I love being black. I love being a black woman even more. And apparently, so does Beyoncé. Her latest music video, "Formation," is a call to arms for black women. When Solange Knowles, Bey’s fierce younger sister, interviewed teen sensation Amandla Sternberg for Teen Vogue , she wrote that “There’s a secret language shared among black girls who are destined to climb mountains and cross rivers in a world that tells us to belong to the valleys that surround us. You learn it very young, and although it has no words, you hear it clearly.” With “Formation,” Beyoncé taps into that language and uses it to usher her fellow black women into her powerful fold. Through her video imagery as well as her lyrics, the “***Flawless” singer tells black women that she hears us loud and clear.
Imagery matters. It’s the reason seeing a black American president and first lady means so much. It expands the imaginations of those of us who are told to dream smaller because of our blackness, our womanhood, our sexuality, our gender, or some combination of those factors. And it’s the imagery in “Formation” that makes the video so striking. While we’re accustomed to the meticulous way Beyoncé presents her videos, “Formation” is a departure from everything the world at large finds comforting about the King.
In the past, she’s seemed harmless. She’s quiet, gentle, and never publicly claps back at those intent on insulting her. Instead, she uses her music to flex her bravado. We’ve seen this brashness in “Diva,” “Upgrade U,” and “***Flawless,” but “Formation” is her bravest retort to those who doubt her commitment to social justice and her Southern roots.
To me, there’s a separation between the pre-self-titled album Beyoncé, and the post-"***Flawless" Beyoncé. The old Bey cared about the opinions of others. She did interviews. She went on endless promotional tours to get her music out to the masses. She kept her marriage private, choosing not to talk about her fulfilling moments of personal bliss. She was sheltered, proper and excellent, but still the consummate pop-culture diva.
Today's Beyoncé is radically different. She’s out of f*cks to give. Her marriage and child are front-and-center in her art. She anchors herself to pleasure in all its forms. There’s no more “shh!” instead of the cuss words. Now she’s talking about rewarding her husband for f*cking her good.
Beauty is a vital part of Bey’s career. She was named People’s Most Beautiful Woman in 2012. Her lighter skin and angular features afford her cultural privileges not extended to the other two members of Destiny's Child. With “Formation,” she’s announcing that she’s heard the criticism.
And though she may not tweet or use Instagram much, she’s heard the social media vitriol directed toward her daughter Blue Ivy and her husband Jay-Z — and she wants to celebrate them anyway. She loves the way Blue’s hair grows from her scalp — unruly and beautiful. She loves her husband’s “Jackson 5” nostrils. She loves their blackness. And she loves ours. When Blue dances joyfully with two other black girls, it tells me that she’s being raised with confidence.
Bey knows that she’s black, and she revels in it. She’s proud and she’s unwilling to compromise her daughter’s blackness in order to meet some fictional standard of beauty that she herself has been held to her entire life. It extends the message of “Pretty Hurts” — the idea that perfection is “mmm” dominates this video. We see it in Beyonce’s braids, purposefully frizzy ‘fro, and gothic aesthetic. She’s no longer here to be an idol and pinnacle of beauty. She’s here to slay — on her terms — without apologies.
There’s also a layer of unapologetic feminism present here. “I slay” is a term used to showcase bravado — a trait Bey is accustomed to. Yes, she loves her husband, her baby, and her career, but she loves herself most of all. And she’s telling other Black women to come into formation to embrace pleasure and self-love, and reject those who tell us we’re unworthy of both. There’s no need to cower or be humble when our patron saint of pop stars may be a billionaire before 40. She literally tells black women how she’s achieved her success: “I see it, I want it … I dream it, I work hard. I grind 'til I own it.” “Formation” is the black version of Lean In.
Success for Bey is no longer conforming to the music industry’s demands. She’s now unconcerned with charts and radio play. It’s all about getting her music and her message to her people. She imagines them tas women, but I claim them to be black women — especially Southern black women who carry hot sauce in their purses.
“Formation” is a continuation of “Haunted,” a video that peeks into Bey’s Houston upbringing. It brings up the importance of her Southernness for those who have forgotten. Regional pride shapes her identity, and she leverages that to connect with her roots. She may jet around the world and make her home in New York, but she hasn't forgotten where she came from.
Beyoncé is unapologetically black, Southern, and feminist. She could’ve shot “Formation" anywhere. But she chose New Orleans, which has been rendered a shell of its former self by Hurricane Katrina. As gentrification slowly creeps into the city, Beyoncé chooses to reject the violence of whiteness encroaching on culture. By including the voices of New Orleans’ idols, like Big Freedia and the deceased Messy Mya, Beyoncé conjures its resilience and uncompromising spirit.
The world’s reigning pop diva chides America for not handling Katrina better. She also connects the endemic violence against black folks in this current time to the lack of care for those traumatized by the hurricane. “Formation” dropped on what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday. I doubt that's coincidental.
Through the image of a young boy who is so powerful that he forces the police officers aiming their guns at him to wave their hands in surrender, Beyoncé connects the lingering failures of Katrina to the present lack of care for Black lives. The visuals are her way of expressing her concern — of rejecting the notion that because she’s such a huge pop star, she has to be silent and favor all lives over black lives.
Here, she says that black lives do matter. We know she supports this movement, since TIDAL, a streaming giant she has partial ownership of, just gave a generous donation to it. She is telling us we’re gon’ be alright — without the respectability Kendrick Lamar seemingly ties to that phrase. She’s letting black folks know that we may be trampled on, but still we rise.
Beyoncé sinks a police car in flood waters. That sends a message — especially as the camera pans to the “stop killing us” message graffitied on a wall. She may seem insulated, but she knows what’s happening, and she’s using her visuals to make a political statement: Black people deserve better. We deserve more than being left to drown in our neighborhoods. We deserve more than to die in jail cells. We deserve more than to be gunned down in the street when our hands are up. We deserve better. And we will slay until we get what we deserve.
She’s telling black women to rise up. I hear you, Bey. We all do. “Formation is our call to arms.” We, like the Black Panthers she paid homage to in her Super Bowl performance, are heeding the call.