'Formation' as Beyonce's Activist 'Coming-of-Age'
Bridging the gap between activist and entertainer is hard--especially for Beyonce. The singer has been exploring and grappling with this dual role over the past half-decade, having been met with varying degrees of criticism and praise. Her efforts have gained her a reputation as a “feminist lite,” speaking out about oppression, but missing the mark.
Formation might be her first bullseye. Of course the video (and super bowl performance) were overtly, beautifully, and in my opinion necessarily political. Bey’s black body on a sinking New Orleans police cruiser, her leather-clad, black panther-inspired back-up dancers promoting Black Lives Matter with a "Justice for Mario Woods" sign , that breathtaking close of “stop shooting us” graffitied on a wall above a black child. But it is so important to remember that this video is a supplement, adding color and image to a narrative initiated by the song itself. She beckons to women everywhere to join her, to get in formation and fight this war against our oppressors as one. And this is the first time she does it so authentically and thoroughly and convincingly.
Beyonce is, at her core, a black woman from the south who represents beauty and strength and excellence. In Formation, she draws on her southern roots, uses drawls and vernacular that show she isn’t distancing herself from who she is. She recognizes that this is mountain on which she has built an empire. And she built it despite the “corny” haters that are now her townspeople. Now she doesn’t have to qualify for her “baby hair and afros” and “Jackson 5 nose” to prove she’s regal and worthy. Now she gets to eat “cornbreads and collard greens” and dance dirty and have great sex with her husband in a beautiful and in-your-face celebration of her against-the-odds successes. And we, other black women and other oppressed people, are all invited to rejoice with her and feel inspired and empowered to fight for our own success. Feminism and black pride are now accessible --as accessible as the hot sauce in your handbag.
This song goes beyond the decadence of her outfits in the video or the pride in the lyrics of the song. It is threaded through the melodies and production as well. The influence of New Orleans bounce and Houston trap are explicit but not overwhelming. They flavor the piece in the same way that they do her identity. They are synecdochic markers of a particular community she wants to empower and connect to in a way that no one else of her power and authority level has or can. In collaborating with Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd and Mike WiLL Made-It, two artists known more for their club hits and ratchet anthems than their complex production or groundbreaking sound, she’s proving that she’s not trying to present herself as an authority. But rather a maverick among the masses, encouraging and mobilizing her peers and equals.
The feminism of Beyonce’s music had been, admittedly, basic. Themes of girl power and demanding your pleasure are important, but all too easy to touch on, especially for a woman who is and has long been so empowered by her hotness, ability, and fame. Yes, it was (and still can be) hard to publicly celebrate your blackness or proclaim yourself a feminist. But let’s be real: it’s an easier for Beyonce than it is for anyone else. And that’s where her impact lies. Beyonce is so wonderfully awesome, sexy, and likeable, that she gets to put a more agreeable face to a wrongly demonized word and movements. Her very existence proves that cool and feminist, or straight and feminist, or attractive & feminist can exist within one being. Replace the word “feminist” with “black” and the impact still holds. That’s powerful. It make us question the basis on which we have been ignoring and silencing people with important shit to say.
Deep down, though, we all knew that Beyonce could do so much more than destigmatize a word or put a pretty face on a movement. But that other stuff is riskier. It’s more divisive and requires a better understanding of intersectionality and personal assumption of responsibility beyond simply doing something. So (perhaps intentionally, but likely not) she shied away from it for a while. She waited until she was greater and more people were on our side. Then she tried again, this time addressing and defining feminism using the word itself, selling feminist apparel and sampling Chimamanda, a feminist more scholarly than she, whose message she could promote without having to construct herself.
In Formation, the message is finally hers. But it is hers in the same way that it is everyone like hers. “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation” is perhaps the motivating line of the piece. She takes responsibility not as a feminist authority, but as someone we all know and discuss and pay attention to. Her activism isn’t the panacea for all woes of racist and patriarchal oppression, and it was never supposed to be. Like many of us, she hasn’t studied this shit for years, but has felt its effects play out in her life in changing ways as she has grown from a Texas bamma into a superstar. All we can hope for is that more people like her get the message out there, because people like her are people like us.