When Beyoncé dropped “Formation” over the weekend, it was an exciting, exuberant, and decidedly political celebration of blackness.The song, and its video, were lauded for proving that Beyoncé is “woke,” and fully plugged into what it means to be a black woman in America. What’s most fascinating about the reaction to “Formation” is that it assumes Beyoncé has never before put her blackness on display in this way.
But Beyoncé has always been political — and most of all, pro-black — we just weren’t paying attention.
The conundrum of Beyoncé is that she is for everyone, and yet she is not for everyone. Her mass appeal has always come from how palatable she is to white audiences. With her light skin and blonde, flowing weaves, she’s been able to navigate a space that tends to exclude (or at the very least limit) black women. She’s black but not too black. Sassy but not too aggressive. Read as more universal than specific to any one identity or experience. When she sings “Who run the world — girls!” the girls she speaks of are an amorphous, ever-changing group, racially-ambiguous, of no specific social class.
But “Formation” felt different. The song, video, and subsequent Super Bowl performance is the visual and auditory equivalent of “bitch you thought.” With its nods to New Orleans, its imagery invoking the realities of police brutality, its celebration of black gay ballroom culture and the Black Panthers, Beyoncé’s latest single is perhaps the most straightforward expression of her blackness.
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