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  • Beyoncé paid visual homage to the Black Panther Party of Self Defense on their 50th anniversary.

    Beyoncé paid visual homage to the Black Panther Party of Self Defense on their 50th anniversary. | Photo: Reuters

Published 11 February 2016
“Formation” accounts for Beyonce’s most explicitly political work of art: from the performance to the video to the song, there are so many references and ways she pays reverence.

“I like my baby hair with baby hair and afro.

I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.”

Broadcast during the Super Bowl, with viewership peaking during Beyoncé’s halftime show to an enormous 115.5 million viewers, Bey performed “Formation.”

“You know you that bxtch when you cause all this conversation.”

Her backup dancers were dressed in all black with box braids and afros, (prior to the show holding signs in a call for justice for Mario Woods, a 26 year old Oakland native fatally shot by police). Bey’s outfit not only gave a nod to Michael Jackson’s previous Super Bowl show, she paid visual homage to the Black Panther Party of Self Defense on their 50th anniversary, the radical black political group that claims its roots in nearby Oakland, California, circa 1966; less than 50 miles away from where Super Bowl 50 was being played in Santa Clara.

The Super Bowl was the performance, but the video directed by Melina Matsoukas, dubbed by some as  a ‘pro Black trap anthem,’ has dominated conversation, the internet, and corporate media since it dropped on Jay Z & Beyoncé’s streaming site Tidal.

The double entendre of the hook can be read as an invitation to ladies to "Get In-Formation" and dig deep into the historical and contemporary context that we are facing as Black people, as well as to decipher the multiple layers of meaning embedded in the song, video and performance. Black and African diasporic people have a long history of embedding resistance into art, from spirituals to capoeira, as messages of resistance and resilience are able to reach the masses coded into heavy bass and movement.

There are levels to this.

From the performance to the video to the song, there are so many references and ways she pays reverence. It is also complex and challenging. “Formation” accounts for Beyonce’s most explicitly political work of art, although as Carrie Y. T. Kholi reminds us, she is not new to subversive Black, LGBT positive representations.

Apart from lackluster conservative criticisms it has spawned incredible dialogue around race, politics and representation. There is something to be said for her ability to penetrate pop culture and leverage her own platform to generate this level of discourse. The video dropped just a day after they announced their donation of $ 1.5 million to #BlackLivesMatter Organizations on what would be Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday. The Formation tour announced just shortly after the halftime show also includes a fund for Flint Michigan. This isn’t just about the art, but also about the action.

I couldn’t wait for the think pieces to flow. The perspectives and writings from southern Black women, Queer and Trans folks shine through with incredible nuance; we know that their intimate experience gives a context like no other that should remain centered. For the first time I found myself scouring the comments, unearthing new points of reference.

“‘Formation’ is Texas style fatback and biscuits with country gravy, a dizzying spell that pulls from multiple places and modes of the black southern experience. Beyoncé took a familiar cultural marker of black southernness – trauma – and flipped that bih into a working ideology to engage what it means to be southern and black now.”

There is no doubt that it is firmly rooted in the south, “a second line and pentecostal holy ghost south; it’s southern gothic and bounce south.”  From Black Girl With Long Hair, we get a solid breakdown of 10 Black Cultural References in Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ Video You Might Have Missed. Even the reference to hot sauce is deep, reminiscent of a time where in the Jim Crow south, Black families had to walk with everything from cutlery to condiments prohibited from using the restaurants.  

And from New South Negress:

"Still, my sister-friend the trilliant Dr. Zandria Robinson says it best:

'Formation, then, is a metaphor, a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance. It is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins–woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant–before an overt action. For the black southern majorettes, across gender formulations, formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement. To be successful, there must be coordination, the kind that choreographers and movement leaders do, the kind that black women organizers do in neighborhoods and organizations. To slay the violence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy, we must start, Beyoncé argues, with the proper formation. The proper formation is, she contends, made possible by the participation and leadership of a blackness on the margins.'”

In the video Alexis Pauline Gumbs noted that there are also cameos from the Howard women’s rifle team, yet another layer and call to formation.

Often we see an appropriation of Queer and Trans Black cultural artifacts in pop music with artists like Madonna getting credit for the voguing culture birthed by Black and Latinx LBGT community in New York City. This time we have Big Freedia on the track, as well as a sample from the late Messy Mya’s iconic YouTube video. Despite initial claims from filmmaker of ‘That B.E.A.T.,’ footage included of a young man dancing in front of a mirror and a New Orleans house that’s underwater from the 2012 documentary chronicling Sissy bounce culture in hip-hop were used with permission.

The conservative backlash was predictable, although still disheartening. With #OscarsSoWhite trending earlier this year and multiple pieces echoing not only the lack of diversity in film, but also publishing and across all media platforms, it is ironic to see critiques noting the absence of specifically white people, despite being represented in the police line. With planned protests, apparent boycotts of Beyoncé, and comparisons to the KKK, it is clear that many people do not have an understanding of systemic racism and instead want to. There is no reverse of racism, the ‘opposite’ would be liberation and that is what we are fighting for.

‘The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams compiled some of the most intolerant responses for a succinct clapback, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s assertion that Beyoncé’s message was not suitable for a “middle American” audience. “Are you saying you can't talk about race issues to middle America?” she asked. “What are they, so delicate and unaware and maybe so white that Beyoncé is too much for them?”

None of these critiques have been lobbied at other white artists like Kid Rock who aggressively defended his right to the confederate flag. Beyond that, we know that the general approach of avoidance to discussing racism has meant that generations after the baby boomers means racism remains much the same among gen x’ers and millennials.

I can’t help noticing the enormous expectation that we place on Black women artists to “represent” such an incredibly complex issue completely as if one person could ever be the voice of this civil rights struggle. Despite her having a more complex analysis than previous tracks of her own or than other mainstream artists who tackled the subject of race, she has rarely been given the credit she deserves. Kendrick Lamar’s most recent work was marred by respectability politics, and anthems of pro-Blackness are often conspicuously absent of women or LGBT people. Formation is unequivocally pro-Black, anti-respectability and increasingly inclusive of a diverse Black community. I don’t expect Beyoncé or any musician to have the kind of analysis that the many activists engaged frontline organizing in the movement. We have Patrisse Cullors, Miss Major and innumerable others that deserve our collective support. But I do believe as Nina Simone suggests, that “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.”

Beyond the clutter, there are genuinely important questions and critiques about the work about the representation of Katrina, colorism and racialized sexism directed at Beyoncé. Zahira Kelly’s timeline gives much needed perspective on critiques of capitalism. My approach is to be hard on the issues and soft(er) on the person. The fervor is a testament not just to the buzz the Bey hive can create, but rather to the urgency of these issues.

We are a community, not a cult, and our responses to such an evocative piece will be multi faceted. It is necessary that Black people take up public space to continue politically engaging with these issues.

Kim Katrin Milan is a writer, multidisciplinary artist, activist, consultant, and educator. Milan is the co-founder and current executive director of The People Project, a movement of queer and trans folks of color and allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration.

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