Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’: Young, Gifted, and Black

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Photo: Beyonce/YouTube

You've seen Beyoncé's "Formation" video, you've parsed through all the details, now what to make of it? New York writer-at-large Rembert Browne, the Cut editors Allison Davis and Ashley Weatherford, and Vulture editor Dee Lockett unpack their thoughts on Beyoncé's blackness, feminism, politics, and slayage.

Ashley: What a time to be Black and alive! Just when I was thinking nothing could top Missy Elliott’s appearance at the Super Bowl last year, Beyoncé drops this gem, which she’ll hopefully perform during halftime.

There’s often talk of what it means to be “unapologetically black” and this video is the blueprint. Lyric by lyric she celebrates blackness. Blue Ivy’s natural hair? Check. Hot sauce always on deck? Check. Recognizing the divine creation that is Red Lobster? Double check. Beyoncé is very black, lest you forget.

Rembert: Ashley, by “Black” I think you meant to say “Negro,” because that is my foremost take away from Beyonce’s Saturday afternoon call to arms. As a man, I genuinely think my opinion on Bey matters far less than a woman's, so I don't love throwing my opinions around about her work, especially the songs so clearly for women. With that said, she is black and from the south and when this Negro Beyoncé says Negro, it's almost as if she's taking back Negro — an attempt to give black people a word to rally around that will make us feel super black when it rolls off the tongue. To quote the great Paul Mooney, on black culture and white people, historically “they take ... everything.” One of those things, funny enough, is saying “nigga” — which is currently about as universally said as “Facebook.” Negro, though, this word is uncharted waters for your run-of-the-mill non-black Bey fan. When I heard her say it for the first time, all I thought was, Beyoncé just made that our word again. It's such a black word, it makes other people uncomfortable, just like I assumed King Bey wanted. What a Black History Month miracle this is, long live the eldest daughter of Celestine.

Dee: Beyoncé has been accused of not caring enough about Black Lives Matter and of being a bad feminist (or not one at all); on “Formation,” she raises two middle fingers to all sides of her Illuminati-truthing haters with a bold intersection of the two fights. She is a Black Feminist, full stop. This is a video made for women — she speaks directly to “ladies” in the song’s blazing call to action — and it is clear she is done living for the will and want of men (and has been for a minute, actually). She’s “so possessive” of Jay Z’s love and his power, that she wears his “Roc necklaces.” (Still, Hov’s got the hottest chick in the game wearing his chain.) She won’t stand by and watch young black women snatch their noses so far that they can no longer take pride in their Jackson 5 nostrils.

This is a new negro spiritual hymn, one that hits me deeper than Kendrick’s “Alright” because every look, every lyric, every outfit, every moment is a statement of Black Girl Magic. Of course I’m moved by that fly little black boy in a hoodie, who joyfully dances in front of a barricade of white cops in riot gear. But I’m politically inspired when Beyoncé gives the Black Power salute atop a New Orleans cop car. Am I reaching to call this a protest song? I just can’t get “Mississippi Goddam” out of my head when I see it.

Photo: Beyonce/YouTube

Allison: I agree Dee. But I couldn’t get another Nina Simone black pride song out of my head when I watched the “Formation” video — I just kept thinking about “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” As much as this is a call to arms, Bey is reminding black women that they can be successful, even though centuries of systemic racism and sexism have told them they can’t. How excited did you guys get when she declared “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making”? Finally an anthem for the self-made, business-savvy black woman who understands her worth and what she deserves and what she’s made. We’re coming to snatch that seat of power from old white men.  I’m going to say that to myself that every time I negotiate a salary from now on. Do we think Hov knows he’s basically a trophy husband?

Ashley: Speaking of business-savvy black women, can we talk about the timing of everything? That she dropped this the day before her Super Bowl performance simultaneously with a collection of clothes and accessories speaks to the fact that Bey enterprises is a well-oiled machine. She always makes thoughtful, smart business decisions but people want to chalk up her success to the Illuminati. Um, okay.

