On Saturday afternoon, Beyonce released “Formation,” her first new song since 2014. Laid over a minimal beat, the song recalls Beyonce’s signature message of self-affirmation, but this time, she has returned with something very different, an unequivocal split from her previous works. This time, Beyonce has not just released a music video, but a statement. The lyrics and the video are well-informed and evocative, specifically rendered to resonate with racial commentary on police brutality, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, all while striking at the heart of her own identity: her daughter, her success, and her blackness.
To truly understand the importance of “Formation,” it is necessary to note the context of Beyonce’s public persona—or rather, lack thereof. Despite being one of the most important figures in pop culture, she is notorious for her silence, known to refuse proper sit-down interviews and allow instead for her music and career to speak for her. But Beyonce is also famed for her meticulous timing, and once again she bares her beliefs and opinions just when we need her most: in the opportune convergence of Mardis Gras in New Orleans, of Black History Month, of #BlackLivesMatter, and of the continued disrespect against the Black community, like the casting of mediocre white actor Joseph Fiennes to play Michael Jackson in an upcoming TV movie.
In “Formation,” Beyonce contextualizes all of this by starring in nearly five minutes of unyielding, stirring images of racial and social injustice in post-Katrina Louisiana: Beyonce lounging atop a New Orleans police car, a line of police in riot gear that, on cue, surrender to a black boy in a hoodie and graffiti and artwork of Martin Luther King, Jr. Suddenly, Beyonce’s voice is far from silent—it is deafening. In the second half of the music video, Beyonce stands in a black funeral dress with her middle fingers raised and her head still bowed in mourning, and it is clear that she truly is no longer her loud, ferocious alias Sasha Fierce but simply quiet, honest Beyonce. And it is this hush that speaks volumes.
Beyonce combines her inborn talents of performance, creativity, and aesthetic with politics to inspire discussion of the issues across the board, and in so doing, reflects her Black pride and identity. “Formation” isn’t just about police brutality and racism, but about the entirety of the Black experience in America, and one specifically garnered toward the Black community that deserves the support the most: unique standards of beauty, culture, female empowerment, history. She shows that the Black perspective in America is the strength that #BlackLivesMatter must use to achieve true and lasting change, so that’s what she gives them. Beyonce’s masterful combination of meaning and quality would be remarkable for any artist, but she manages to tie together a greater truth with her personal truth: She is black, yes, and it is her strength. She is successful, yes, but she will not leave her heritage behind. She is at the top, and she will use it to attack the dominant white culture that represses her community.
While not an explicit political action, “Formation” is more powerful and more necessary than her other acts. Millions of people across the globe will be listening to Queen Bey speak due to the very nature of popular media: the ubiquity of pop music. For the first time, she has announced a call to action to her listeners by taking advantage of the very popularity and public persona she has developed over her years in the music industry, creating a mission centered on unity, pride, and identity.
For a pop culture artist, her words are where her true power lies—the power to speak to a national and even global audience. That is what Conchita Wurst did for the LGBTQ community with “Rise Like a Phoenix,” what Nicki Minaj does for female empowerment with deliberately sexualized songs like “Anaconda,” and what John Legend does for the Black community with his involvement in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. There is justified debate, of course, over whether entertainment figures deserve the public influence that they have, especially when it comes to those who abuse it—Robin Thicke with “Blurred Lines,” for example—but it is important to note the overwhelming positive influence, the public conversation, and the rapid education that can come out of someone’s idol’s releasing an idea to the masses. And in my view, Beyonce’s “Formation” has hit the perfect sweet spot between politics and art, a model for all artists in the future.
Featured Image by Matt Slocum / AP Photo