Beyoncé is one of the most prolific pop stars of our time. She continues to push boundaries and change the way we think about women in music and black women in particular. Her image of perfection is well noted and often used as a way to criticize her for not being as authentic as starlets such as Rihanna. Although this particular gripe rings hollow, it is understandable that Beyoncé being so good at what she does, as well as her sheer dominance as a force in music and pop culture, can be alienating for those who want less-than-perfect performers that they can identify with. Flawlessness is difficulty to maintain, much less achieve and or relate to.
Right in time for the Super Bowl and the beginning of Black History Month, Queen Bey offered the world a defiant video celebrating black life in a way that may make many people uncomfortable. Gone are the days where people can accuse Beyoncé of being safe or robotic. Instead, she is bombastic, fearless and, best of all, proud. The "Formation" video, directed by Melina Matsoukas, is an ode to black women in particular. It is unapologetic, powerful and direct. There are no subtle winks to her love of self. Instead, there are only loud declarations, helping to make the case that this song may be one of the most important things to happen in black music culture since James Brown declared, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud."
Where pop stars before her, like the late great Michael Jackson, claimed, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white," Beyoncé responds that her blackness does matter and she’s happy to discuss it in the public sphere, regardless of your comfort level with the topic at hand. Her assertion that she prefers her child’s natural hair and her husbands features as the video journeys through New Orleans not only highlights various aspects of black culture, but reminds her audience how integral her cultural identity is in relation to her art. While the mainstream media will attempt to reclaim Beyoncé as a general feminist hero or simply an innovative starlet, the "Formation" video proves that Beyonce is well versed in black culture and revels in her place within that vantage point as a powerful woman who is proud to be black.
"Formation" is an anthem for black female pride in particular, one that highlights black women’s unique appearance, their undeniable contributions to what defines cool, as well as their ability to unite in formation to rebuff those who often try to box black women in and limit their ability to express ourselves as people that are multifaceted. The video is full of poignant symbolism regarding #BlackLivesMatter as well as a direct affront to police brutality. Instead of showing the victimization of black life that many media outlets tend to devour as a new form of disturbing entertainment, Beyonce carefully juxtaposes the many atrocities that have continued, even with the first black president residing in the Oval Office and instead, she transfers the power back to her black audience.
Beyoncé’s genealogy roll call is one of the most important moments in the song because it reminds listeners that her Southern roots are a source of pride. While there is a large faction of black people that tend to look towards Africa for inspiration as way to assert black pride, often calling on the kings and queens of Egypt for a tangible link to regality, Beyoncé instead identifies her Southern origins as a sense of pride. She rebuffs the notion that being a black American is somehow less powerful, and instead boldly reminds all of us that we should be proud to have developed greatness in spite of our treacherous past.
Beyoncé is often wrongfully criticized for not always being black enough. This is a hollow accusation that says more about the accuser than the accused, because Beyoncé being unapologetically herself is a an ode to blackness. Many black artists continue to remind us that there is no one way to be black and what we see so pointedly in the video is the many personas, styles and shades of blackness that have spanned decades shown in 5 minutes of well sourced footage.
In the same breadth, Beyoncé highlights how important her work and Jay Z’s accomplishments are to a larger quest of black achievement outside of the realm of entertainment. Many fans were adamant in their criticism of Tidal, the steaming music service, without seeing the positive impact that Jay Z as the first black owner of a tech company will have as a solid influence in American culture at large and in business in particular. When Beyoncé declares that she is the black Bill Gates, she is not only pointing to her aspirations as a powerful mogul but also towards her and her husband’s very real accomplishments outside of their music while laying claim to the real power which steams from capital.
The best moments of the song, however, were Beyoncé's thoughtful replies to the often sharp criticism of black features. When Beyonce declares that she loves her baby’s hair in an afro and her man’s nose with broad Jackson 5 nostrils, she is asserting that black features are not only beautiful, but they are her personal preference. Those statements, coupled with the message on the wall that says plainly to police to “Stop shooting us,” is a direct affront to the often circulated notion that black people must behave or look a certain way in order to garner respect. Beyoncé uses "Formation" to debunk those harmful ideas, rooted deeply within the American psyche, by refuting them directly and celebrating herself boldly.
She ends the song by declaring that her ability to love her cultural heritage does not take away from her ability to succeed: "Always stay gracious, the best revenge is your paper."
"Formation" is many things, but mainly it is a reminder that being your best self and being your authentic self should never stand in the way of your success or confidence. Beyoncé challenges viewers to love black people as she loves them, by accepting the beauty of their unique style, contributions, mannerisms, sayings and resilience without a tendency to control or unduly criticize. "Formation" is a celebration of black art and black endurance in a nation which often seeks to suppress black joy, expression and power.
This post originally appeared on medium.com. Images: "Formation," drakefetus.tumblr.com
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Emery Desper is a Seattle based writer, student of literature and lover of music. She runs a blog called eatbooksforbreakfast.