This week the lovely Beyoncé Knowles, the queen of pop and, arguably, everything else, appeared on the cover of the May 2016 issue of Elle magazine. Her latest album is still nowhere to be found, but she came out of her recent shroud of mystery to give Elle an exclusive interview. She talked about her new fitness line, her family’s Easter activities and, of course, the song “Formation.”
For those of us who have been in hiding under a rock, in a cave or in Lau studying for midterms, “Formation” is Beyoncé’s latest masterpiece. She dropped both the song and video in February 2015 and subsequently announced her upcoming world tour, once again snatching everyone’s attention without regard for our peace of mind or our bank accounts. Normally when Beyoncé does this, it is received with praise and love. But this time, interestingly, there was backlash.
“Formation” is different from the rest of Beyoncé’s videos because it is, first and foremost, unapologetically black. “Stop shooting us,” a phrase connected to the struggle of black people suffering from police brutality, makes a spray-painted appearance. Most scenes appear to be shot either in New Orleans or on what can best be described as a plantation and the video is cast almost exclusively with black dancers and actors. The only white presence to be found in the entire video is toward the end, when a small black child faces a line of white police officers.
The message of “Formation” is one of black pride. Beyoncé sings about loving her “Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” and liking her “baby heir with baby hair and afros,” celebrating physical characteristics that have been ridiculed and shunned for so long. Black women have been taught by popular American culture that their natural features are unattractive. Beyoncé spotlights black dancers, surrounds herself with black girls of every shade and, most importantly, imbues “Formation” with images reminding viewers of her roots and her identity as a black woman while simultaneously sending a message of solidarity with the black community.
So why — when nearly every popular love song is dedicated to girls with blue eyes and blond hair, when songs celebrating the experiences of white teenagers and young adults receive plenty of radio airtime, when most pop is by white people — is the video about being proud to be black receiving backlash? Why did people complain they felt uncomfortable about its message and its settings? Why was “Formation” touted as aggressive?
I don’t know about you, but the answer is pretty obvious to me. It is because it is not about white people.
When I first saw the video for “Formation” online, I was touched. Outside of rap music, which mostly focuses on sexualizing aspects of black women’s attractive qualities, I had never heard anyone with such a strong and widespread public platform praise black characteristics. Hardly anyone makes positive comments about black hair that are not patronizing and do not make me feel like some object to be examined and gawked over. Almost no one says anything positive about the size or shape of black noses. As a black woman with those features, I was on cloud nine for two solid days. It took an Internet comment to make me wonder if “Formation” could truly be considered feminist because it excluded white women, and isn’t feminism supposed to be about all women?
That’s the thing. “Formation” is not about all women. It is not supposed to be. “Formation” is about celebrating a group of people, black women, who have historically been oppressed, denigrated and classed as lesser in terms of attractiveness, intelligence, classiness and any other number of unflattering things. According to Beyoncé, “Formation” was a way to celebrate her roots and her culture during Black History Month.
“Celebration” is the key word in the discussion of both “Formation” and Beyoncé’s response to the backlash. When white culture and white features are praised and celebrated, we accept it as normal and unthreatening because it is keeping with the status quo. But when black features and black culture are celebrated and popularized and put out there for everyone to see, when black people recognize themselves and only themselves in an extremely popular music video, when the queen of pop reminds people that she is, in fact, black, that is when celebration becomes unwelcome. That is when celebration threatens to unbalance the status quo. That is when celebration becomes threatening.
Yet that is the exact kind of self-loving celebration I welcome. Go off, Beyoncé, and go hard.
Femi Sobowale is a senior in the College. Pop Politics appears every other Tuesday.
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