By Pamela Nonga Ngue
“I wanted people to feel proud…to have love for themselves,” said Beyoncé. She had just performed her new single, “Formation,” and stolen the spotlight from Coldplay at the Superbowl 50 Halftime Show moments earlier. As she paused amid the chaos of backstage activity to talk to an Entertainment Tonight correspondent, her bright smile did not reveal whether or not she anticipated the reactions to her show that would play out for the next few days.
An all-American woman and revered international superstar performing on the biggest night of an all-American sport with the intention of inspiring pride and self-love. It sounds perfectly uncontroversial. Instead, it was deemed an attack on police, characterized as racist, and resulted in calls for boycotts and protests. What went wrong?
On the 7th day of Black History Month 2016, Beyoncé invited black people to unapologetically celebrate their blackness in front of the entire country and world. Her outfit payed homage to the late Michael Jackson, an African-American man, and arguably the biggest pop entertainer in modern history. Her backup dancers, all black women, wore black berets with matching black Afros, a nod to the Black Panther party, a black nationalist organization. The featured song, “Formation,” could not be divorced from the music video which introduced it to the world. A video set in New Orleans, filled with references to the singer’s Southern roots, black features and black culture, and black political movements.
In an ideal world, it would’ve been exactly as Beyoncé intended: a proud moment for all Americans. After all, African-American history is American history; African-American culture is American culture. From the moment the first enslaved Africans arrived onto the continent to today, a time in which black culture is continuously rising in prominence, it is an undeniable fact that black people in America have played an intrinsic role in shaping what this country has become and what it will be. However, alongside the legacy of sacrifice, achievement, and contributions from black people is a history and an ongoing struggle with anti-black oppression.
While African Americans are no longer considered 3/5ths of a person under the law, their humanity is still questioned, erased, and outright denied in a systemic, de facto manner. Legality and overtness are inconsequential to the widespread, damaging effects of such dehumanization, but the absence of the former has allowed society to ignore the existence of the latter. It is this context which renders Beyoncé’s song, video, and performance of “Formation,” powerful, radical, and so controversial.
There is a commonly-held perception that someone of Beyoncé’s status transcends race, that their worldwide success points to an embodiment of universality. Indeed, through infectious dance routines, iconic performances, heartfelt songs about love, breakups, and female empowerment, and through pure, undeniable talent, Beyoncé has become someone everyone and anyone can relate to, admire, and aspire to be. Although she’s never denied her blackness, the world has pushed it to the background in order to mold her into something they can consume. While whiteness is accepted as the default by people of all races, blackness has always been seen as niche. For example, a romantic comedy with a white cast is simply a romantic comedy, whereas the same kind of movie with a black cast is a “black movie.”
As an SNL skit entitled “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” humorously depicts, “Formation” pushes Beyoncé’s black womanhood to the forefront and forces the world to unpack its uncomfortable relationship with blackness. In the skit, a white man tells his panicked white co-worker, “Maybe the song isn’t for us.” The bewildered look on his face says that he has trouble believing his own words. “But usually everything is!” cries the co-worker in response.
Their exchange is a succinct illustration of how society consumes and claims ownership of black labor, talent, and creativity while it simultaneously erases, fears, and degrades blackness. This unequal balance of power is most palpably observable when looking back at the state-sanctioned system of slave labor of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, it is still very much present today.
For example, African American Vernacular English points to a lack of education when used by black people, but it’s accepted as trendy, millennial slang when appropriated by the non-black mainstream (ie. bae, squad, basic, ratchet, slay, “on fleek”). When black kids listen to rap music it’s an example of the culture of depravity which they belong to, but non-black news reporters, elderly people, and Dancing with the Stars contestants “hitting the dab” to the same music is harmless fun. Black athleticism and physical prowess is celebrated in the controlled, profitable environment of sports, but becomes an indication of imminent threat and propensity for violence on the street. All lives matter until black lives want to matter too. A successful, talented, independent woman, wife, and mother is a role model until she is unapologetically loud and proud about her black heritage.
There is no one quite like Beyoncé. She navigates the treacherous waters of fame in an impervious manner that is recognized by critics and fans alike as unmatched. She does things on her terms, at her pace, in her own way with the unwavering support of the “BeyHive.” But she is still a black woman, at the intersection of racism and misogyny. Her ability to singlehandedly impact culture, combined with the continuous fight for socioeconomic equity of the groups to which she belongs places a lot of potential for radical change in her hands. Whether she has done enough or too much so far in her career is up for debate, but so is the possibility of what she can do in the future. Depending on whom you are and what you believe, it can be a source of empowerment that makes you want to celebrate, or a threatening prospect that makes you want to boycott.
In the words of Beyoncé herself, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”