Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance left us with more then our usual admiration for her voice, beauty and impressive dance moves. For some the showcase of her newest hit ‘Formation’ offended, and for others it empowered. Whichever way, the song has created a lot of controversy; Liam Austin finds out why.
Edited by Natalie Whitmore
“White privilege is being angrier at a video exposing police brutality than videos of actual police brutality.”
It’s the unfortunate truth – and Beyoncé has single-handedly managed to expose it, on a worldwide platform. Ever since the release of her new song ‘Formation’, and its showcase at the Superbowl last weekend, there have been countless tweets like the one above that have commented on her new video positively, and also negatively. Why? Because her ‘Formation’ video, and her striking performance, puts the images relating to one the biggest movement in the US and around the world right now on full display.
It’s a hashtag that has evolved into something of endless debate and scrutiny. Why not #AllLivesMatter? What about white people? Tomi Lahren, ‘Conservative Political Commentator’, questioned Beyonce’s motives behind her new video claiming that she created audience alienation in that: “white people buy [Beyoncé’s] music, little white girls look up to [Beyoncé]”. Of course that’s true. And that’s what makes ‘Formation’ all the more important. Never has an artist with such a huge demographic range and following been brave enough to expose the racial issues within society with such brutal honesty.
The issues referenced within the song may seem minor to some – “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils”, Beyoncé declares in Formation’s chorus. It’s empowering, it’s confidence boosting – it’s everything we’ve seen before from Beyoncé, but this isn’t just in a feminist light. This is embracing heritage, black heritage, in a way that many people of colour in such public eye have previously felt ashamed to do. “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”, she tells us, a reference to her upbringing in the “Deep South”, uttered with such cool nonchalance. When you get exactly why these lyrics accompany such strong imagery within the video, it all makes perfect sense.
At the very beginning of the video, Messy Mya – a comic and rapper from New Orleans – asks us what happened after Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown. Beyoncé relays this message through the image of her atop a New Orleans police car slowly submerging in flood waters. Then, Mya declares that he’s “back – by popular demand”. The relevance? Mya was shot dead in New Orleans back in 2010, whilst leaving his son’s baby shower. Justice still hasn’t been served for his murder.
Talking to Shive Magazine not long after Mya’s death, his sister Angelle Barre, stated: “I don’t want my brother’s death to be just another unsolved homicide in New Orleans”; and that’s just one of the issues that Beyoncé wants to perpetuate with the release of this video. A haunting image towards the end of the film sees a young black boy surrender his hands in front of a wall of armed police officers – and they do the exact same. Following this, a shot of a tagged wall with the phrase, “STOP SHOOTING US”. It’s as troubling as it is compelling.
Of course, there are countless cases that these three words relate to. Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed black man fatally shot in August 2014 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. In a less literal sense, the phrase also relates to the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man – again unarmed – who was killed in July 2014 after being placed in an illegal chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo, another white police officer. Garner’s last words – “I can’t breathe”, echoed 11 times – became the phrase that led over 50 protests worldwide. In 2015, more than 100 unarmed black people were killed by the US police force according to Mapping Police Violence. The figure could be higher, but underreporting has potentially swept it under the rug.
The Superbowl saw Beyoncé and her dancers protest the death of Mario Woods, killed in San Francisco this December with 20 gunshot wounds to the head, legs, abdomen, hands and buttocks. Speaking to The Guardian, the attorney for the family of Woods John Burris stated his belief that the shooting was unlawful: “when you shoot someone in the back, that means he’s not threatening you”. Dressed as the Black Panthers, Beyoncé’s dancers reminded the whole world of an issue many American’s have tried to erase from recent memory. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther’s conception, which practiced and promoted self-defence against the violence towards minority communities in the 60s right through until 1982. Malcolm X inspired their agenda. Such a strong statement was due strong reactions, and Beyoncé has received them in abundance.
For most, it was a declaration of unity, of power and of proudness to be black. Ragina Johnson, speaking to Dave Zirin for The Nation, told of how “ e were pushed to the margins. And then to have our movement, our struggle, our history, reflected at the Super Bowl? It turned one of the most disempowering weeks imaginable into all of us standing up and shouting, ‘Yes!’ It showed that they couldn’t silence us despite their best efforts.”
And yet, there are still misguided cries of apparent racism, inequality and unfairness within Beyoncé’s agenda. Going back to Tomi Lahren, a video of her reaction to the Superbowl halftime performance has been doing the rounds on social media and effectively conjuring up many varied reactions.
For once, white people have had their supremacy threatened – and it’s apparently hard to cope with. Lahren states tha,t “even the Superbowl halftime show has become a way to politicise and advance the notion that black lives matter more”, calling the Black Panthers “a group that used violence and intimidation to advance not racial equality but an overthrow of white domination”. In talking without researching, instead letting a systematic prejudice speak for them, people like Lahren have exposed themselves as belligerently racist. By removing the silver spoon from her mouth in order to stoop so low as to reference Jay-Z’s teenage drug-dealing habits before the beginning of his rap career, Lahren completely fails to achieve her goal of demonising people of colour and instead highlights the struggles they face in neighbourhoods full of violence, poverty and crime when growing up – and as adults.
Beyoncé has managed to take what has previously been national street-level activism and spread it on a worldwide scale, which will obviously attract the attention of those who don’t want to see black people succeed. Fortunately, that will not be enough to overthrow the message at hand. In inspiring so many to stand up for both themselves and their heritage, she has sparked a fire that will challenge even the toughest of prejudices, one by one. Beyoncé knows what she is doing, which makes her all the more courageous, even foreshadowing the public’s reaction with the blasé closing lines of the song:
“You know you that b***h when you cause all this conversation/always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”