Beyoncé's 'Formation': Causing 'all this conversation'

5:58 pm on 9 February 2016

Over the long weekend in New Zealand, Beyoncé Knowles, arguably the most powerful woman in entertainment, released a new single - complete with a charged political message - and dominated the half-time show of the 50th Super Bowl.

Formation is the singer's first new song since the Beyoncé: Platinum Edition (2014) album. Since Saturday, it has notched over 15 million plays on YouTube, and sparked hundreds of articles and thinkpieces.

In the song's own words, what's causing "all this conversation"?

The video for Formation (Dirty) shows the artist atop a police car sinking in the New Orleans floods and proudly on the porch of a plantation home, and features a cameo by her daughter, Blue Ivy, with her natural hair. "I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros; I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils," Beyoncé sings.

"Does this blackity-black thing Beyoncé has created - the excellently crunk, Louisiana-dipped, Big Freedia-approved Formation mean Beyoncé is political now," asks Danielle C Belton at The Root.

"What if I told you Beyoncé was always political? Even when she was doo-wop popping in Destiny's Child. What if I told you that to be black in a public space, with all eyes on you and choosing carefully how to handle that spotlight is a form of politics, a negotiation between the self and the world that all black people must make?"

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Photo: Youtube

Directed by Melina Matsoukas, the video shows a line of white police officers in riot gear. Before them dances a young black man, while the camera pans across "stop shooting us" spray-painted across a wall.

"In 2015, 1134 young black men were killed by police in America despite only making up 2 percent of the population," writes Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff at Dazed.

"The image of the young boy set against the police is poignant and powerful. It becomes even more so when it is the police who raise their hands in apparent defence at the little boy's signal, rather than the other way around. 'Stop shooting us' reads the graffiti on the wall - the message fearless and bold in its simplicity."

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Photo: Youtube

"COME THROUGH, UTOPIA!!! Come through, dreams," writes pop culture blogger Awesomely Luvvie (NSFW language).

"It's not justice, and we might not know what that looks like but in that bit, he won. That visual was important. This video dropped a day after Trayvon Martin's 21st birthday, so the reality of this juxtaposition made me all verklempt."

Jay Z's music service, Tidal, which Beyoncé co-owns, recently announced it would donate $1.5m to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Imagery matters, notes Evette Dionne for Bustle, especially when it comes from someone as powerful as Beyoncé.

"There's no need to cower or be humble when our patron saint of pop stars may be a billionaire before 40. She, literally, tells black women how she's achieved her success: 'I see it, I want it… I dream it, I work hard. I grind 'til I own it.'

"Formation is the black female version of "Lean In."

"Formation is a protest and celebration, concerned with and in love with the very particular paradox of the black American identity and experience," argues Syreeta McFadden, writing for The Guardian.

"It's old and new south; it's dark and dirty south; it's Chantilly lace and denim jacket south; it's baby afro, baby hair and pink and purple wig south; it's second line and pentecostal holy ghost south; it's southern gothic and bounce south; it's my granny, grandaddy, auntie, uncle, cousin south. It is us, it's for us, and it's not concerned if white people understand."

And white people should remember that, argues Kate Forristal in a post on Medium "So let's be where we need to be today and every time Formation plays - on the sidelines cheering."

Some people, though, have taken the video as an attack on law enforcement.

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Photo: Youtube

For Michael Arceneaux, no artist matters as much as Beyoncé:

"The shot of that young black boy in a hoodie before a row of cops in SWAT gear with their hands up will stay with me forever," he writes, in a post for pop culture magazine Complex.

"As will that cop car sinking into the water as Beyoncé lays on top of it. For any cop or cop supporter who finds themselves offended by that imagery, imagine what it is like to be black in this country and rightly fear that you could easily be lying in a pool of your own blood from some trigger-happy, hateful police officer protected by a system that devalues black life."

But it is more political than even that, writes Dr Zandria Robinson.

"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."

It's that Formation that Beyoncé brought to the Super Bowl half-time show, with dancers in Black Panthers' berets, arranged in an X, she herself dressed in an homage to the late Michael Jackson.

"For their 90 seconds on the field before joining Bruno Mars and Coldplay on stage, Beyoncé and her complement of dancers used widely recognizable imagery of black empowerment," writes [http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/beyonces-black-southern-formation-20160208 Dr Robinson (this time at Rolling Stone).

"Even raising clenched fists in unison, to reinforce the messages of black pride in Formation - the surprise single and video Beyoncé released on Saturday afternoon, which has us still sweeping pieces of a broken Internet into our collective dustpans."

Well and truly upstaging Bruno Mars and Coldplay, the performance wasn't just pop music.

"Indeed, the impact of the song and Beyoncé's Super Bowl performance should be like a gauntlet thrown down to her contemporaries to address subjects that really count," argues the Telegraph's Neil McCormick.

"If Black Lives Matter, it is surely time to make black music matter again."

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Photo: Youtube

"It's your grandmother's black" argues Jenna Wortham in the New York Times.

"To me, this feels like a step further, a rebuttal or perhaps an addendum to her thesis statement about who she is and what she stands for, but on her own terms of course, not a tweetstorm.

"Beyoncé's control is an exquisite study in self-restraint, especially in the current social-media-saturated climate. One could also read this as an existential call to action to her listeners and viewers: 'Black women, join me and make your own formation, a power structure that doesn't rely on traditional institutions.'"

Jazmine Hughes, writing for Cosmopolitan, goes even further.

"Yes, with the proliferation of web-based activism, it's newly cool to be woke or involved, but that doesn't undermine what she's accomplishing here (or at the Super Bowl).

"She knows that her activism is a conversation with her fans: If they're going to be motivated, she's going to give them something to be motivated about. Using your platform to better your people - that's activism.

"Which is why this line of the song is so crucial: 'OK, ladies, now let's get in formation' - a distinct and pointed call to black women, who have been historically overlooked in the activist sphere.

"Formation brings Beyoncé back to what she does best: representing us while encouraging us to do better."