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Beyoncé is a highly popular singer and performer in the world today. She has many awards and a very loyal fan base. During her career she has used her albums and performances to make statements about politics and issues occurring in the world. One of the strongest examples of this is one of her most recently released singles, “Formation”. In the single, she makes comments on equality, police brutality, and feminism. She uses visuals, voice-overs and lyrics to make this point throughout the song and accompanying video.
With twenty-four Grammy awards, twenty MTV music awards, and millions of adoring fans, artist Beyoncé Knowles is undoubtedly one of the most iconic celebrities in the world today. Throughout her award riddled solo career Beyoncé has often used her fame as a platform to promote her beliefs. For example, several of her lyrics, performances, and music videos include themes such as feminism and equality. One of the singer’s most recent pieces of work, “Formation”, is no different. The video for the new single begins with the voice-over of a question: “What happened in the New Wil’ins?” (Beyoncé, 2016). In the background, Beyoncé squats on top of a New Orleans police car, staring intensely in to the camera. As the video continues, the supporting actor and dancers are revealed to be strong, black men and women. There are many powerful scenes that tie into events occurring in society today. It is clear that Beyoncé has been influenced by police brutality and feminism for this video.
On February 26th, 2012 Trayvon Martin walked from his father’s house to the local convenience store and purchased ice tea and candy. On his way home, Martin was followed by George Zimmerman, the local neighborhood watch coordinator. After following Martin for several minutes Zimmerman proceeded to call 911, stating that there was a suspicious black male walking in the streets. Although dispatch ordered Zimmerman to cease tailing Martin, he continued to do so until a violent altercation occurred between the two. Soon after, Zimmerman shot the teenager in the chest, killing him. At trial Zimmerman was charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. The acquittal caused outrage for many who believed that Martin was racially profiled and the murder should be classified as a civil rights violation (Yartey, 2013). Among the outraged were sisters Alicia Garza, Patrisse Collors, and Opal Tometi who, in response to the shooting, founded the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement is described by Garza as “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society” (2012). Black Lives Matter is still in effect today and has gained recognition from major celebrities such as Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z, who donated 1.5 million dollars to the organization in 2016, just days after the debut of “Formation” (Stutz, 2016).
Exactly one day after the release of “Formation”, Beyoncé took the stage at the Super Bowl halftime show, performing the newly released single. She and her dancers were clad in black leather and berets which many believe was a nod to the Black Panthers Party, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. The organization, originally referred to as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, not only provided militant self-defense for minorities in the United States, but also fought for the establishment of “true social, economic and political equality for all races and sexes” (Elgot, 2016). After the performance, the political statements continued. Several of Beyoncé’s back up dancers took to social media, tweeting a picture of them holding a sign reading: “Justice 4 Mario Woods”. Woods was a young black man who was shot and killed by San Francisco police in December 2016. Police publicly announced that Woods was armed and extended a knife towards an officer. However, footage of the shooting quickly disproved the statement causing outrage for many.
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance of “Formation” enacted very mixed reactions. Many took to social media to share their opinions. Journalist Michelle Malkin argues that the performance did not do anything to help the progression of racial equality, but rather promoted racial segregation. After the performance she took to twitter, sharing: “Cuz nothing brings us all together better than angry @Beyonce shaking her ass & shouting ‘Negro’ repeatedly. #sb50” (Malkin, 2016). Although there were many similar sentiments shared, there were also many who supported and praised the singer, including several past members of the Black Panther’s Party. On the official Facebook page for the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther party, there were several posts shared giving thanks to Beyoncé for the message she shared. One of the most popular posts, written by William Johnson, states: “As an original member of the Black Panther Party I thank Beyoncé for her courage to make a statement on National TV. I am sure she understood the backlash that would follow her performance @ the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl, so on behalf of The National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party we thank you & salute you” (2016). Although there are many different views and opinions, it is clear that Beyoncé’s performance was controversial and extremely impactful.
A defining influence portrayed in the music video for “Formation” is the Black Lives Matter movement and their ideals such as equality and anti-police brutality. Perhaps one of the most evident instances of this comes near the end of the video when a wall is shown with the words “Stop shooting us” written in crude graffiti. The direct use of these words is a very obvious nod towards the Black Lives Matter organization which frequently uses the slogan whilst speaking out against police brutality (Donelan, 2016). Writer and critic Anna Leszkiewicz stated that the inclusion of these words is “A message put forth by Beyoncé in order to weed out those who support her music but not the equality of the races” (2016). Though this message was very clear, a few months after the release of the video, Beyoncé wrote an open letter to police. She writes: “We are sick and tired of the killings of young men and women in our communities. It is up to us to take a stand and demand that they ‘stop killing us.’ We don’t need sympathy. We need everyone to respect our lives. (Beyoncé, 2016). The use of the wording ‘stop killing us’ is very similar to ‘stop shooting us’. A reason for this may be that the artist is tying the two together and emphasizing her point.
Another example of the anti-police brutality theme in “Formation” is when the video portrays a hooded, young black male standing in front of a line of armed police. The boy’s hands are up above his head. This is a reference to the case of Michael Brown. Brown was a young, unarmed teenager who was gunned down by police on April 9th, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown supposedly had his hands raised in surrender before being shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, who was never charged for the killing. (Knox, 2016). The incident led to another popular saying adopted by the Black Lives Matter institution: “Hands up don’t shoot” (Grinberg, 2015). Eventually in the music video, the armed police raise their arms as well. By including the riot police raising their hands, Beyoncé is making a statement that black people and police alike must come together to promote a peaceful society.
Feminism has been an important theme in many of Beyoncé’s past works. In her fifth album, “Yonce”, she featured a song titled “Flawless”. In the song, the singer inspires women to be confident and secure by including lyrics such as “We flawless, ladies tell ‘em/ Say I, look so good tonight” (Beyoncé, 2013). The encouraging message advises women to embrace their beauty and to show it to the world proudly. Her recent song, “Formation”, promotes a similar idea. However, in this song the message is specifically aimed towards black women. A platform through which this can be seen is the women included in the video. The majority, if not all of the dancers and actors in the video are black men and women. The women that are featured have their hair styled naturally with large afros, braids and twist outs. The significance of these hairstyles is due to the fact that black women have been and still are discriminated against for wearing their hair naturally and not conforming to Western ideals of beauty. In fact, prejudice against black women’s hairstyles has been so intense that in 2013, the Transportation Security Administration underwent accusations of discriminatory behavior several times. One of the more public incidents occurred when neuroscientist Malaika Singleton was travelling from Los Angeles to Minneapolis and was pulled aside by TSA agents so they could “pat down her afro” to make sure she was not concealing any weapons (Estrada, 2015). In response, Singleton filed a report with the American Civil Liberties Unit which resulted in conduct training for TSA unites regarding pat downs of black female travelers (Yartey, 2013). Through the music video Beyoncé validates black beauty and encourages black women to express themselves in any way they feel comfortable.
Singer and performer Beyoncé has certainly made a name for herself in today’s society. In the past, she has made many political statements through her music. However, her most recent work, titled “Formation” may contain the most important message of all. It contains controversial images, lyrics, and references to advocate for the black community and speak out against police brutality. The work shows that we are all the same on the inside and that we should treat one another with respect and dignity.
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