There is a lot to take away from the Beyoncé “Formation” video in terms of how we have come to define ourselves as a people.
The appreciation of baby hair, afros and Jackson 5 nostrils. The cornbread, collard greens and hot sauce in the purse. The hat tip (or more culturally accurate, head nod and dap) to Messy Mya, Big Freedia and sissy bounce. The self-confirmation of being a star. The clarion call to get out there and grind, work hard and slay. The unbridled pursuit of capitalism via the shout-outs to the Black Bill Gates in the making. And the pledge to always stay gracious as the “best revenge is your paper.”
It is prideful. It is boastful. It is unapologetic. It’s cultural Blackness. It’s a song of affirmation.
But it is also a song, and visuals, which in some ways contradicts the message it seeks to share.
The police car being swallowed into the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina while a Black boy dances freely in front of a wall of blue. The “Stop shooting us” graffiti on the wall. The Black Panther-inspired backup dancers pumping black fists. The reminder that we are still waiting on justice for Mario Woods. And the pledge that, in the face of all of this, you should always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.
It all sounds good in theory.
But the reality is that all the money in the world could not keep Oprah Winfrey from being profiled in an upscale boutique. And all the graciousness in the world did not protect President Barack Obama and his family from the racially based critiques and comments. And all of this wealth building, grinding and emphasis on paper chasing has not reversed the tide for those in the community who continue to loose their lives due to police violence and misconduct. Likewise the combined wealth of all the Black millionaires, as well as Oprah Winfrey, has not brought about the political force needed to ensure that clean and drinkable water gets to the most disenfranchised among us in Flint, Michigan.
Looking through the lens, “Formation” is a reminder how, in terms of who we are as a community, we have crafted an identity that is both boastful and prideful in spirit but politically gracious and more aligned with the dominate culture than we care to admit.
But despite all of its contradictions, “Formation” is very much a song of now.
It’s for the generation who is openly considering the class consciousness of Cornel West, Adolf Reed and Bernie Sanders, but will form a protective shell around the political moderation and downright social conservatism of the President Obama. A generation that speaks of revolution but are just as comfortable in its conspicuous consumerism. The generation that wants to build our own, away from the dominant White supremacist power structure, but will celebrate each and every “first” the system produces. A generation that will demand that they “stop shooting us” but doesn’t really have a plan of action for the “or else.” A generation that wants our women and girls to be socially carefree, but also requires them to be gracious, demure and not too loud or angry-looking. And a generation that will make pro-Black affirmations of self-determination while showing up, performing for and collecting a check from corporate sponsors at the Super Bowl.
It’s not much of a condemnation but rather an unabashed look at ourselves. This system turns us all into capitalists whether we are down for it or not. Our ancestors’ introduction into this country was just as much a matter of product of individual and global capitalistic pursuits as it was racial oppression. Our independence and even cultural identity is just as reliant, shaped around and in response to Whiteness and the dominate culture just as much as it is about loving and helping ourselves. We are a generation who are products, and descendants, of the racial turbulence of the 60s and 70s through Ronald Reagan 80s, where trickle down politics and rampant capitalism conspired to create the drug game and welfare queens. We are a generation that survived slavery, Jim Crow lynchings and segregation, redlining, predatory lending, mass incarceration, unequal schools as well as nearly being drowned to death and forgotten in Hurricane Katrina.
We are a generation who in spite of all our firsts and achievements, are still largely struggling to eat, clothed and house ourselves and overcome in poverty. As such we have become a generation of mixed loyalties, consciousness and aspirations who speaks of freedom but not to the point that it is messing up, or even getting in the way of our much-needed paper.
Of course, Beyonce is not the first Black artist to speak to our dual realities (Although she is likely the strongest pop female voice, which explains the fascination). Hip-hop in particular has a long history of preaching, prophesying and reporting about the emotional impact and psychology peculiarities of hating the system but wanting to claim a piece of it for ourselves.
Kanye West said it best: “They made us hate ourselves and love their wealth.”
Or as once written by Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal about West as well as Beyonce’s husband Jay Z equally prideful joint album Watch the Throne:
“This is a point that branding expert Steve Stoute argues in his forthcoming book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, where he writes that the “force of aspiration,” is the “power that turns nothing into something, that creates worlds and paves destinies, and changes the have-nots into the have-somes and occasionally have-it-alls.” In a country marked by rich immigrant cultures, Black Americans may represent the most aspirational of peoples—willing themselves off of plantations and into some semblance of a (still unrealized?) full citizenship—long before Shawn Carter and Kanye West ever picked up a mic. Black aspiration is Black Power, dating to the time, per the late poet Sekou Sundiata, some “slave” dreamed in her head, a freedom that she would never fully experience.
Yet even this long tradition of aspirational power, falls flat at a moment when there exists an unprecedented wealth gap between the poor and the so-called super-rich and the United States faces a double-dip recession, that Black America could have predicted—and indeed that well-known economist Young Jeezy did four years ago. To be sure this is not the first recession that Black America has bore the brunt of, yet it might be the first in which Black artists are burdened with an expectation to speak to its palpable presence in the lives of their fans and supporters.
In the midst of a recession in the mid-1970s, when New York City was on the brink of defaulting on its loans and then President Gerald Ford threatened to veto any legislation aimed at bailing out the municipality, William DeVaughn could wistfully sing about the “diamond in the back/sun-roof top/digging the scene with the gangster lean,” on his aspirational classic “Be Thankful for What You Got.” The song was as much a cautionary tale about the trappings of materialism (as Black flight was becoming a reality), as it was a reminder that the culture already embodied a sense of wealth where a gangsta-lean—yet another precursor to ghetto fabulousness—was a hard earned commodity, as valuable as the pimp car rolling down the avenue.
Hip-Hop’s genius move from outset was to make the trinkets of everyday life the stuff of hyper-consumption—a story at least as old as Pig Feet Mary selling chitlins’, hog maws, and of course pig feet out of a baby carriage in Harlem in the early 20th century, later becoming a real estate tycoon or White folk dragging the Fisk Jubilee Singers around the globe for a taste of those good old Negro spirituals in the late 19th century, or Henry Box Brown recreating his escape act for European audiences years before the Emancipation Proclamation—I mean, I could go on.”
In a sense, Beyonce’s Formation does also speak to the hopes and dreams of not only the enslaved Black who wanted nothing more than to will herself off of the plantation. More specifically, in the song’s declaration to always stay gracious and seek out the paper as revenge, we hear the voices of those ancestors who embodied the “we are not victims” mentality. The “we never ask for handouts” mentality. The answer to Black suffering is through economic empowerment-mentality. And finally the best revenge is a good education, big house with a picket fence, private this and that, Givenchy dresses and of course the “paper”-mentality.
Still you have to wonder if our pursuit of freedom through paper-chasing and other capitalistic interests has really worked in the best interest of our community? As famed feminist writer Audre Lorde once said: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And despite the individual successes of Beyoncé, Jay Z, Oprah and many Black folks with considerable wealth, the master’s house still remains very much intact and ever so prosperous.
Take, for instance, last night’s Superbowl halftime show where Beyoncé and her Panther inspired dancers took to the field to perform. Visually, the performance hit all of the right cultural and emotional markers. But despite the song’s (and visual’s) political overtones, Beyoncé nor her dance moves offered us very little in the way of urgency or even a call to arms – other than a reminder to purchase tickets to her likely corporate sponsored world tour.
What that tells me is that no matter how much paper we earn, chase or personally empower ourselves from it, there are very real limits to how free we can ultimately be from the pursuits of it. And while Beyoncé may demand that we all get into formation, we may also want to ask what we are lining up to buy into?