White Beyoncé haters don't get it: "Formation" isn't "race-baiting" — but it is unapologetically about race

"Formation" ignites protest from racists who refuse to see pro-black art and speech as anything but anti-white

Published February 11, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Beyoncé in the "Formation" video
Beyoncé in the "Formation" video

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

This might be the blackest version of Beyoncé we’ve twerked to yet. However, there are those who aren’t down with Beyoncé’s party — they’re ready to get in anti-Beyoncé protest formation. Coming off the heels of her Super Bowl performance, where she received harsh criticism from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Peter King, R-Long Island, for being “anti-police,” a #BoycottBeyoncé is brewing. NWA went there in 1988 with “Fuck Tha Police” and received backlash for it, but it’s 2016 — and this critique is just further proof that African-Americans can’t have anything or express ourselves fully without first considering if we’re “race-baiting” white America.

The anti-Beyhive is reportedly planning to storm the NFL headquarters in Manhattan on Feb. 16, the same day tickets for her world tour are slated to go on sale, calling her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show "a slap in the face to law enforcement" that "glorifies" the Black Panthers, whom they call a "hate group." But protesters are missing the real point of “Formation.” Beyoncé's song/video/halftime show is pro-black, and has nothing to do with catering to the comforts of white America — their feelings or their politics. Rather, “Formation,” as shown in her now-iconic video, is Beyoncé’s coming-of-age race story, a celebration of black unity and individuality in words and images.

Clearly, our home girl is both woke and unashamed of reveling in the glory of black life in “Formation.” In just under 5 minutes she breaks down some of the complexities of her brand of black womanhood—she twirls on respectability politics, while standing on top of a police car in the middle of post-Katrina New Orleans floodwaters. She rebels against any bit of anti-blackness or patriarchy you have mistaken her for subscribing to.

“Formation” exposes a different side of a woman who isn’t afraid of showing us her historical self while figuring out with the rest of black America how to unpack a bunch of confusing questions about our black identities. The song dropped within days of Trayvon Martin’s birthday, Sandra Bland’s birthday, during Mardi Gras and Black History Month. Proverbial Beyoncé.

The song’s lyrics and music video don’t necessarily go hand in hand. She could have given us choreography similar to her hits “7/11” or “Girls Run the World,” but she didn’t. It’s defiant. The visuals hold their own—as she breaks down the power of black self-love, family unity, colorism and the misconception that you can’t be both “woke” and desire a lavish life, as Beyoncé has obtained for herself.

For such a long time we were presented with a “whiter version” of Beyoncé — who slayed nonetheless. However, it was very clear that she was put on a pedestal by white America, further validating black Americans’ praise of her. Not this time around, though. “Formation” is a lyrical memoir of coming to terms with her blackness—something much of young black America is trying to figure out how to do ourselves, as we’ve become increasingly more aware of the challenges that being black can present.

Beyoncé begins breaking down an abbreviated version of her individual story by first giving us some background of where it all started, “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana. You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” She’s clearly over respectability politics as she uses the somewhat derogatory word “bama” to describe the working-class family she grew up in.

She quickly fast-forwards to motherhood and marriage, where she destroys colorism, good hair and praise of Eurocentric features all within one verse: “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” When she brings up daughter Blue Ivy’s hair, which has been the focal point of much bantering on Twitter over the last couple years, she’s repudiating social hatred of girls with popping Afros. Oh, and let’s not forget all of the dope hairstyles Beyoncé rocked throughout the video, to further bring home her point of loving your individual beauty, from her lush curly hair to the fleeky braided hairstyles she slayed. She makes it a point not just to praise the beauty of black women, but also defend the looks of her husband, Jay Z, whose nose has been the center of jokes for quite some time.

“Formation” resonates because many of us are trying to collect ourselves, figure it all out and craft our own “blacken” coming-of-age narratives. We’ve experienced our Rodney King moment and we’ve witnessed what appear to be blatant disregard for the crises of black and brown people at the hands of government and institutions, from Katrina to Flint, Michigan. In the struggle to understand what our mamas gave to us, there’s something comforting about knowing that it’s OK to wear our histories on our sleeves.

There’s also nothing wrong with subscribing to Beyoncé’s dream while still remaining aware of everything that is going on in the world. She reminds us that, despite her and her husband’s combined reported worth of close to a billion dollars, she will always be the same country girl in this line: “earned all this money but they never take the country out me / I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag.”  After giving us this piece reminder of who she is at heart, she then goes into addressing unity regardless of sexuality, incorporating the voices of Big Freedia, a New Orleans Bounce Star, to introduce the emergence of gay black rap in the city. She also features Messy Mya, a provocative social media-famous comedian who was gunned down in 2010.

To further bring home the point of unity there are several scenes for “ladies get in formation.” She first references formation when referring to the family and then shifts her focus to women, who have historically been on the front lines of any movement. However, there’s one choreographed piece of “ladies get in formation,” that particularly hits home — a scene that happens at the bottom of an empty pool. She’s addressing the fact that we need each other during tough times, whether that be in literal floodwaters, or wading through haters and their "Illuminati mess” charges. We’ll get through it together.

Beyoncé declares she’s here on the front lines with, "I twirl all my haters...Albino alligators.” She’s willing to sacrifice some of her mass appeal for what she believes — #BlackLivesMatter. And she presents her own brand of activism, without subscribing to respectability politics — she can still enjoy wearing a Givenchy dress. Her black experience can’t be summed up into one horrific event. As Beyoncé takes us through this abbreviated version of her life, the video's wardrobe palette changes. The scene in which the women are wearing all white refers to the time after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed — a time when slaves were technically "free" but still being oppressed. The shift to all-black outfits depicts a more empowered and free people — the men dressed up in nice suits, Beyoncé adorned in jewelry and flicking off the camera in front of a plantation.

Near the end, a powerful scene of a little boy wearing a black hoodie and dancing in front of a line of police armed in riot gear once more underscores the power of unity. He stops and puts his arms into the air — and all of the policemen follow his position. Then the camera shifts to a clip of graffiti on a wall that says, “Stop shooting us.”

Beyoncé joins a league of artists from Kendrick to J. Cole who have made smelling ourselves and wearing black culture on our sleeves the dopest thing to do. We want something that we can own, and music more than ever is one of the few spaces in which we can. The knee-jerk reaction from white viewers to her song and her black beret-clad dancers' performance at the Super Bowl is absurd. The backlash to “Formation” is proof that even in 2016, black artists have to make anything, especially something as wildly popular as a new Beyoncé song performed at the most mainstream of all TV events, the Super Bowl, about white America’s feelings and politics — even when the song is about anything but that.

By Priscilla Ward

Priscilla Ward is an over-caffeinated, D.C.-based writer, running enthusiast, music explorer, and founder of BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting @Macaronifro.

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Beyonce Formation Race Racism Super Bowl 50 Super Bowl Halftime Show