Pop stars don’t have to say anything. Do a song and a dance and we’ll throw cash at you and be happy.
Then again, Beyoncé is no normal pop star. And her surprise new song and video, “Formation?” Oh, does it say something.
A black power anthem for the masses released as Black History Month gets underway, “Formation” is as much powerful, gritty, and unapologetic a message as it is another entry in Beyoncé’s canon of dance floor calls-to-arms.
Dropped a day before Beyoncé was rumored to perform the track at the Super Bowl—and, blessedly, not released exclusively on Tidal—it’s the latest in the new model of music release: Shock your fans into euphoria with the unannounced arrival of new music.
With Beyoncé, of course, it’s more like: Stun them into ecclesiastical rapture.
“Formation” is a booming meditation on black identity, the validity and transience of a person’s roots and history, and the crushing interplay between power and helplessness, agency, and victimization. Bask in it. Dance to it. Listen to it. But, for the love of god, hear it.
She takes on rumors about her beliefs, her marriage, and her daughter. She owns her blackness. She evokes the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while endorsing the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And she celebrates her past while forecasting her even greater future, all to the beat that boasts the same dirty perfection that tracks like “***Flawless” used to announce the new evolution in Beyoncé’s musical career.
In the past, Queen Bey has been notorious for her silence. She hasn’t granted a proper sit-down interview in an astounding amount of time. Her music and her actions, however, particularly “Formation,” are speaking volumes. And she’s blaring her voice just when we need her.
“Formation” opens with Beyoncé sitting on top of a police car that is partially submerged in the aftermath of a flood. That beginning is only half as incendiary as its end. Before the police car sinks towards the end of the music video, following nearly five minutes of images that make glaring statements on social injustice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, you can quite clearly read “New Orleans Police” on the windshield.
Yes, Beyoncé drowned a police car.
The video’s setting, New Orleans, resonates on its own. But the video is flooded with stirring, statement-making imagery: artwork featuring Martin Luther King Jr., a graffiti wall with the words “Stop shooting us,” and, most effectively, a little boy dancing in front of a police riot squad. On his cue, it’s the police that put their hands up.
The lasting image, one that makes the most visceral impression, comes when Beyoncé, dressed in black funeral garb, throws up her middle fingers, her head still bowed in mourning. We’re used to Sasha Fierce’s amped-up energy and ferocious, carnivorous stage presence. But we’ve never really seen Beyoncé this angry.
More than ever before, it seems, Beyoncé isn’t just becoming political. She’s becoming a political activist.
Since Katrina, Beyoncé has been more outwardly political than we’re used to seeing her, which is an artist whose political platforms are radical only when it’s safe. Her support of Barack Obama, her seizing of the word “feminist”: these are political acts, but acts that are, truly, popularity boosters for the world’s biggest pop star, whose mission tends to be more on uniting—preferably around love of her—than being divisive or alienating.
With her middle fingers in the air, Beyoncé is done with that.
Since Katrina, Beyoncé has quietly given $7 million to the homeless in her hometown of Houston. She follows only 10 people on Twitter. Her most recent follow: Deray, the Black Lives Matter activist who recently announced his mad-as-hell bid for Baltimore mayor. And Tidal, which she owns a share of and was launched by her husband Jay Z, just donated $1.5 million to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite being more low-key with their activism in the past, the couple has also quietly spent thousands of dollars to bail out protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore, appeared at Black Lives Matter events, and met with victims of police brutality and their families.
While not a tangible political action, “Formation” might be her loudest one yet.
The song is an empowerment anthem as much as it is a call for activism or, heck, a dope-ass dance song.
“My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma / I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”
It’s a be-your-damn-self celebration of Beyoncé’s own Southern roots, an embrace of them that contrasts the dated, offensive narrative: that when a person becomes successful, they should shun their history and where they came from.
Pointedly, the video cuts to footage of her daughter, Blue Ivy, after the “baby hair and afros” line. To close out the verse, Beyoncé sings, “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me / I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” She’s happy where she is, rich and famous. But she’s even happier because she hasn’t lost where she came from.
Your past and the identity it gave you aren’t things to remember when you actualize into your best self. They are things to flaunt.
It’s not just her roots and her blackness she’s owning—“I came to slay, bitch / I like cornbreads and collard greens, bitch.” It’s her sexual power: “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster.” It’s her screw-you attitude to the rumor mill: “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess.”
It’s her own power: “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay.”
What she’s doing here is remarkable for an artist at the top of her game, and something we’re not used to seeing from Beyoncé, whose talents are explosive but voice is typically so quiet. She’s simultaneously commanding attention and applauding her own talents and destiny while still decrying and attacking the ways black culture, herself included, has been victimized.
She sees how those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Beyoncé has used her music to stage a revolution before, whether it’s destigmatizing all the “Single Ladies” or calling to action all the girls, who run the world.
But as the video ends, as her dancers in unison with Beyoncé are not so much singing as chanting, “Okay, okay I slay / Okay, okay, ladies now let’s get in formation, cause I slay,” you realize something more meaningful is happening here. Slaying doesn’t just mean being fabulous anymore. It means using that fabulousness to do something, dammit.
It’s rumored that Beyoncé will be performing “Formation” and perhaps one new song at Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” she sings. With that platform, and this song, get ready to listen.