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How Beyoncé got America into 'Formation'

Beyoncé sits on top of a sinking New Orleans police car in this screengrab from the video for
Beyoncé sits on top of a sinking New Orleans police car in this screengrab from the video for "Formation."
Screengrab via YouTube

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Forget the ads. Forget the Broncos. Beyoncé won Super Bowl 50.

The day before her performance at the game's halftime show, the pop star dropped "Formation," a new single that sent the internet into a tizzy of cultural analysis.

An unabashed celebration of blackness, specifically Southern blackness, "Formation" is also a political anthem. The music video references everything from Hurricane Katrina and Black Lives Matter to "hot sauce in your bag" and Red Lobster.

A black boy in a hoodie dances in front of a line of cops in riot gear. Graffiti on a wall reads "Stop shooting us." Beyoncé herself sits on top of a New Orleans police cruiser sinking in floodwater.

Danielle Belton, an associate editor at The Root, called it an "ode to unapologetic Southern blackness."

If you didn’t know, if you though she was some ethereal, race-less, colorless transformative nymph who could doo-wop pop whatever you projected upon her, then you found out you were wrong.

Beyoncé's halftime performance at Super Bowl 5o was also politically charged.

Were the black jacket and gold bandolier a reference to the Black Panthers or an homage to Michael Jackson? When she and her dancers formed a giant X, was that a hat-tip to Malcolm X?

Belton joins The Frame's Oscar Garza to discuss Queen Bey's influence as both an entertainer and an activist. 


Where does this video and song fit in Beyoncé's evolution as an artist and cultural figure?

I think it really demonstrates her growth. When she started out with Destiny's Child, most of her songs were about strength and independence, and being a successful woman. These kinds of women's anthems were incredible, but people would criticize them for being a little simplistic. As she's gotten older, she's matured and her art has matured right along with her. In her 2014 self-titled album, she explored her thoughts on feminism, gender, marriage, and love. It took a deeper turn. In some ways, "Formation" is part of that natural progression.

You wrote about Beyoncé making a statement about her "unapologetic southern blackness." Is there something prompting that now?

I feel like what's going on in the world, you have people who enjoy black music and art, but they don't always enjoy black people. I think Beyoncé wants to make a statement. She's part of our society, and she's experiencing the same things we're experiencing. She's watching the same news. She's consumed with the unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, and I feel she's been moved by it. Tidal donated $1.5 million to the Black Lives Matter movement and other organizations. Her art and her beliefs are kind of coming together.

Beyoncé's sister Solange Knowles lives in New Orleans, so I know Beyoncé has spent some time there. What do you see as the most striking political images in this song, which is set in New Orleans?

I would say it's about the resiliency of the black spirit in the face of insurmountable odds. Like the fact she's on a police car that's partially submerged in flood water. That makes you think of Hurricane Katrina and how so many African-Americans had spent generations there and they lost their homes and livelihoods, but they still had to find a way to move on. So the video is really an affirmation of blackness.

She performed a clean version of "Formation" at the Super Bowl. I'd bet most people hadn't seen the video or looked up the lyrics. Was her message lost in that setting?

This is a classic instance where people just consume art. Oh, it's a nice song! Oh it's great dancing! I feel like people just took it in on a surface level. You had to step outside to see a deeper meaning, like the fact that her background dancers were dressed like Black Panthers.

If you're not informed, not "woke," as they say, it's really easy to just consume it as a fun time as opposed to looking at the deeper meaning.

How does this advance Beyoncé's stance on gender politics in the hip-hop world?

I hope that people will be more open to women doing trap. She's basically doing trap music here. Beyoncé is not a rapper. But she kind of takes on a rapper's swag. And I'd really like to see more female artists do this as well. It feels like there's a dearth of female rappers. There aren't as many as there used to be. I'm a child of the nineties. You had MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa. You had tons of people, and now there's Nicki Minaj and that's it. So I'm hoping other female artists will embrace this and push it forward.

Meet Big Freedia, the bounce artist who performs on "Formation."

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