On Saturday, Beyoncé surprised us all by dropping a new single and accompanying video, called ‘Formation’, one day before her Super Bowl halftime performance with Coldplay. Not only is it a badass trap song, but it’s also the biggest political statement Bey has ever made.
In the video, Beyoncé takes a stand against police brutality, and makes an uplifting statement about the resilience of black culture, black feminism and black queerness in the face of violence and prejudice. The video is available to stream and download for free on Tidal, the music streaming company owned by Jay Z, which also donated $1.5 million dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement last week.
The New Orleans setting represents the diversity of African American sub-cultures present in Louisiana. In the first verse of the song, Beyoncé sings, ‘My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma’. She refers to the fact that her mother is of Creole descent and her father African American from Alabama. Bey reclaims the word ‘bamma‘, typically a derogatory term used to describe someone without style.
A large part of the video features scenes depicting the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which largely affected the black community in New Orleans. Beyoncé is seen sitting atop a New Orleans police car, which is slowly sinking. This defiant image is the first glimpse of the continued theme of black people triumphing over racially fuelled issues.
The scene featuring a black boy dancing in front of a line of cops in riot gear is another powerful example of this. When he finishes his dance, they put their hands up in surrender, and Beyoncé sinks the police car by laying her body over it.
There are also scenes that evoke the past civil rights movements, including one featuring a newspaper with Martin Luther King, Jr’s face on it. But if anything, the scene is simply there to show us how absent men are from the video and the message is clear – this is a video about the people who have been marginalised from black protest action and are now coming to the fore: women and queer and transgender people.
As The Guardian points out, the release date of the video is also significant – it’s Black History Month in the US, it’s one week after what would’ve been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday, a day before the what would’ve been Sandra Bland’s 29th birthday, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers – a radical black organisation that was active during the Civil Rights Movement.
The inclusion of footage from the 2014 documentary The B.E.A.T about New Orleans bounce music and queer culture, together with voice-overs from bounce artist Messy Mya (‘What happened at the New Wildings / Bitch I’m back, by popular demand’) and queer hype artist Big Freedia (‘I did not come to play with you hoes, ha ha. I came to slay, bitch! I like cornbread and collard greens, bitch! Oh yas, you besta believe it.’) adds another layer to the video by incorporating more aspects of New Orleans culture.
The voice-overs, paired with Bey’s outfits representing archetypical black women from different time periods, turn the video into a homage to black Southern culture past and present, that is representative in every way. Bey’s continuous use of the word ‘slay’ which originated within the queer black community also serves as an acknowledgement of that community.
She continues to affirm features of black bodies that have been historically discriminated against, like natural hair and wide noses, with the line, ‘I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils’. Blue Ivy features in the video, proudly flaunting her natural hair, a statement that also calls out the criticism Beyoncé received from many for not ‘taming’ Blue’s hair.
To top it off, she’s unapologetic about her sexuality and her money, singing, ‘When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster (cause I slay) / If he hit it right I might take him on a flight on my chopper (cause I slay)’. She has agency over every aspect of her life, from her politics to her business to her sex life. When she sings ‘I just might be a black Bill Gates’ – the richest and one of the most innovative people in the world, she’s referring to her potential to be a revolutionary both financially and creatively.
Through all the references, the outfits, the lyrics and visuals, Beyoncé has done more than just make her own political statement. She’s made a video that gives us an immediate understanding of how heterosexism, patriarchy and white supremacy are a complicated lattice that exist together. And when she says, ‘OK ladies, now let’s get in formation’, it’s a call to arms.