For the first time in the past year, Beyoncé released a new single and a new video. Though she was featured in one of Coldplay’s tracks and a video from its new album, this is Beyoncé’s first solo track since 2014. She also appeared during the Super Bowl with a half-time appearance during headliner Coldplay’s set. Both the performance and her video highlight a specific social issue in the United States: race-based violence.
Beyoncé addresses the social issues that black Americans are facing at this time with her new single, “Formation.” The music video accompanying this track highlights specific circumstances of racial violence including life under Jim Crow law, Hurricane Katrina, and police brutality. Beyoncé herself stars in the video as a black Southern woman through the ages. The video flashes to images of parades and bounce dancers, as these images are meant to characterize her perception of Southern blacks and their experiences.
One particular recurring image is Beyoncé on top of a New Orleans police car as flood waters rise, which points to rising social issues and their need to be addressed. The video finishes with Beyoncé fully submerged underwater laying upon the car, implying that addressing issues of violence is not happening and that certain voices are “drowned out” by other concerns.
Another poignant group of images from this video is a young black boy dancing in front of a police barricade and a wall spray-painted to say, “Stop shooting us.” With these two references, Beyoncé is condemning the United States’ history of police violence against black Americans. It is difficult to watch the “Formation” music video without conjuring up images of the black South and all its history. Beyoncé uses her popular clout to bring this history and all its current unresolved issues to light.
In Beyoncé’s Super Bowl appearance, she championed the racial issues previously mentioned and alluded to marriage equality towards the end of Coldplay’s set. To set the scene, Beyoncé and about thirty dancers marched on to the field to the staccato sound of snare drums and the beginning of “Formation” in the middle of Bruno Mars’ hit, “Uptown Funk.” At first glance, this image of carefully choreographed precision appeared to be a strong group of women challenging Bruno’s dominance, but it was much more than that. Each one of these dancers donned a black beret, much like members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP), and they were all choreographed to clench their fists in unison.
The February 8 Rolling Stone article, “Beyoncé’s Black Southern ‘Formation,’” confirms that both of these symbols are widely recognized images of black empowerment. It is also the BPP’s 50th anniversary this year. Beyoncé’s costume choice and musical references to the South reaffirm her intentional use of this imagery.
Beyoncé makes a powerful statement by confirming her support for black empowerment movements through such a pervasive popular culture medium as the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Popular media sources have both praised and decried her choice to push her opinions onto the public. In The New York Times article from February 6, “Beyoncé in Formation: Entertainer, Activist, Both?,” Jenna Wortham admires Beyoncé’s use of her cultural influence to bring light to the idea of Blackness from a few generations ago. Wortham believes Beyoncé used her influence to create a product that is “phenomenally delicious.” Michelle Jesse from Allen B. West’s website, however, claims that Beyoncé shouldn’t have introduced race into the Super Bowl Halftime Show at all. She suggests that, if a white performer had brought race into their performance, “there would have been all-out outrage.”
Regardless of where each individual stands on issues of racial justice, it is easy to appreciate the intention with which Beyoncé conveys her values and stands her ground despite her critics.