On another note: I agree that you can take "Formation" as a new negro spiritual anthem in theory, but doubt that people will see it that way in five, ten years from now. This is because 1) She’s a woman and sexism is real and 2) there will always be butthurt folks who’ll still stand their ground in saying that she’s too distanced from the struggles of being black in America to speak to black issues on a real and relatable level. Already I’ve seen twinklings of ashy dudes on Twitter claiming "Formation" to be mediocre and pitting Bey against Kanye and Kendrick. It’s like, can we have just one day to celebrate? Rembert, as the lone guy here, what are your thoughts on how Beyoncé approaches blackness in "Formation"?

Photo: Beyonce/YouTube

Rembert: Here's my take on this Negro, Beyoncé. I hear the song, and watch the video, and it’s like, oh shit — one too many white people and two too many men got a bit too familiar with Bey. And in these moments, when someone slips up and gets a little too comfortable, that's when a full-stop must be enacted, immediately. This song is that. “Formation” is a clear exercise in setting boundaries, in reminding everyone that we aren't all the same. It's a reminder, “I'm a woman, and I'm black, but also I'm a black woman — please don't ever forget that, and no you can't touch my hair, not never.”

Allison: Oh that reminder is so evident in the characteristics of black beauty she chooses to highlight and praise in the song. She’s not singing about “thick thighs” or a “luscious butt” or any other body part that Vogue has recently deemed acceptable in mainstream culture, she’s discussing and applauding features that are still difficult for people to accept and perceive as beautiful — her daughter’s afro and baby hairs (maybe this will finally kill that petition to fix Blue Ivy’s hair) or her “negro nose with the Jackson 5 nostrils.” I am so grateful this song didn’t include any sort of pandering to a white audience by mentioning a booty that won’t quit.

Ashley: Not to mention that she puts nearly ten different hairstyles front and center. She’s always criticized for wearing wigs, weaves, or dying her hair blonde. This partially plays into the small, but present divide in the “natural hair is the only authentic way to style black hair” school of thought. I hate that argument because at its core, it’s limiting. My favorite part of the video is how she highlights the fluidity of blackness via hair. One moment she’s in braids and another she’s wearing a massive bun. Look again and her hair is blown out to oblivion or she’s surrounded by a curly-haired posse, care of shea butter & Co. In less than five minutes Beyoncé swoops in to demonstrate more hairstyles than what you’d see in the line leading up to the 40/40 Club on Saturday night.

Photo: Beyonce/YouTube

Dee: Can we please take a moment to appreciate Bey’s black Southern pride? No other modern pop star puts on for the South so consistently and fiercely as she does — because they just can’t. Who else was out here repping for what “country girls like” but Bey on “Soldier”? (Next to Lil’ Wayne and T.I. too, genius.) Who else made H-Town strippers the star of their video but Bey in “No Angel”? Who else called herself Miss 3rd Ward but Bey in “Pretty Hurts,” the last video she worked on with Melina Matsoukas until “Formation”? When Bey says, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana,” it’s a display of black ancestry all too often ignored. I have a daddy who, as it happens, is also from Alabama. I never knew the man, but dammit, does Beyoncé make me feel proud to even have that smallest of familial ties to the region.

Rembert’s right in that she reappropriates “Negro” throughout the song, but she does it too with Bama — an outdated racial slur so specific to the black experience in the DMV, it’ll fly over even a lot of black people’s heads. That’s the beauty of “Formation”: Yes, it’s for black women. But it’s especially for all those black Southern queens she squads up with at the plantation. They’ll never be as rich as Beyoncé “black Bill Gates in the making” Knowles-Carter, but she’s still here to remind them of their divine royalty. Bless.

Rembert: The Knowles women are black as hell. “Formation” is through the vessel that is Beyoncé, by way of the teachings of Tina, strung together by what sound like 13 fire Solange tweets.

Allison: “Formation" needs to be DeRay Mckesson's campaign song. End of story.

Dee: As DeRay (one of the only people Beyoncé follows on Twitter) might say: I love Beyoncé's blackness, and ours. Meet ya'll at Red Lobster [wink].