The release of Beyoncé’s new song has led to heated debate about whether the world’s greatest pop star is a role model for the black community or just another artist capitalising on black culture
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably have heard about Beyoncé’s new song ‘Formation’ which was released in early February. The song and video are both filled with allusions to “unapologetically black” Southern American culture, and are some of the most publicly pro-black statements that Beyoncé has made. The release of the song and video were followed up with a performance at the Superbowl, where Beyoncé performed the song flanked by dancers dressed as members of the Black Panther Party. Reactions range from unadulterated support and jubilation, to criticism about the appropriation of Katrina and the Black Panthers, the erasure of transwomen, and the lyrics which reference the history of colourism.
The question remains, however, whether ‘Formation’ was meant to be a political anthem for the times, or whether it was just a gimmick intended to sell concert tickets. This question was pushed further into the spotlight when comparing Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance to Beyoncé’s Superbowl extravaganza.
While Beyoncé’s politics were being scrutinised after the release of ‘Formation’, Kendrick complicated the debate with his medley of hits, including ‘Alright’, the unofficial Black Lives Matter anthem. The Grammy performance featured Kendrick dressed as a prisoner and was a critique of the prison industrial complex, as well as serving to connect current African American struggles back to those of their ancestors on the African continent. Kendrick’s performance was widely praised, raising the argument by black feminists that it was sexist to praise Kendrick while criticising Beyoncé.
Critique in regards to Beyoncé’s hair, body and clothes are undeniably sexist, but questioning her politics should not be blankly viewed the same way. Beyoncé is considered to be the biggest pop star on the planet appealing to mainstream audiences – and she has done so by toning down her blackness. Kendrick’s performance, on the other hand, is unsurprising as he markets himself as a man of the streets, who speaks about what’s happening in the hood. Beyoncé was always going to get more attention for her newly reclaimed blackness, and by extension, a backlash from some quarters. She was also going to be questioned about her sincerity, because this is not how we are used to perceiving her.
To understand the controversy around ‘Formation’, the lyrics must be analysed. Beyoncé goes to lengths to remind everyone that she is, and has always been, a “Texas Bama”. The references to hot sauce, liking her baby with an afro and taking her man to Red Lobster after having great sex, are all references to a certain type of black culture that we rarely see celebrated by a mainstream artist. It is also Beyoncé’s way of saying that she hasn’t forgotten where she has come from. But the song also goes at length to promote the material wealth that she has amassed and will continue to gain.
The song has come at a critical time in America and has started a renewed debate about the Black Panthers. The Black Panther legacy in America has been stained by a string of police killings, many of which led to the false imprisonment of party members who are still being exonerated to this day. Little reference, however, is made to the organisation’s Breakfast Club Program, which has been adopted by every state in the union, nor to the influence of the Black Panthers on the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Beyoncé is no Nina Simone. The fact that the song is being touted as such speaks to the lack of protest songs in mainstream pop cultures during this newly political era. With this in mind, it is important to note that many are favouring nostalgic discussions about the Black Panthers and black radical militant movements of the past, rather than engaging with present-day activists and struggles including the Flint water crisis.
What is fascinating is the reaction of many black women who are self-proclaimed anti-capitalists. Quite a few excuse the apparent appropriation of Katrina, the Black Panthers and the black struggle, as they feel that she is using her star power to start a conversation. Digging deeper, it is apparent that the unadulterated support Beyoncé receives is influenced by the need of black women to support one another, as we all try to navigate the daily micro-aggressions we receive just by being women of colour in a largely western society. While I find this admirable, I’m not convinced sisterhood is at the top of Beyoncé’s agenda, considering she makes empathic statements about money and material wealth being of utmost significance to her. The fact that Beyoncé announced her world tour very soon after releasing ‘Formation’ can be viewed as shrewd marketing. Conversely, some proceeds from her tour will go to a Flint Water Fund, so perhaps this is her way of using her work to help various causes affecting black Americans.
Equally important, nonetheless, is the fear that if we do not support Beyoncé, then what role models are we left with in mainstream pop culture? There is dearth of women of colour in mainstream society, and it’s refreshing to see a woman who appears to be in control and who, at this moment in time, is loudly proclaiming her blackness. It is difficult to not be enticed when black women are usually invisible from most of society, or worse, when our physical features, hair, style, slang and dance are appropriated by white women and are then deemed acceptable. Perhaps we are just filling the void left by living in a society where we are made to feel invisible and worthless – and that is a political act in itself. That is reason enough to consider ‘Formation’ to be a new civil rights anthem. As Audre Lorde once said, “black women caring about themselves is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
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