Beyoncé’s “Formation” Is Two Middle Fingers to the Sky in Celebration of Black America

There’s this Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem that I love titled How Do I Love Thee? It opens with the Shakespeare line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” And she goes on to list all these magical, breathtaking ways that she loves this person. It’s so rich and full. And that is exactly what watching and listening to Beyoncé’s new video for her song Formation felt like. It was an afternoon spent trying to count the many ways to love it. How many ways can one person love a video? A song? So many I tell you, so many. And the internet agrees with me, which means that we all agree that Beyoncé’s “Formation” is the gift we didn’t even know we wanted.

On an otherwise boring Saturday afternoon on the internet, Beyoncé delivered big and I sat in my house, jaw to the floor counting the many ways you could love a thing. It was 3:40pm, the unofficial video had garnered 168,102 views on YouTube. I hit replay, finding new things to love in this nuanced jugular to American culture as Beyoncé did that thing that only really great artists can do: deliver an eye popping experience, disseminate the feels, and unite us all (briefly). All while reminding us that she carries hot sauce in her bag and goes to Red Lobster. It was Beyoncé at her greatest, with a twist.

First, the aural experience of “Formation” is seductively sumptuous. Only rivaled by its visual experience delivered at the hands of fellow bad-ass, director Melina Matsoukas. Beyoncé is assured, but understated in her delivery, matched against emotive scenes that leave you with that thing in your spine. That thing that makes you sit up and lean in a little closer. Queen Bey has the chops for dynamic vocal performances as anyone who has lived on this planet during her reign can attest to, but this isn’t about that. “Formation” is a deeply layered protest song to a community she loves, and in its most flinching scenes and efficacious lines, it is an unapologetic political statement.

That Beyoncé peppers in the sounds of New Orleans through anonymous first person musings and an appearance by the city’s own Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia, is not meant solely as an auditory longitudinal placement either. Beyoncé is interested in doing more than pointing us to the map of New Orleans. “Formation” is a veneration to the city. As Beyoncé croons about her Louisiana mama and time travels through New Orleans’ rich black history, a city that had once held the largest population of free black people before the civil war, the call to black pride simmers and bubbles under crawfish lids, in flashy second lines, under a Mardi Gras Indian costume, and in rowdy church pews.

But she also steps outside New Orleans to make it clear that this is an anthem for black excellence everywhere and for female go-getters. It’s a love letter to the the South that raised her, and the idols that came before her. Never one to forget to shade the haters (because we can all relate to having haters) Beyoncé offers up, “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” All the while she is asking, “What happened to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina?” “What is happening to Black America now?” “What is happening to us?” The doublespeak is rife and it’s nearly impossible to ignore the many possibilities of getting “in formation,” even as Beyoncé’s troop of dancers get in physical formation in moves that my body still refuses to make.

Where “Formation” opens on a flooded New Orleans with Beyoncé popping a squat atop a police car, the law still afloat in a sea of destruction, it ends with two masterfully executed messages of redemption wrapped in visual symmetry courtesy of director Melina Matsoukas. First there is the tense reversal of “hands-up, don’t shoot” played out between the two fast moving feet of a young boy under a black hoodie and the wall of police clad in their Sunday best; riot gear. An all too familiar image in America’s continued denial of a race problem, except this time it ends differently, there is no dead black boy on the street for us to protest.

That thing in your spine, the one that had been pulling you closer to your screen, softens its grip on you as the words, “Stop Shooting Us” are scrawled on a white wall.

Then in the breathless final seconds before the stills fade to black, Beyoncé and the cop car that had made its appearance in the opening scene slip delicately under the flood waters. Queen Bey still flawless in that way that music videos and movies make slipping under the water seem sexy instead of frightful. Only then do you realize that the entire video is a lesson in distraction as a means of subversion.

