I like Beyonce. I totally appreciate how much influence she has. When she drops a video people watch, and they share, and they react like their lives have totally been changed just by watching it. “Did you SEE Formation?” They say it like your very existence as a human being depends on it. Lets break down the video and examine some of the lyrics and concepts.
I love Beyonce’s message of female empowerment. The idea of women everywhere lining up with her in formation to “slay” because we “woke up like this,” is a wonderful concept. Loving ourselves both individually and as a community is important. Black women are on the front lines of the activist movement. Plus, if there’s no dancing during the revolution I don’t want to be apart of it. I love the unapologetic southern blackness on display in the video. I love the curly afros and the deliciously wanton way she talks about sexing her husband while twerking in the hallway of the “big house.”
I wanted some Red Lobster for sure yesterday afternoon, but all jokes aside we have to dig a little deeper. Feminist expression that does not recognize class struggle is flawed.
Kanye West gets a bad rap, because he’s…well…he’s a dick sometimes. There’s really no way around acknowledging that, but that does not mean he is wrong about many of the things he rants about. We all know about that famous BBC radio interview rant from several years ago, but do we really remember what Kanye was ranting about? Here’s an excerpt from that interview:
Now let’s take people who have issues with me as Kanye West. They classify my motivational speeches as rants – like “Why is he saying that? Why is he doing that?” Well I’ve reached a point in my life where my Truman Show boat has hit the painting. And I’ve got to a point that Michael Jackson did not break down. I have reached the glass ceiling – as a creative person, as a celebrity.
And later he adds:
I understand we want to make it about music but I wanted to take this step to say, we got this new thing called “Classism”. It’s racism’s cousin. This is what we do to hold people back. This is what we do. And we got this other thing that’s also been working for a long time where you don’t have to be racist anymore it’s called “Self-Hate”. It works on itself. It’s like real estate of racism. Where, just like that, when someone comes up and says something like “I am a god”, everybody says “Who does he think he is?” I just told you who I thought I was, a god! I just told you! That’s who I think I am! Would have been better if I had a song that said, “I am a nigga”? or if I had song that said “I am a gangsta”? or if I had song that said “I am a pimp”? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god? Especially, when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in, and your last name is a slave owner’s. How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?
Kanye is not making a feminist critique here, he is talking about class, and because of that it has a different and an arguably more mature message for the listener. While working hard, grinding, and stacking paper seems like a path to empowerment here is Kanye saying don’t be fooled there is a glass ceiling of success for African Americans. We are apart of a totally different class. We do not own Nike, we do not own the large fashion houses, and there is a certain height of success you can achieve before you’re reminded by those in the owning class that you work for them and that you must ultimately, “stay in your lane,” as Kanye put it. Coming to these realizations produced the manic levels of frustration he exhibited in that interview and other interviews of that era. I think the casual fan didn’t really know what to make of his angry rant. We don’t have many “successful” African Americans detailing their treatment from white corporate America. There isn’t much else out there to compare Kanye’s comments to. Beyonce talks about being authentically “country” and carrying hot sauce in her purse, so there’s a hint of an understanding that money doesn’t transform us. She’s asserting that being apologetically Black AND successful is possible and revolutionary at the same time. This is an empowering message, but I just wish she could take that thought further.
One thing that really stuck out to me was her invocation of her Creole heritage. I am from Louisiana, and so I know that Black Creoles embody an interesting intersection of race and class. French slave culture was very different from British slave culture. In Louisiana, before the Louisiana purchase, relations between slaves, free Black folks, and whites was much less restrictive than in British slave territories. It was much more common to see white males who fathered mixed race children to not only take public responsibility for those children, but they were sometimes made legal heirs and sent to France to be educated. These mixed race Creoles grew to form their own socioeconomic caste. This culture extended even beyond emancipation.
Creoles would marry among themselves to keep this social class in tact, and often identified not as Black, but as Creole. The “paper bag test” grew from this way of thinking. If you were darker than the brown of a paper bag you could not be Creole. The denigration of darker skinned African Americans is obviously not something isolated to Creole culture, but it is definitely clearly exemplified in it. It’s well known that often the racism perpetuated by Creole’s rivaled the racism of white Louisianians. Invoking this heritage is an interesting choice. Again, I think we can’t gloss over the class implications. Should we ignore the parallels present here? Creoles had more wealth, were closer in complexion to white people, and had a higher social status than darker Black folks and slaves, but did having more money put them on par white citizens? Did their fairer complexions make them full human beings in the eyes of white supremacy?
Creole heritage is really a stark contrast to the unapologetically country girl persona. In 2016 the complexities of our identities and our heritage are important to examine and critique. Beyonce is embracing the revolutionary power of simply existing and resisting, and she is helping to forge new understandings of self for Black women, and minorities in general, but defining who we are while being consciously aware of how white supremacy defines us is not enough. We must also be careful not to only define ourselves just merely in opposition to white supremacy’s ideas of blackness. I think the struggle is to define ourselves totally free of the white supremacist paradigm altogether. That’s what Kanye is talking about when he discussed that blow back he experienced when he claimed “I am a god.” You can proudly be Creole within white supremacy, you can be a thug, you can be country, but white supremacy has no space for black gods.
I don’t want to get lumped in with the haters. Beyonce gave us plenty to be proud of and to love in the video for Formation. This video is modern day protest in high artistic form.
These images say so much, and give us so much to dissect and think about. My only critique is that I want more. I want Beyonce to take us to even higher places with her art. We need a sharper class consciousness brought into focus. In the meantime though, there’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to be boldly black, beautiful, and to SLAY.