The Personal and Political in Beyoncé’s Formation

Beyonce stands with four black men in the video for Formation.

Last week Beyoncé did what she does best and dropped a new single, complete with music video, just a day before Super Bowl 50. Without any previous warning. And she then proceeded to perform it during the Half Time show.

Formation has been making waves all over since for its timeliness and bravery.

That’s because the song and its video manage to do several amazing things all at once: they cover issues of gender and race; they are political and socio-cultural; and they are both a comment on the current state of America and a deeply personal reflection of Beyoncé’s life.

If you haven’t seen it yet, take 5 minutes out of your day (some language is probably NSFW):

Here’s how it goes. The song itself deals with blackness, feminism, and Beyoncé’s pride in being a powerful, fierce black woman. There’s also her determination not to forget her Southern black roots, whether that’s in her personal appearance or her billion dollar net worth.

There are plenty of half tongue-in-cheek, half serious references to black pop culture: hot sauce, Jackson 5 nostrils, afros and that Red Lobster line you’ve been hearing so much about:

 

When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster.

 

It’s wacky. It’s funny and it knows it, but there’s a genuineness just under the surface.

Here’s just one small example of that genuineness: Formation does a great job of playing with black stereotypes and reclaiming them. Beyoncé takes back cornbread and weaves and forms them into proud cultural truths again, rather than stereotypical indicators of black people used by white people to mock them.

She does the same with language, too. Two words typically used as racial slurs, “negro” and “bama”, are sung here with the intent of pride rather than insult.

The music video covers a lot of the same ground as the lyrics, but it makes the political commentary far more explicit. It’s filmed, at least partly, on location in New Orleans. We see flooded houses, post-Katrina. Bey poses on the top of a submerged police car, which sinks into the waters below (with her still on it) at the end of the video. A small black child dances in front of a line of armed police officers. The words “Stop shooting us” are grafiiti’d on the wall. It’s courageous. It’s angry, too.

See, Formation is about Beyoncé, but it’s also about so much more than her, in a way that her previous self-titled album (while outstanding) was lacking.

The song’s first line begins by mocking the Illuminati conspiracy theories that surround Bey, and from there she moves on to her personal black heritage credentials (“My daddy Alabama / Mama Louisiana”) as well including a reference to her daughter Ivy Blue. Its lyrics are still entrenched in the same deeply personal, deeply indulgent self-pride we’re used to from Beyoncé:

 

Get what’s mine, I’m a star.

I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress.

I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it.

 

But it’s more symbolic this time. There’s a reason why Beyoncé makes it a point of arrogant swagger that she carries Hot Sauce in her bag, a quirk generally attributed to black people. There’s a reason why she’s pictured dressing like a typical Southern belle in the video, complete with lace and parasol. Formation isn’t just about being rich and successful. It’s about being rich and successful, all while coming from a “negro with that creole” background – and being moulded by all the social, cultural and political influences that implies.

All round it’s a powerfully, unabashedly prideful creation. “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” Beyoncé sings at one point.

The line is beautifully constructed. Beyoncé is neither white nor male, but she’s rich and influential and philanthropic and universally recognisable. And so far everything she’s told us about herself, about her upbringing and how far removed it was from Bill Gates’, makes that fact all the more potent.

But, as she advises listeners (in another particularity of that Southern heritage), “Always stay gracious”. So she includes that little qualifying phrase: Bill Gates “in the making”. It’s just a touch of humility, but you know she still believes what she says nonetheless. She knows she can get there, no matter where she came from, and damn is she willing to put in the work.

Formation is the beginning and the end. It’s Beyoncé’s childhood, the start of her journey, her (literal) formation.

It’s also where she’s got to at this point: wife, mother, celebrity, influencer, ready to take a long hard look at the world around her and issue it a rallying cry, an order to get in step beside her:

 

Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation.

 

But that’s what great artists do. They mix the personal and the political. They turn national events into event that happen to individuals, and vice versa.

I won’t go in detail here into all the nuanced layers of meaning Formation has to offer, mainly because I think other articles have covered those aspects with more expertise and depth than I could. Suffice to say that Beyoncé has created a complex piece of art that incorporates real-life documentary of post-Katrina damage to New Orleans, spoken clips from Southern and queer artists, a style of music generally associated with gay subculture, and references to the recent deaths of multiple young black people by white American cops.

All of these different sources and messages interweave into a world view that is unusually complicated for popular music but which does not lose any of its impact as a result.

Basically, this is Beyoncé’s most ambitious and successful work to date. She’s no longer reluctant to tackle black politics, Southernness, femininity and queerness in ways that she might have been several years ago, and all through a single song and music video.

In an America that often seems to feel threatened by, rather than accepting of, black culture (or any subculture other than white Christian conservatism), Formation sends an important message that still needs to be repeated:

Being proud of your heritage is not a bad thing, and it isn’t an insult to those who don’t share it. Saying that black lives matter doesn’t imply that white lives don’t.

That’s why Bey mixes apparently trivial concerns like “baby hair and afro” with the socio-economic effects of Hurricane Katrina and police brutality. In her depiction of the modern-day USA, the disapproval of black American natural beauty is just as much a sign of racial friction as moments of national crisis.

Lighthearted and serious tones are mixed throughout Formation. Part of this combination is reflected in the lyrics, which use slang to express sober political points.

A good example of this is the word “slay”, repeated throughout the chorus. It hold particular meaning in the line “Slay trick, or get eliminated”. It’s not just a verb indicating self-made female empowerment. It’s a word heavy with violent, powerful and sexual intonation. It conjures up a dog-eat-dog world where the only way to survive is to destroy the competition (contrasting interestingly with the titular rally for black women to come together in community and unity). And considering the references to police brutality throughout the video, it serves as a controversial call to arms for black lives all across America.

In fact, Formation as a whole is a piece about contrasts.

Over the past years we’ve watched Beyoncé go through her own journey of self-realisation, juggling all the different conflicting parts of herself, trying to understand who she is and come to terms with that. Formation is another important step in that journey. It’s full of contradiction in as much as Beyoncé is full of contradiction, and America is full of contradiction.

She can be playful while being deadly serious.

She can look good for her man while being a fierce feminist.

She can be one of the most privileged and powerful people in the Western world and still be proud of her Deep South heritage.

She can make a far-reaching political point while expressing it via the colloquialisms of those it’s most pertinent to.

She can sing about her money and her chopper while singing about underrepresented black lives all around the country.

(Of course, some have argued that Formation represents a rich person’s wish to appropriate the sufferings of those less fortunate than them for commercial gain, but I don’t believe that Beyoncé’s current socio-economic status inherently prevents her from understanding, sympathising with, or recalling the struggles of the underprivileged. Besides, what is she supposed to do? Give away all her money before daring to make politically-minded pop music?)

All of this contradiction is what makes Beyoncé one of the realest, deepest, most well-rounded pop stars in recent history.

And it’s why now she’s not afraid to take her personal experience and use it to start a genuine conversation about the state of gender, race, and the LGBT community in America today.

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