Criticizing Beyoncé is practically a national pastime. Whether the subject in question is her brand of feminism or her approach to issues of race, pundits have found plenty of reasons to take issue with the superstar artist.
Now the release of Beyoncé’s stunning “Formation” music video this past Saturday (Feb. 6), in conjunction with her performance at Super Bowl 50, has put the singer’s politics front and center. Praising her Southern black roots, her “negro” nose and her child’s afro, Beyoncé catapulted herself into Black History Month with a song hailed by many as “unapologetically black.” The music video is dense with cultural messaging, including allusions to Hurricane Katrina and police brutality. And Beyoncé’s Super Bowl back-up dancers were dressed in an obvious homage to the Black Panther party, coincidentally founded 50 years ago.
Beyoncé’s overt pride in her racial and cultural identity was, unsurprisingly, twisted and manipulated by a minority of critics–specifically conservatives. Obviously Beyoncé shouldn’t be allowed to create content by black people for black people, right?
Over at the Conservative Review, senior editor Michelle Malkin lambasted Beyoncé’s use of the word “negro,” somehow arguing that such language was divisive. Her critique clearly missed the point of the song. It also reveals the incredible burden of being black in America today. We are not allowed to carve out sacred spaces, including in the arts, without someone loudly objecting that he or she was not specifically included.
Let’s unpack that for a second. Beyoncé does not answer to Malkin any more than she answers to white America. She is allowed to describe her blackness using whatever terms she deems fit. It is a sign of how far America still has to go that a cultural icon like Beyoncé is expected to comfort her non-black fans, appease them and cater to them while also making authentic and transformative art.
In a Vulture roundtable discussion of the video published Feb. 7, Dee Lockett notes that Beyoncé has been criticized both for not caring enough about the Black Lives Matter Movement and for being a “bad feminist.” In this context, “Formation” positions her at a “bold intersection” of these two identities. She takes a stand for black people, and especially for black women. When she tells her ladies to get in formation, it is not an invitation to the public to join her “squad.” This is a battle cry, aimed specifically at uniting the black women who have been erased and neglected for far too long.
Although Beyoncé is a mainstream artist with mainstream appeal, her universality should not be contingent upon her ability to ignore the disenfranchised. This morning, in the aftermath of the Super Bowl, the hosts of Fox&Friends argued that Beyoncé’s performance was actually an attack on police officers. This criticism is an outgrowth of a white supremacist mindset–and it betrays a gross lack of empathy. Black activism is not an attack on white people. Rather, it is a collective effort to overcome the continuing, systemic efforts to oppress us and maintain the status quo.
Imbalanced and unequal labor plagues black women at the lowest rungs of the societal hierachy. It also effects women at the top. As a mega-celebrity, Beyoncé is not immune to racialized expectations. She is expected to sing and dance. But if she dares to wear a black leotard instead of pants or speaks out against police brutality, then she is a troublemaker and a race-baiter.
Ultimately, Beyoncé is not simply one of the greatest artists of our generation. She is also a human being and a black woman who is both proud of and audacious about her identity. She does not owe any of us anything.
In fact, I’d argue that “Formation” was not intended to be universally appealing—and that’s okay. Black people are rarely included in huge pop cultural moments. (This year’s Oscar’s comes immediately to mind.) So why must we make our art with everyone else in mind?
Some art is not made for white people. This does not make it a personal attack on them. “Formation” was not born of a desire to divide Beyoncé’s fans (or, as Malkin implies, the United States of America). It was created to express pride in blackness and to unite black listeners in their efforts to push for equality. And if some people are indeed offended by the video, it’s only further proof that Beyoncé’s work has succeeded in its function.