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February 18, 2016

Spinning Singles: Beyoncé, “Formation”

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People were shocked when Beyoncé dropped her new music video, “Formation,” the day before The Super Bowl. Since then, I have had so many discussions about this song with so many people. Some say it is entirely overrated, while others gush about how empowering it is. I fall somewhere in between. I love the fact that “Formation” is unapologetically black and makes references to black culture that are entirely missed by non-black audiences. The video itself is a beautiful compilation of images of black culture throughout American history. In addition, Beyoncé’s lyrics praise physical traits that are typically negatively associated with black bodies (“I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”). Beyoncé herself embodies a plantation owner, turning the typical trope of plantation owner and slave on its head. The absence of white bodies in the video (aside from one scene which I will get to later) speaks to Beyoncé’s intention of creating content meant to be shared and appreciated amongst solely black audiences. In this respect, Beyoncé definitely achieved her goal. Because of the way she incorporated period costume into the video, she was able to trace different methods of oppression throughout black history to recent police shootings. The video made it clear that police shootings were yet another manifestation of anti-blackness sentiment that pervades American culture through its use of costume and the shots of graffiti reading “stop shooting us.”

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At first, I also criticized “Formation” because it did not include many images of poor, black America and instead embodied a narrative of glamour and wealth instead. However, I now think this choice was more purposeful than I had previously thought. Instead of the typical images of black Americans one sees in the media, Beyoncé chooses to question norms by including a black cowboy and black plantation owners. While this depiction does not quite match up with American audiences’ perception of black life, one starts to ask oneself why this is the case. Perhaps Beyoncé intended to question this depiction and to show that it does not have to be the norm.

One scene in particular that I thought was very effective was the one featuring the break dancing little boy. A young black boy breakdances in front of a line of white police officers. The end of the video features these officers throwing their hands up in surrender followed by a quick shot of the “stop shooting us” graffiti. The juxtaposition of these two images was so powerful that I had to pause for a moment before finishing the rest of the video. I asked myself if racial contentions had changed at all. Beyoncé uses her video as a way to criticize those who would claim that the United States’ has progressed in terms of its conception of race relations since its inception. She makes her audience doubt this idea.

Given this realization, one might wonder what Beyoncé would suggest black people do about their continued systematic and institutionalized oppression. The last line of the song perfectly explains what she thinks should be done: “always be gracious / your best revenge is your paper.”  And this was where the song failed for me. Beyoncé’s claim here is that the best way to resist oppression is by profiting off of the colonialist system that created current conceptions of class in the first place. Instead of calling for unified resistance, she instead chooses to direct people towards a much more individualistic solution, embracing the tried and tested capitalist trope that if one only works hard enough, one can achieve one’s goals. This is, of course, not the case. One’s success depends on much more than one’s own perseverance because of the way the American class system has been created. While Beyoncé has managed to become extremely successful, she is an exception, not the norm. I do not think liberation can be achieved by working within the existing structures of oppression and colonialism. After all, these are the organizations by which the current race-based class system was created.

Ultimately, it should be noted that I am not Beyoncé’s intended audience. These are only my personal thoughts on her video. If nothing else, Beyoncé definitely managed to stun everyone with “Formation” and I would encourage people to listen to it, if only to be momentarily transported to a world where black folks dominate the media without being tokenized and exploited.

Hadiyah Chowdhury is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at hchowdhury@cornellsun.com.

6 thoughts on “Spinning Singles: Beyoncé, “Formation”

  1. I think you have most of your assessment of her video correct. But what I don’t understand is why people don’t get the fact that she is an artist. In my opinion she can say what she pleases simply because she is an American citizen whose speech is protected by our Constitution. How disrespectful is it for people to have the unmitigated Gaul to tell her otherwise. If you don’t like it; then don’t look or listen. It’s just that simple.

  2. Nice piece Hadiyah and very insightful. The fact that people are responding to this video is good news. More action is required to dismantle those constraints you point out exist than just music but music can be the soul and voice of the movement. Bravo

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