Beyoncé and the New Black Feminism

Queen Bee has done it again! She dropped a surprise new single, called “Formation,” last week, a day before her American Superbowl performance.

The song has already received over 20 million views on youtube. And has gotten music fans talkin’ politics again.

The video for ‘Formation’ depicts visuals from Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it brought to people living in New Orleans. We see Beyonce standing on top of a police car, and hear a voice screaming “What happened to New Orleans?”

Then Beyonce appears dancing in the middle of the hallway of a colonial-looking mansion. She begins to call out the names of Alabama, Louisana, then she exclaims “You mix that negro with some creole then you get a Texas Bama!” That is when the beat drops and the whole tune goes insane.

‘bama’ is a derogatory phrase, the equivalent of which in Mzansi can be termed a Jim-Comes-to-Joburg. Basically a person who comes from a rural background, and has now settled in metropolitan centres, most commonly California or the East Coast in the United States.

There is something intimidating about her portrayal in the video. Depicted here is not the young, light-hearted Beyonce who is ‘Crazy in love,’ it’s a grown-up Beyonce, who speaks mostly in a hoarse voice more than sings. She is barefooted on top of police car.

The music has a trance effect, sustained by a high buzzing synthesizer over a repetitive mid-range thrust. But it is really the bass line that overwhelms the experience. Its appearance is infrequent, but every time it drops she is strutting her body, in her now familiar repertoire of choreography involving a lot of arm and hip movements.

Occassionally other women appear, wearing all kinds of afro-wigs, with clearly defined muscles on their shoulders and their backs.

She sings about how she likes her “negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”

The confidence displayed in the whole audio-visual experience is irresistible.

Some scenes portray the slavery narrative, while others draw on more recent representations of black people (in particular women).

The slavery trope has received much attention in popular culture recently.
J Cole’s G.O.M.D video immediately comes to mind.

As well as Steve McQueen’s 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave. For which Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar.

One critic of Beyonce’s new video, Dianca London, says:

I don’t find her music to be particularly transcendent, nor do I view her as representation of my black femininity. For me, her brand of feminism (and the brand of feminism assigned to her identity as a pop icon) is severely limited, and her latest activism via “Formation” feels more like strategic consumerist dramatism rather than empowerment. Essentially, aside from its forthright celebration of blackness, “Formation,” much like the star behind it, is a construction tailored for the masses. It is a message catering to a demographic willing to not only invest their dollars but also their political ethos in a celebrity.

Novelist, Jesmyn Ward, on the other hand, finds the song affirming:

She sings to those of us who grew up black in the American South, who swam through Hurricane Katrina, who watched the world sink, who starved for two weeks after the eye passed, who left our dead floating in our houses. She sings to those of us who were displaced, to Las Vegas, to Los Angeles, to Hartford, who lived for months or years or still live in those other places, when the living heart of us is bound so tight with oak and pine we can barely breathe.
From the divergence of perspectives the song has stirred, it is clear that Beyonce has successfully managed to charm her fans, and frustrate her critics.

In the United States, February is usually celebrated as Black History Month. So the timing of Beyonce’s release with this significant month in American black culture cannot be ignored.

She is making a statement and elaborating definitions of blackness, in a way that snatches the mic from the mouths of those who have deemed themselves custodians of blackness, the academics and intellectuals.

There is also another reference that remains fresh in the minds of fans. Early in January 2016, there was a rumour that Beyonce was planning to do a Saartje Baartman movie, in which she would star as Baartman. Baartman was the South African woman who was sold as a slave in Europe to sing and entertain audiences who were fascinated by her big buttocks in the 1800s.

With Saartje Baartman as an early example, the modern world has long used black women as symbols of entertainment and sexual fascination. Indeed, Beyonce can be seen as a present-day extension of that symbol.

The question to ask then is whether Beyonce is trying to contribute to that sexualisation of black women or whether she is in fact subverting it.

Her intentions may never be fully known.

But what we do know is that in Showbizz people do what they have to do to survive and stay relevant. It is the sheer desperation of the industry to draw attention at all costs, even if it means playing racial stereotypes. That is what makes the whole Beyonce phenomenon both fascinating and paradoxical.§