, Messy Mya was a Black New Orleans (NOLA) YouTube icon and bounce music creator. She made videos making fun of her neighborhood and its people. Her unapologetic personality rested on saying whatever she felt. But she passed away years ago. Unlike Big Freedia, another NOLA musician who was excited to be in "Formation," Mya did not have a say in whether or not her voice is appropriately represented in the song. To take someone’s sound way after they can consent is odd and troubling. This is not to say it has not been done before, especially by Beyoncé (see: her song “XO,” and the sound of the exploding Challenger being used as a background beat) but it does not make it right.
NOLA is a Black mecca. As mixed as the population is, it is home to one of the largest Black communities in the US. However, the video’s usage of arguably morally-stolen footage plays into the obvious reference to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Mya’s opening statement of “what happened after New Orleans?” suggests that the song is in honor of forgotten Black communities hurt and displaced in large quantities after the disaster. Beyoncé is connected to NOLA via Houston – which took in the largest number of evacuators right after the storm -- and, as she said, her mother’s lineage. Yet, the event is not hers to claim because she did not experience it. To use the shock value of the issue in the name of art and empowerment is pretty shady and indifferent to actual victims of the tragedy.
In the end, the Black empowerment message I took from it was to tell off your haters by making more money. For her, the solution to white patriarchal entitlement and racism is to play into its capitalist system, one of the many things that keeps it alive. She “just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making.” You should “always stay gracious [because] your best revenge is your paper.” She suggests you don’t bother with dismantling the system. Just beat them at their own game by playing into it. Talk like this is why I have taken issue with certain celebrities discussing issues affecting our generation. Their random and inconsistent support is largely to make money and not to support the cause. Her “I Am A Feminist” message paired with her self-titled album was awesome but also perfectly timed at the surge of a new feminist awakening. Now, her #BlackLivesMatter support is perfectly timed at a peak of tension in pro-Black movements. I hate to say that I see her support of these events as nothing more than a trope to make money but, at the end of the day, Beyoncé is a business.
The overarching issue with this song is that because it is Beyoncé, she seems beyond reproach due to the brand she has built for herself. Just last month, when she was featured on the Coldplay song “Hymn for the Weekend,” the video was brought into question by fans who considered it to be appropriative. Their conversation seems to have been squashed by the hype-filled wave “Formation” has brought on. Even before the newest release, the conversation swirling about was dismissed because she was Creole, or “some of everything,” and therefore could not be appropriative. After all, it is Beyoncé: an unproblematic fave whose faults can always be dismissed because, well, just look at her. She radiates glory and value through her hair, her body, her skin, her music and her brand. Who could be more worthy of respect than Beyoncé?
Some have noted that even the “Mike Will Made It” echo is not on the song as in most of his previous work. Almost all beat producers have some sort of call to make it clear that the beat is theirs but clearly, this time it was silent. Beyoncé is just that powerful. It is part of her ever-growing reputation. I respect it as many others do. However, no one should be above critique because of this. It is possible to enjoy music but not turn a deaf ear to its faults. Often she and other well-known celebrities are seen to be trying their hardest and are given the similar white liberal treatment of “well, it’s enough.” The sad truth is: without consistent support and the halt of bandwagon activism, it will never be enough. Though I look forward to seeing more Black-focused work and support, I would not hold my breath. Her participation is appreciated but I still feel as if the praise must be earned beyond one song, one video and one half-time performance.
To emphasize this point one last time, this song is made for the Black community. The only people who should be feeling its effects in full blast and have anything to critically say about it – good or bad -- should be the Black community. Some things just are not for you. No matter how you feel, it is necessary to be conscious of the space you take up and to resist speaking over those most affected.