beyonce, formation, & contemporary black activism

Super Bowl L will go down in history as the Super Bowl that Beyoncé “slayed.”

For the last several days the internet has belonged to the Queen Bey.  Twitter subscribers, magazine contributors, news outlets, academics, fans, ranters, and racists have all weighed in on the experience of “Formation,” Beyoncé Knowles’ newest single.

Starting with internet and radio, “Formation” was introduced on the afternoon of Saturday, February 6, 2016 and enthusiastic praise rained down.  The video was set in New Orleans, Louisiana and images of the singer atop a sinking police car called forth the natural and political disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.  Images of a hoodie wearing black teenager facing angry police mobs reminded viewers that Black Lives Matter far beyond the hashtag.  In various respects — from images of New Orleans’ infrastructure to the black church and contemporary black hair-dos — images of a black American experience were presented in startling ways.

For me, having a wide catalog of Caribbean literature always present in my mind, I was taken by Beyoncé’s use of colonial era clothing (read *literally* these historical fictions: Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, Nalo Hopkinson’ Salt Roads, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea).

Beyonce and her ladies, early 2016, New Orleans (Photo source:
“Free woman of color with quadroon daughter,” Late 18th century, New Orleans (Photo source: wikipedia)



Then came the live Super Bowl Halftime show on Sunday night.  By all accounts it was powerful. Black berets and black leather clothing channeled the Black Panthers.  With a machine gun chain “X” on her chest, Beyoncé’s fashion triggered iconic images of the King of Pop and global humanitarian, Michael Jackson.

Bey (2016) and M.J. (1993) (Photo source:, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Getty Images)

And when Beyoncé’s dancers aligned in an “X” formation on the football field, the never-forgotten single letter surname of Brother Malcolm was evoked.  The recorded images in her music video coupled with the live performance at the Super Bowl have marked a notable shift in who Beyoncé is as a celebrity and how fans and audiences ought to read her. From Destiny’s Child to solo artist, Beyoncé Knowles has rebooted herself yet again.  Beyonce, her 2013 album which featured hits like “Partition” and “Flawless,” ushered in what many called a feminist Beyoncé.  And graduating once again, this black American woman singer is now being considered a celebrity activist (or at least she is thought to be moving in that direction as Arthur Chu of the Daily Beast suggests in this article).  All hate aside though, congratulations are certainly in order for Beyoncé on this achievement.  (And while I have a few seconds of your attention, let me throw a little necessary shade on rapper and non-activist Nicki Minaj.  Yes, I’m still talking about Minaj’s decision to perform in Angola last December at an event tied to the African nation’s corrupt dictator).

No doubt “Formation” has stirred up a lot of conversations.  “She killt the Super Bowl!” “Coldplay, who??” “Slay.” “Slay.” “SLAY!!”  But it seems that conversations about Beyoncé are also taking some of the attention away from the words and images that she used to speak to, speak for, and speak about the experience of being black in America today.  For example, black Princeton Professor Imani Perry’s (follow here @imaniperry) arrest over an unpaid parking ticket had far fewer tweets (#StandwithPerry) when her story broke during Beyoncé’s big media weekend. This could be for many reasons (racism, sexism, distractions, ignorance, fear, conspiracy, etc.). But the intense attention paid to Beyoncé’s visual performances (live and recorded) could also point to the coding in her lyricism.  While it is a far lyrical departure from “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “7/11,” is the trap element of “Formation” obscuring a message that all — not just those Americans who are black and/or trap-oriented — but a message that truly ALL Americans need to hear and understand about being black in America?  To put it another way, I cannot help but wonder how much of “Formation’s” message is communicated through its imagery and how much, perhaps, is lost in its lyrics.  Further still, I wonder whether or not the arguable lyrical limitations of the song are subversively emblematic of a contemporary society in which a black person’s words are not heard by all American ears (read: “Officer, I have done nothing illegal” and “Officer, please do not shoot”).

In 1968 James Brown’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Re-delivering the words given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I before the United Nations in 1963, in 1976 Bob Marley’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Exactly how much social investment (read: black activism) does “Formation” convey without the video or live performance as visual supplement?  I do not have a formal answer to this, but I will offer Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 words as a reminder: “You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out/You will not be able to lose yourself on skag/ and skip out for beer during commercials/ Because the revolution will not be televised… “

8 Thoughts

  1. Fair enough. The revolution would have certainly not been televised before video killed the radio star (see what I did there?? Haha!)… but now that we live in the age of sound bytes and video clips that go with words I think as far as message communication goes, folks now have a wider range of means to that end. James Brown and Gil Scott Heron didn’t have youtube as an added tool for communicating their message outside of where the struggle was being experienced. Also, they were of an era that listened the whole way through something (whether it was a song or an entire album). I think the Beyoncé machine knows the audience they’re dealing with and the video and lyrics address that: imagery that continuously tells a story (so you continuously re-watch on youtube) alongside a few lyrics that actually say something. The light/filler lyrics are so the audience has something to scream in the club when they’re partying… which means the likelihood of the song staying in rotation is high. So I don’t think the lyrics are lost in the imagery, instead I think the lyrics address the audience in an appropriate way.


    1. Yes! You are right. The timing is everything. The contemporary moment is not like the 1960s or 1970s in some aspects. But my, my how many parallels there are between then and now with regard to race, representation, and a right to be black. Yes a picture is worth a thousand words, but words ought to have power.


  2. Because the video is so image-centric, it unabashedly conjures up totemic elements of southern black history. It’s like a visual slap to the face. The lyrics feel, to me-admittedly a white outsider-like punctuation marks, aftershocks, like if you don’t get what I’m saying through this powerful imagery, you aren’t going to hear me anyway.

    So is it maybe a question of audience-who are the lyrics FOR? Is she trying to open up the eyes of people who don’t share her experience, to bombard the senses of outsiders in order to force them to experience in a very sensory, visceral way what it’s like? A sort of cultural immersion? Or are the lyrics for insiders, people who can nod their head and say, yep, you got it, I get, now let’s dance?

    Another element to talk about, beyond the visual or lyrical, is the movement. These aren’t just images, they’re moving pictures. What cultural work can DANCE do to communicate that words and images can’t? The title of the single is, after all, “Formation,” and the most powerful moments of the video for me are in dance-when the women move in formation or when the boy dances his trance inducing dance for the police.

    That said, I am also a word guy, and I want my lyrics to do some work, especially if I’m thinking about the activist potential of a piece. And it’s likely that I’m going to miss some of the value of the lyrics because I’m not a black woman from the South (I’m a white woman from PA), so I can’t pretend know fully what sort of power is occulted in her words.


    1. You make some great points. Yes, movement and dance are also curious elements of the music video and the live performance. But that movement is balanced by stillness. The city of New Orleans is presented in staccato frames, almost like a camera shutter or a strobe light is producing the images. That experience is buttressed by the pulsing sound effect of the beat. None of this is the lively, inviting Mardi Gras image of New Orleans that an outsider would conjure (courtesy of a tourist board), even with the images that Hurricane Katrina produced in the media.

      And to another of your points, I’m not sure that I would say that “Formation” is an experience of cultural immersion. I would be inclined to say that “Formation,” as a music video, is an experience of other-ing. The non-New Orleanian viewer is made to feel like the other. On several levels, it is about the cold binaries of insider vs outsider.


      1. What you say about othering rings true-perhaps immersion into the world she’s created is exactly. what makes viewers feel pushed to the fringes.


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