A Surprise Release by Beyonce Stirs Conversation


Beyonce sings about racism, activism and feminism in her newest song “Formation,” released on Feb. 6. Courtesy of Flickr.

Beyonce sings about racism, activism and feminism in her newest song "Formation," released on Feb. 6. Courtesy of Flickr.
Beyonce sings about racism, activism and feminism in her newest song “Formation,” released on Feb. 6. Courtesy of Flickr.

By Emma Carey 

This article previously and erroneously referred to The Black Panther Party as being formed by Malcolm X.

Since its release on Feb. 6, Beyonce’s new single, “Formation,” has arguably established itself as the 21st-century “shot heard ‘round the world.” The song, which was published privately via Youtube and shared by various sources, made immediate waves with its proximity to Rihanna’s ANTI album and its music video. However, there is much more shock value to “Formation” than its spontaneous release or “(Dirty)” label. Knowles’ “Formation” has become a source of activist movements such as Black Lives Matter and feminism, and it seems that this is only a warning of what the iconic artist holds in her artillery.

Since the unannounced release of her last self-titled album in December 2013, fans have become accustomed to Beyonce’s musical surprise attacks. Around mid-evening on Saturday Feb. 6, social media erupted with praise from “Beyhive” super-fans and celebrities alike, often using the hashtag #ISlay in homage to the single’s lyrics. In reply to the song’s admiration for “Jackson 5 nostrils,” Chance the Rapper tweeted: “Beyonce just made me so proud of my nose.” In just two weeks, the video already has almost 30 million views. Meanwhile, in just three days, Red Lobster noted a spike in sales by 33 percent (for any entrepreneurs hoping for insight, refer to the song’s explicit lyrics).

The wildfire video opens to Beyonce crouching confidently atop a police car submerged in water, a Hurricane Katrina reference and motif throughout the video. As Beyonce flaunts her signature clever lyricism and flawless dance routines, “Formation” unfolds rapidly to reveal a message that the immeasurably successful African-American female artist seems to have been constructing for quite some time. Beyonce transitions seamlessly, commenting on the racist speculations of her success’ ties to the Illuminati, her southern heritage, black culture and her status as a celebrity. Unlike many artists currently speaking out on equality issues, Beyonce firmly acknowledges her potential image as a “black Bill Gates in the making.” Knowles is embracing her extraordinary success against racist and sexist odds as a privilege to speak out on current controversies. The artist closes the intense social commentary bragging about her ability to “cause all this conversation.”

As her verbal attack on injustice plays out, however, the video’s imagery holds equal weight. NPR recently headlined: “Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ is a visual anthem.” The music video ultimately composes what filmmaker Dream Hampton observes to be a “black future [where we] are imagining ourselves having power, and magic.” Various members of the so-called “black South” are depicted standing boldly in churches, festivals, restaurants, hair salons and more, flaunting beloved cultural traditions of the deep south. Some key focuses are actually those of the south who identify as “queer,” likely tied to the source of the song’s intro and outro voiceover, Messy Mya, a flamboyant New Orleans performer who was shot and killed this past year.

Perhaps the most powerful visual, however, is the recurring scene of a young boy dancing in front of a S.W.A.T. team, who, after the boy finishes, throws their hands up in surrender as graffiti reading “Stop Shooting Us” flashes across the screen. The scene is indubitably reminiscent of the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin among others. Hampton notes that the video’s release occurred upon the birthday of Trayvon Martin, a relation that was likely more than coincidental.

The catchy single’s one-day proximity to the Super Bowl also was, as the New York Times’ Wortham notes, “not insignificant.” Beyonce performed “Formation” as an introduction into her halftime performance alongside headliner, Coldplay, and Bruno Mars. The halftime show, which included a montage of past Super Bowls in honor of its 50th anniversary, marked a jump in viewership from the game’s average 111.9 million to 115.5 million. Knowles donned a classic black leather leotard studded by a golden “X” along with her back-up dancers, who also wore berets and afro hairstyles. The bold wardrobe, along with the ensemble’s tossing up of a right-handed fist and formation of an on-field “X”, was later thought to be a reference to the Black Panther Party.

While her performance and the single itself have reaped tremendous success, some of the buzz on Beyonce has been less than supportive. Members of police forces nationwide, as well as their supporters, have openly expressed their disapproval of Beyonce’s message. Congressman Pete King recently described “Formation” as “just one more example of how acceptable it has become to be anti-police.” The hashtag BlueLivesMatter has also become increasingly prevalent on social media. Following initiative from the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, multiple police unions consider boycotting Beyonce’s recently-announced “Formation” World Tour, threatening to refuse their local services to the concerts’ venues.

As of yet, no official police action has been taken (or not taken). At a recent planned “Formation” protest outside of NFL headquarters, the fan-to-opponent ratio resulted in a pro-Beyonce rally, instead. One fan crafted a makeshift sign taunting, “Where Y’all At?”

Despite recent backlash, “Formation” has been determined not to fail in its mission. The bird-flipping “Formation” Beyonce was certainly not attempting to please the crowd. While activism through music is far from unheard of, “Formation” stands separate from classic 60’s anti-war anthems or today’s body image ballads, as its message is driven by highly controversial calls to action and analysis. Beyonce has stirred up likely conversation, and this is just the introduction. Yahoo reporter Shehnaz Khan, who had predicted the single’s surprise release from her inside sources on Twitter, added shortly after its release: “One more thing…THERE IS MORE.” Knowles is packing more artistic heat than just “hot sauce in [her] bag.”