More than a month after Beyoncé’s electrifying Super Bowl performance and the debut of her single “Formation,” it’s safe to say that 2016 has been all about the politicization of Queen Bey. It’s part of the fascinating and sometimes contradictory evolution of Beyoncé Knowles, who first burst onto the music scene as the lead singer of saccharine-sweet girl group Destiny’s Child.
In some ways, Beyoncé’s evolution as an artist mirrors my own evolution from casual observer to skeptic to fan. One thing’s for sure—I have not always counted myself as a supporter of pop music’s ruling queen.
The issue was never about her talent as a singer, of course. Beyoncé clearly has the artistic and commercial savvy to pump out global hit after global hit. And yet her careful positioning as an inoffensive Southern belle who aspired to Michael Jackson-esque universal appeal made her the poster girl for an idealistic (and imaginary) post-racial age.
She’s always engendered plenty of commentary, ranging from the intellectual (Rutgers University’s Department of Women’s & Gender Studies offered a course on “Politicizing Beyoncé“) to the absurd (some people are apparently now adherents of a new religion called Beyism). But I refused to be taken in by the hype. I could never really figure out what, if anything, Beyoncé stood for.
Her attempts to align herself with powerful black female entertainers, such as Nina Simone and Billie Holliday rang hollow to me. So, too, did her suspiciously GIF-able moments, as when she stood in front of huge letters spelling out FEMINIST while quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. While visually appealing, these flashy moments were undermined by blatant acts of self-regard.
Compounding my ambivalence was Beyoncé’s fierce press management, which included carefully limiting interviews and insisting on total editorial control. This effectively allowed her to remain a blank canvas onto which others could project their ideal versions of her. And she seemed okay with this set-up. When SPIN magazine asked her about why she sang at president George W. Bush’s first presidential inauguration, she acted as if the event was little more than a marketing opportunity. “I played at the inauguration because there were a lot of kids in the audience that I wanted to reach,” she said.“That’s all. Maybe one day I will speak of my political beliefs, but only when I know what I’m talking about.” To some people, including me, it seemed as if Beyoncé realized she had nothing significant to say.
Compared to her political ambiguity of her past, “Formation” is fascinating indeed. And it’s resulted in the Damascene conversion of several skeptics like me. It demands to be seen as a cumulative expression of Beyoncé’s body of beliefs, rather than a stand-alone, opportunistic vehicle to launch a new world tour. From its music video’s poignant imagery, including a breakdancing boy standing before a line of armed white police officers, to its lyrical invocation of black culture, Beyoncé finally seems to be telling us who she is and what she stands for. And that is proudly, unashamedly black.
Closer study of her music might have prepared people like me for this turn of events. As Kevin Allred, the Rutgers professor who teaches a course on Beyoncé, noted, even in songs such as “Run The World” and “Superpower,” the singer had presented fans with strong imagery that is anti-police brutality.
Then there were more subtle clues. If money talks, where was Beyoncé choosing to spend hers? Looking back, her charitable works reveal clues about her priorities. In 2005, she and her former bandmate Kelly Rowland set up a charity, Survivor Foundation, to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. She and her husband Jay-Z have also generously donated towards the Black Lives matter campaign and built low-income housing units in her hometown of Houston, Texas.
The backlash that occurred in the aftermath of “Formation” has only made Beyoncé’s message more politically potent. In this way, the song has become a new platform for a public conversation about racialized oppression in America. Thanks to the shrill ignorance of her detractors, everyone now knows that 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panthers—and more people are finding out what the Panthers actually stood for. Oh, and her record and tour sales are not doing badly either, thank you very much.
But will the “Formation” effect last? We can hope so. Beyoncé is continuing to communicate her stance in subtle yet presumably deliberate ways, such as recently turning up at a recent Los Angeles Clippers basketball game prominently holding a Gucci bag in Pan-African colors.
Personally, I am hoping that her next move will be to release the album inspired by legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, a man perhaps most famous for founding the Afrobeat genre. Beyoncé’s 2011 20-track album, inspired by Fela and produced by The Dream, was apparently completed and then abandoned. Given Kuti’s insistence on using “music as the weapon” for social and cultural change, it would be fascinating to see whether Beyoncé channelled his spirit to express a new political confidence. Along with Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron and a plethora of other legendary black activist artists, I am sure that Kuti would be proud to see Beyoncé take up the baton.