In the 4 min and 52 seconds during which Beyoncé verbally salutes black beauty and making your own way, the police car sinking under the weight of lines like “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making,” or her raised fist, are barely noticeable. Until they are. This is the genius of “Formation.” It is not just a suggestive wink, it is two middle fingers (literally) to the sky in celebration of Black America delivered with temerity, all while wearing a Givenchy dress. It is the collective exhaling of a black community. It is the dreams of black boys and girls across America narrated into performance. Queen Bey manifests the consciousness and vernacular of a young generation of black folks who have it all, except the one thing they want the most: to live.

764,753 views. I hit replay again.

Kari is a creative writer born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya who spent her formative years in Minnesota—where she often dreamed of warmer weather. She is an avid traveler, perpetual list-maker and sometimes performer. Her words have appeared all over the internet, on the radio and on stage. For more, check out her website, The Warm Fruit, or follow her on Twitter.

Kari has written 13 articles for us.

43 Comments

  1. I feel like the celestial black stars are aligning:
    1) #Formation video drops
    2)the Super Bowl
    3)my edges are on point
    4)Black lesbian Jesus snatching weaves through salvation?

    I said this yesterday on various social media platforms.

  2. I have my big chop scheduled for a couple weeks from now, but Bey had me ready to get the shears out myself last night! Seriously, I’m having such a hard time articulating everything I love about this video. You could structure a whole college course around it. I can’t remember the last time I felt this happy to be a black girl. Just, damn. Happy Black History Month y’all.

  3. This is video is just filled with so many amazing images I feel like I need to watch it multiple times to even come close to really getting it all. This is something I didn’t even know I wanted and it is amazing 🙂

  4. It’s so unapologetically Black. I guess I didn’t need my edges after all, lol.

    [I see it, I want it
    I stunt, yeah, yellow bone it
    I dream it, I work hard
    I grind ’til I own it
    I twirl on them haters] <—This is my mantra for 2016

    …Waiting for the backlash of haters hiding behind "______ feminism" and "#alllivesmatter" :/

  5. Part of me wants her to sing this at Super Bowl and part of me is like nah. I don’t want to have to keep explaining to certain white folks that just because she said “negro” on t.v. doesn’t mean that it’s off the list. See also: Kanye’s song “Gold Digger”

  6. The imagery in this video was mind-blowing! I love the unapologetic blackness in this song but it’s the southern/New Orleans brand of blackness that gets me. As someone said so eloquently on twitter, I’m still “crying in southern black girl!”

  7. I am just so damn proud of Beyonce. And so proud to be black. She speaks my heart. And yeah, she can be problematic and sometimes seems artificial… but as long as she keeps pumping things like this out, she’ll still be my #1 fave.

  8. It could be the fact I came from Bacchus, but I think this video needs some majorettes or step dancers from local high schools like Warren Easton, McD 35 or something.
    Other than that, how tender my bits still are looking at flooded stuff that’s suppose to be here and making me hungry for cornbread when I’m way too tired to make any, perfect.

    I gotta say tho the Queen Dive and Queen Bey on one screen would probably just to much for minds to handle.

  9. After watching this a few times and reading several articles, I still feel pretty critical of this song (I think it works almost like a soundtrack to the video, which seems a lot stronger.) I’d really like to hear what other people think, and I would definitely like to understand better how people are feeling about the song, especially reading it as a black power anthem. Importantly, though, I’m white.

    My main question or concern is about the gap between the lyrics and the imagery.

    The lyrics seem to tread some pretty familiar territory about how the person remains rooted in their community despite being so rich–but the lyrics are still really oriented around that wealthy lifestyle. I mean, fuck, if you can afford a Givenchy dress and have to worry about paparazzi, then going to Red Lobster seems like sort of a sentimental affectation rather than actual, meaningful, continued membership in and participation in a community. It almost seemed like reducing black culture to a series of accessories for a wealthy lifestyle.

