The lyrics and video to Beyonce’s new single “Formation” shouldn’t be surprising to any fans who have been closely following the political leanings of the pop artist and her husband Jay-Z. While the power couple have often tried to keep it quiet, they’ve been huge financial supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, activist Dream Hampton revealed that the couple had poured in tens of thousands of dollars in bail money without a second thought when Baltimore and Ferguson protestors were jailed. After those tweets were deleted, he later suggested that they didn’t really want to largely publicize the fact, reported The Guardian.
That attitude seems to be shifting when peering into the video, performance and lyrics behind Beyonce’s “Formation.” Just as she gained accolades for aligning herself with feminism on her 2013 surprise self-titled album, Beyonce has once again recognized the power of pop and the cult of her own artistry to send a message. This time, it’s about the police violence faced by the black community.
While the Super Bowl performance of “Formation” has plenty of people angry over Beyonce’s Black Panther imagery, the song’s video is much sharper. A police car sinking into a flooded Louisiana landscape, a young African-American man dancing in front of a line of cops, a newspaper held up to the camera with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face over the phrase “More Than A Dream” — these things are pretty unmistakable references to the push back against the police violence perpetrated against black people.
The lyrics, on the other hand, aren’t quite as openly political — at least not in a way that’s specific to law enforcement. Yes, Beyonce clearly sings about having pride in her black roots in “Formation.” Her daughter, Blue Ivy, is put front and center while her mother sings the lyric “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros,” while the youngest Carter’s coiffure is styled to match. She follows it up with “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”
Still, while even the title of the song “Formation” brings unity to mind, it’s hard to say that the song’s lyrics would ever, by themselves, conjure up the images that will now forever be associated with it because of the video and accompanying Super Bowl performance. Just hearing “Formation” on the radio isn’t going to cause anarchy in the streets. Sure, it’s political for a pop song, but it’s not as in your face as a classic N.W.A. track or something Killer Mike would throw down on Run the Jewels.
But it’s that subtlety that makes the lyrics of “Formation” all the more revolutionary. The track starts out with a clip of murdered YouTube star Messy Mya asking, “What happened after New Orleans?” He sets the tone for the song with a question, not a statement, drawing the listener in to also ask themselves what the song is about and what they can personally reap from it. Beyonce isn’t trying to force her opinions on her audience, she’s asking them to dig deeper in order to understand its message — ideas she fleshes out further in the video. That’s the genius of “Formation” — it’s not any less pop song than it is political anthem, and because of that she’s accomplishing two tasks: giving social justice a major platform and the masses a nudge, not a shove.
It’s the nuance with which Beyonce has crafted the lyrics to “Formation” that is what is so truly fascinating about it. If you’re angry about police violence, the song can be anti-police violence. If you’ve ever felt disregarded as a minority, it can be pro-ethnic pride. Like all great pop music, there’s a certain adaptability to the experience of the person listening to it; and in this case, an invitation to educate yourself about black history and the politics of repression.
[Image via Matt Slocum/AP Images]