On February 6th, 2016, during Black History Month and one day before her Super Bowl halftime show performance, Beyoncé dropped the song and video for “Formation” on her YouTube channel and on Tidal, Jay-Z’s streaming service. The song’s lyrics are characterized by Beyoncé reframing stereotypes traditionally used in a derogatory way towards African-Americans into empowering statements which celebrate Blackness. For instance, she states:
“I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”
The video shows various eras of social and political struggle for African-Americans, including the Antebellum south, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and allusions to police brutality, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyoncé also weaves a narrative of perseverance and success, including splices of an array of Black women dancing pridefully, slaying, and owning the spaces they’ve created. To make her statement even more powerful, Beyoncé focuses on her own heritage as a Black woman from the south and includes her daughter Blue Ivy in a scene of the video.
Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” during the halftime show of the 2016 Super Bowl conveyed a similar political message through the use of black berets and black power stances indicative of the Black Panther Party. Strategically releasing this song only a day before her performance added to the impact and spread of “Formation’s” message, and media outlets everywhere were caught by surprise, which contributed to the hype.
Some critics labeled “Formation” as anti-police due to final scenes in the music video, which depict a young African-American boy in a hoodie dancing in front of police officers in riot gear. The boy stops his celebration in front of them and raises his hands in the air as the police respond with a “hands-up” gesture, and the scene cuts to the words “Stop Shooting Us” written in graffiti on a wall. When asked by Elle Magazine her response to the critiques of the song and video, she said, “I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe,” but that the video is standing up against police brutality, not police. When asked why she made such an overt statement about police brutality, she stated “[e]veryone feels pain, but sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to transform.” Beyoncé had previously been vocal about and known for feminist messages, but this marked one of the first times she and her art were recognized for explicit statements about race and U.S. race relations.
In this song and video, Beyoncé makes use of images and words to make a statement about social changes across cultural and historical contexts. What statements about race, gender, and class is she making with the scenes that depict Beyoncé and a group of African-American women dressed up in a sitting room in a Southern, plantation-style house? What references does she make in the song and video to different markers of class and wealth? How do statements such as, “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” comment on white privilege of the past and present? How do they celebrate the successes of African-Americans while also referencing the influences of history?
The last few scenes of Formation’s music video show a child dancing in front of a line of police officers dressed in riot gear. What is the symbolism of the hoodie that the boy is wearing, and the “hands up” gesture that he and the police officers strike at the end of his dance? How does this relate to the graffiti message on the wall in the clip that immediately follows? What commentary do these scenes make about patterns of unnecessary force and racial injustice in law enforcement?
Some critics felt that Beyoncé’s tone was too strong and political in this video. For instance, the National Sheriff’s Association called for a boycott of the song. After Beyonce’s performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl, Sgt. Ed Mullins told CNN that, “To taint police officers globally in the Super Bowl is really wrong.” Do you feel Beyoncé crossed a line with her message? How is being against police brutality different from being against police? Should entertainment (such as sports and music) be kept separate from politics? Why or why not?
Despite “Formation” focusing a lot on racial issues, Beyoncé’s feminist messages were also still evident throughout this song. Beyoncé included the voices of genderqueer Messy Mya and Big Freedia in her song’s introduction and interlude. How else does the song or video celebrate black femininity? How are diverse images of gender, sexuality, and class represented in the video?