    So, the lyrics are about being rich and cool, but still authentic… and being defiant of gossip… and not letting haters get to you. When it gets at all political, it seems to be taking a really capitalist and individualist perspective. Beyonce is rich and powerful, so she can get you access. If she’s the ‘black Bill Gates,’ that’s gotta be about money and maybe also monopoly-levels of control? (Unless I misheard: I couldn’t be sure if she was the black Bill Gates or if it might be a hypothetical kid? In which case there’s more of a reference to potential, access to STEM fields, and then also wealth and power.) The final line about the best revenge being your paper–well, read politically it suggests that the black community’s best revenge would be wealth. Suggesting that the ‘black power’ she’d advocate is economic success within capitalism?

    That’s basically my issue with the song, and sort of also with the video: that its political statement seems to boil down to black *capitalist* power. Community, in political terms, seems like it might look a lot like wealthy, powerful black individuals serving as patrons to those that they choose to smile favourably upon. The video–with no support from the lyrics–celebrates lots of different forms of black cultural and religious community, and we know that these forms have political potential… All the same, though, when we get those spine-tinging moments of confrontation between the dancing boy and the riot cops, it’s actually just one boy against the cops, with no community in sight (unless the community is invisibly present within his dance? maybe?). But like, the important difference between that scene, as powerful as it is, and the actual scenes from Black Lives Matter protests is that the real protests are about the power of people coming together, as communities, as new collectives…

    It feels like a reiteration of the old American Dream trope: Beyonce came from the South, and she’s gotten incredibly rich because of her hard work and her dreams, and now she’s got an unassailable personal power and glamour. The video seems to be carrying out a whole different conversation than the lyrics, one which seems much richer, more radical and more interesting. Still, there’s a very noticeable distinction throughout between the shots of people in New Orleans and Beyonce in her queenly costumes.

    I’d be so interested to hear arguments about why I’m wrong, and nuances of meaning that I’ve totally missed. I want to like this song better, and I would really like to be able to see and appreciate it as the empowering anthem people are hailing it as. I recognise there’s a lot of visual beauty here, but I just… I wish it had the lyrics to match that visual power.

    • There something about this where I’m like, “bra, you are too Black for this.”

      Explaining and telling white ppl and non-Black PoC about the nuance and how to “get it” where the free labor of doing so is just not fruitful like it used to be… just kidding it never was! Anyway, I propose for myself anyway that I’ll ask ppl to pay for my services and labor, you know the capitalist way!

      Yes, how capitalist of me *cackles*

      *goes to set up account,”Bra Explains_____”*

      😀

      Other ppl can chime in but for me, ME, pay up because it’s Black History month and I’m not feeling charitable like that. Good luck.

      • My sister and I were talking about this the other day. We’re not consulting for free on black issues no more. You want me to explain some ish and catch you up while exposing myself to Lord knows what, nah, that’ll cost you. “Here’s my card, call me when you got the funds.”

    • Alright, Bra, tag me in.

      Let me get this straight… You object to Beyoncé, a Black woman, mentioning her success and wealth because…she’s a Black woman? Which means that her socio-economic status removes her from the broader Black community because…the Black community is poor? Is that…is that the connection you’re making here?

      What you see as a celebration of American capitalism, I see as a Black woman attaining her right to be successful and proud IN SPITE OF American capitalism. I see a woman honouring a community that was legally banned from owning property up until the 20th century; a community that had its prominent members lynched for daring to own successful businesses; a community that was literally torched to the ground by jealous white people because they defied American capitalism and built their own Wall Street within a “separate but equal” society.

      So, please tell the class how a Black woman is not representing her community because she can wear a Givenchy dress and carry hot sauce in her purse. Please explain to me how holding herself as a Black Bill Gates is anything but “I am wealthy beyond measure and I give back”. Did you cease to remember that Bill Gates is also one of the most benevolent philanthropists? Did you miss this connection to Beyoncé donating money to Flint, MI, as well as other charities, or were you too focused on accusing Bey of being too bougey to be authentically Black?

    • “It feels like a reiteration of the old American Dream trope: Beyonce came from the South, and she’s gotten incredibly rich because of her hard work and her dreams, and now she’s got an unassailable personal power and glamour”

      This is also absurdly ironic that you can say that Beyoncé is a rehash of the American Dream trope. Like, your whiteness is overwhelmingly blinding if you fail to recognize that the American Dream was only meant for white people. Genocide committed against First Nations groups to steal their land for white people. Entire (physical) communities built by the hands of stolen African slaves. For white people to be able to chase their dreams and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, on the backs of people of colour who to this continue to be oppressed and made invisible by the American Dream.

