For those of you who have been cut off from civilization for the last two weeks, Beyoncé released a new music video. It’s called Formation. She then went on to perform the song at the Super Bowl, one of the most watched television events in America. We already know anytime Beyoncé leaves her house a section of the Internet explodes, so of course the appearance of this new music video and her role in the half time show would set the Internet ablaze. However, the impact of this music video release is on a completely different level with the emergence of a Beyoncé formerly unseen in the public eye, Black Beyoncé. More importantly unapologetically Black Beyoncé.
Let’s be clear, Beyoncé has always been black, even in the Pink Panther movie, despite what those of you who saw SNL’s sketch may have been told. However, “blackness,” that is the experiences of black people, has never been at the forefront of Beyoncé’s musical identity.
Formation changed that. This video is 120% about blackness. With its embracing of natural hairstyles, its love of negro noses and its pride in black identity. This is a big deal. This is a big deal because, while elements of blackness are admired everyday in American media—from hip-hop and rap music, to big lips, afros and dreadlocks—these things are less admired, often condemned, on black people. And blackness in its entirety is rarely celebrated, let alone seen.
Some would argue, “It’s just a hairstyle. Music is for everyone. We should all be allowed to try and do whatever we want. That’s what’s fair.” And sure it would be nice to be able to share everything with everyone. Exchanging culture is a wonderful thing. But when little black girls and boys are sent home from school because their natural hair is “distracting,” the exchange is not fair. When black people are not able to freely practice the most basic elements of cultural identity without persecution, meanwhile, other people are being praised as innovative or exotic and possibly making big bucks off these elements, the culture is not being shared. It is being stolen.
What sort of message do you think that sends? When as a child you are told your existence is not welcome in the classroom because of the way you look? That your skin color and curly hair makes you dangerous? That everything that makes you different is ugly but then you see others being praised for these same things? This repeated stealing of culture screams: being black is bad. When white (or light) is right, being black is the worst thing you can be.
Growing up with these sorts of messages takes a psychological toll, and it is one felt by the entirety of the black community. Part of black consciousness is knowing that on an institutionally sanctioned level being black means your life matters less. Living in a world like this can spark two major responses, either to reject the culture that is attempting to shame you or try to assimilate to it. Rejecting the culture full stop is difficult, because culture is not just something you can get up and walk out of. Walking out on every institution that disregards blackness would mean leaving America, and considering the international level of anti-black sentiments this would really mean leaving planet earth. Instead, black people attempted to create spaces for themselves in society, by creating their own schools, organizations, churches, award shows, and media. But, because these things must be created within the bubble of white society they too are threatened, condemned and unfairly regulated.
This leaves black people with the option of assimilation. In order to be a part of society you have to tone down your blackness. Curly hair becomes straight, cultural traditions are thrown away, and the whole family prays the next baby will be lighter than the last. You can’t talk about racism, you can’t talk about slavery, you can’t criticize white institutions or acknowledge that your experience is different than those of your white peers.
This is why blackness has never been at the forefront of Beyoncé’s music. If it was, she would not have the international recognition she does. While many black rap and hip-hop artists do gain popularity while talking about blackness in their music, in the world of pop this would act as an unshakeable anchor in one’s career. Pop is about having a good time. Society is happy to show up at a black party, but if you want to start talking about your problems you better go somewhere else (even though you’re the one throwing the party).
Formation is taking a stand against this by putting black issues and black identity at the forefront of pop culture. This is especially significant because it was someone like Beyoncé who did it. As a famous international celebrity, with money and influence Beyoncé feels the effect of some of the issues black people face less. These other elements of identity shield some of the blows, and make the situation less dire and easier to ignore. Beyoncé is privileged enough to not have to spend her mornings debating on whether it is safe to wear a hoodie when she goes outside. By releasing this video Beyoncé is using her privilege to give voices to people who are easier to silence. With this video, Beyoncé is saying to white society, “You cannot ignore our individual or collective blackness. You cannot ignore the black community. You cannot ignore systematic discrimination,” and to black society it is a reminder that we are allowed to occupy space, and be proud, and love our blackness unapologetically.
While the video is not without flaw, the message received is significant and true.
And I’d rather have this video than not have it. Hopefully we will continue to see more artists use their public platforms to demonstrate that black lives do matter.