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).
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.
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… “