      I swear, there are too many white queers who seem to think that the only radical acts are the anarchist ones. Black wealth has a different context and a different history than white wealth, so please don’t bring your political science degree here unless you have your intersectional glasses affixed.

    • I think within these spaces, we can be quiet and listen and still get our questions answered vis a vis the “nuances of meaning” and the power of what she’s doing within the black community. Like you can read this article, and the comments, and learn all sorts of things about how this song and video are affecting people. If you really want to learn and be an ally, listening — instead of writing seven-paragraphs critiques of something that is not for your community — is the way forward.

    • Just responding to this statement…..

      “All the same, though, when we get those spine-tinging moments of confrontation between the dancing boy and the riot cops, it’s actually just one boy against the cops, with no community in sight (unless the community is invisibly present within his dance? maybe?). But like, the important difference between that scene, as powerful as it is, and the actual scenes from Black Lives Matter protests is that the real protests are about the power of people coming together, as communities, as new collectives…”

      I agree with bra that i’m sick of explaining things to well meaning non-POC who often feel left out… but i can’t help it… I had to respond to the paragraph above….

      Maybe I missed something… but the Black Lives Matter movement is primarily about the ongoing perpetration of police brutality and unjustified killings by non-police officers of MOSTLY (if not all) unarmed black males. Beyonce did not miss her mark.. You just didn’t get it because it’s not for you. It’s not a burden you shoulder in your community so you were confused. I can’t speak for Beyonce, but I perceived the seen with the boy dancing in the black hoodie was paying homage to the likes of Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till, Freddie Gray, Jordan Davis, and countless of others in history. Community building is the by product of our COLLECTIVE frustration and anger towards the unnecessary killings… We mostly want white men to stop killing us and getting away with it. 🙂 Trust me, we would rather be home binging on netflix instead of battling the mother nature to “form new collectives” in order to convince violent white people of our humanity.

      Similar to the way that violence is propagated and carried out towards Transwomen of color (and Transmen sometimes but primarily Transwomen of color) by cismen in our society, The “Trans Lives Matter”. Two separate but equal movements with differing needs but similar goals…. again… community building just takes place organically….the trans community just want to be left alone to live without violence but since that is not taking place… they have to rally together to get the message out….you know.. the message that they are human and worthy of life also.

      Also, the veneration paid to blackness was quite personal… Beyonce has ONE perspective that she highlights in her music… and it happens to be a very wealthy and privileged perspective. She has been wealthy for quite a while, she can’t highlight middle class lifestyle because that doesn’t belong to her. However, to describe it as capitalistic is another example of how well meaning nonPOC are quick to paint wealthy, famous, black people who use their fame to highlight a worthy cause (like the black lives matter movement) as self-seeking, but don’t put that on white artists who use their platforms to mostly sell credit cards, soda’s, and apps.

  10. I love this video/song so, so much. I love that she and her dancers performed it at the biggest ‘Murica event of the year in the Super Bowl, and all while wearing outfits that were a straight tribute to the Black Panthers. I mean, hot DAMN.

    I’m white, and this video was not made for me to dissect or even ever fully comprehend, and I think that’s fucking awesome. I’m excited to even get to witness more and more and more creative content that challenges and breaks boundaries and fucks up and gets it right and everything else in between–and does not come from mainstream white culture, doesn’t even consider it on its merry way.

  11. This video is SO amazing. I felt so empowered and it’s not even for me, which I think speaks to how powerful it is.As a PoC who hasn’t always claimed it/felt like I was allowed to claim it, listening to Formation gave me so much fuel to continue my journey to becoming the proud Chingona I was born to be <3 Thanks for breaking the video down in your wonderful article, Kari!
    <3 Viva la Reina Bey <3

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