Why 'Formation' Is The Most Important Cultural Event of 2016
As one of the most beloved performers in the world, the release of any new Beyoncé song would have been cause for widespread celebration. But the recent release of "Formation" was something else entirely. The song highlights critical issues facing the black community, like police brutality, the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and even the natural hair movement. Beyoncé's choice to pair the video release with a subsequent Super Bowl performance, which featured dancers in outfits paying homage to the Black Panther party, made the experience one of the most timeless and significant cultural moments of our generation.
"Formation" is, overall, a clever exploration of black culture that not only acknowledges but champions the beauty and diversity of black experiences. One of my favorite lyrics, for example, is Beyoncé's declaration that "I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros." This declaration seems to pointedly push back on criticism of Beyoncé's daughter's natural hair. The video accounts for this in a stunning shot of Blue, natural afro and all, playing with two other girls. Amidst the legacy of a whitewashed culture, such unapologetic representations of black people of all ages and embodying all notions of beauty are crucial.
In addition to discussions of black hair and beauty, Beyoncé explores black, New Orleanian culture. "Formation" samples Messy Mya, a prominent New Orleans-based YouTube personality and rapper known for creating comedic, raw videos about his community. Mya was murdered in 2010 after leaving a baby shower for his unborn child, and sampling his work aptly recognizes his lasting impact on his community's culture. The song also samples New Orleanian "bounce music," which bounce music legend Big Freedia has described as “uptempo, heavy bass, call and response" that "definitely has a lot to do with the ass-shaking."
The video also specifically calls out the government's inadequate (and, as many have argued, racist) response to Hurricane Katrina. Haunting images, such as shots of the city during Katrina and the image of a sinking police car, are poignant renderings of a community that is still vibrant, but also very much recovering from damage.
But the video wasn't enough for Beyoncé. She used the opportunity to perform "Formation" at the Super Bowl, one of the most watched televised events, to eviscerate police brutality. For example, the performance depicted police officers putting their hands up in response to a little boy break-dancing — a stark contrast to what would really happen if a young black boy did this.
Perhaps the most discussed element of Beyoncé's performance, though, were the costumes: Blank Panther-style berets and leather jackets. Many don't realize that the Black Panthers' activist efforts included providing free breakfast for children, helping to establish relationships between American POC and those abroad, and centralizing and expressing African American personhood in a (more) racially segregated America. By paying homage to this group and these efforts, Beyonce reclaims their impact, allowing us to introspectively examine our history and remain grounded in the face of all the critical work left to do.
As Fred Hampton, the Illinois Black Panther party chairman, once said, “You can jail revolutionaries but you can’t jail the revolution.” Beyonce’s "Formation" is a testament to the power black pride and black power can have. Neither "Formation" or its accompanying video attempt to fix every problem facing the black community today, nor should they have to. What both offer, however, is a valuable moment of validation amidst persistent racial violence in America.
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