With record-breaking songs, catchy lyrics, impeccably-produced music videos and a fan bases that transcends color, gender, and locale, Beyoncé Knowles has become a modern-day icon for people of color not only in the United States but also across the world. A successful artist, actress, and businesswoman, one could make the argument Beyoncé is the most influential African-American of her generation, and, apart from Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama, in the history of the United States.
However, in February 2016 when Beyoncé debuted her latest single, “Formation,” I asked the question: “Will Americans continue to embrace Beyoncé and her political activism in the wake of controversy?” Whether it’s former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani or Facebook and Twitter commenters, virtually everyone has something to say about this particular artist, song, video, and her live performance at Super Bowl 50.
With racial tensions at a fever pitch across the United States, how will a prominent and beloved figure like Beyoncé change the conversation? While several of my peers argue it is time the singer “gets in formation” and stays out of politics, I believe it is Beyoncé’s duty as a mother, a celebrity, and a prominent woman of color to contribute to the ongoing conversation about police brutality, racism, and race relations in the 21st Century.
In the music video for “Formation,” Beyoncé shares the reality of a post-Katrina New Orleans, with flooded police cruisers, destroyed houses, and images of low-income black communities. These shots primarily consist of women of color, echoing the artist’s own ethnic background and recalling the feminist messages of her Destiny’s Child era. With shots of her daughter, Blue Ivy, sporting her natural hair style in a flower girl-like dress, her mother underscores with the lyrics, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” From the start of the song and the video, Beyoncé establishes that while she may be rich and famous, she is still first and foremost a black woman who embraces the features that set her apart from her white counterparts.
For an influential celebrity like Beyoncé to come out and say, “It’s okay to embrace being black,” in an age in which people of color are not afforded role models who celebrate their innate features, is monumental. While it may not be as broad as a message as her hit songs “Flawless” or “Run the World (Girls),” Beyoncé serves as an excellent inspiration for girls like Blue Ivy who may not be made to feel “beautiful”, “pretty,” or “worth it” in comparison to modern day ideals and standards. While the visuals and lyrics are incredibly stunning, the song serves as an excellent social and political commentary of modern urban areas in the United States, particularly in the South where the singer was born and raised. By promoting the beauty of black girls and women, Beyoncé is doing what someone like First Lady Michelle Obama or even Oprah Winfrey cannot simply say: “I’m a Black woman, and enough is enough”. While these two women of color are prominent in the public eye, they do not have the liberties Beyoncé is afforded due to her profession, past flirtations with controversy, and her vastly, unapologetic audience.
Aside from her earlier commentary on black beauty and empowering her fellow women of color to embrace where they come from, Beyoncé also ventures into uncharted territory: police brutality. While rap artist Macklemore recently released a song illustrating his views on police brutality, Beyoncé is the first woman of color to tackle this issue (especially on this scale) in the recent past. While the lyrics of “Formation” center on empowerment of black women, similar to her past songs “Independent Women” and “Diva,” the music video tells of a stunningly different story. Featuring graffiti stating “Stop Shooting Us,” a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a line of armed police officers confronting a dancing black child in the streets of New Orleans, Beyoncé has provoked a polarizing and uncomfortable response from her audiences. The video ends with the line of police officers surrendering to the innocent child, and Beyoncé drowning in the floods of Katrina on top of a police cruiser.
While several of my peers have gone and posted about their outrage about this video, citing how Beyoncé is “contributing to the racial divides in America,” I believe a woman in her position has a duty to speak out. Beyoncé gives an interesting and unique perspective on the issue of police brutality, as both a woman of color and a mother of a young child. These are lenses we seldom see portrayed in the mainstream media, so by contributing to the conversation with a new, controversially fresh and stellar music video, she is doing a service to the American public.
Police brutality, whether in Midwestern U.S. cities like Ferguson, Missouri or the “capital of the world” New York City, is a controversial issue that most Americans don’t want to talk about or even think about. Make no mistake, as a rich, influential and powerful figure, Beyoncé does not have to worry about confronting these issues in her everyday life. However, as someone who grew up in Houston, Texas, the daughter of two Southerners, Beyoncé has a raw, authentic connection to this haunting occurrence Americans are seeing on their television screens and in their newspapers time and time again.
For people to say Beyoncé needs to “stay out of politics” and “stick with making music” is completely hypocritical and unfair. Would Americans be criticizing Angelina Jolie or George Clooney for advocating for political reform? All Americans have a right and a responsibility to speak out for what they believe in, and for millennials and their parents to say she needs to stifle herself for the good of the status quo is un-American at the very least, as it combats the Socratic need for dialogue this country was built on. If these issues continue to progress and afflict more people, it will be our failure as American citizens who did not confront controversy in the face and call for change.
“Formation” brings up an excellent question that I have found myself asking since it was released: “Whom is it meant for?” Quite honestly, this song, its video, and its performance at the Super Bowl were meant for everyone. Regardless of race or ethnic identity, Americans must use this opportunity to take a look in the mirror and confront their own ideas and feelings about the issues Beyoncé beautifully and hauntingly illustrated through this song.
In the near future, Americans will likely all forget about “Formation” and the controversy it has stirred, but the important thing is Beyoncé and her new project have served as a linchpin for an imperative, ongoing conversation. Despite how much Americans listen to it and rave/complain about it, nothing will change unless American citizens continue to speak out against the injustices facing communities we seldom see on our television screens.
Not only do I like Beyoncé’s newest song and video, I proudly say I love it because it has brought the conversation of race relations to a new audience and a new generation- my generation. If I were President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or the several public figures who have yet to bring the issues “Formation” presents, I’d follow Queen Bey’s lead, “get in formation,” and join the conversation.