In the roiling wake of Beyonce’s new video for “Formation”, I am reminded of a bout of argumentative dissonance I experienced last year when Kendrick Lamar’s record came out. It was an argument I sorely wanted to have, but chose not to publicly. It was loaded with far too much idol worship/hatred, depending on what side of the altar you fell on. However, Beyonce’s new video (the song, not so much) and her Super Bowl halftime appearance is putting me in a corner, so I’ve got to say something so I can move on with my life. In a twist for those who know me, I’m going to defend Beyonce here, while making a point about certain black reactions to political art.
For starters, since black people are not politically or socially or really any other –ly monolithic, you don’t really have to make a case for or against what she’s done. You’re not a better black person because you love her video, you’re not less of a black person for feeling “meh” about it, and you certainly won’t be magically relieved of racial profiling if you never watch it. It’s one song out of the thousands of mainstream songs black artists will produce this year, just like every other year.
At the same time, it’s one of the few mainstream videos in recent memory (not the first and definitely not the last) taking America’s racial power structures directly to task, do not pass Go, do not collect your affluenza check. It’s also the one done by one of the ten most recognizable artists on the planet. Beyonce is like Michael Jackson in 1988. Beyonce is so famous she can’t do half of the things she sings about in this song anywhere on the planet because she’d be mobbed. So credit where credit is due: this is some serious and unapologetic black art by an artist who may or may not be serious about blackness any other time, but is selling the hell out of it today, and was certainly under no pressure to do so. Those are the facts.
Watching the video I felt like, “Well, finally. Welcome to the party, sis. Here’s your late pass. There’s your desk. Let’s work.” I have artistic impressions of it, of course, but who cares. More important here are the political ramifications, if any exist (they do). For instance, it’s worth noting that her video (and the totally unsurprising announcement of an ensuing tour) comes on the heels of the far more noteworthy development that her and her husband’s company is donating $1.5 million dollars to the Black Lives Matter organization and other activist groups (on what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday, no less). That donation – small as it is compared to Jay-Z and Beyonce’s collective fortunes – is head and shoulders more politically interactive and concretely activist than “Formation.” Not so you’d notice.
But back to the argumentative dissonance I mentioned earlier.
Here is the biggest takeaway for me in this moment: black people remain exceedingly thirsty for political recognition and substantiation of ourselves through symbols, images and art. That sounds like a criticism. I need to tell you from where I’m writing that it is not. It is a frustration with the extent and shelf life of our condition, and a recognition of how much work still needs to be done to dismantle the normative narrative of American values. This wouldn’t be so bad except that examples of black excellence and activism surround us every day. That we do not seek them out makes moments like this – celebrations like this – a little sour around the edges for me. FOR ME.
But here is where we begin to step into one of the recurring problems during the current era of black struggle: we treat our struggles as monolithic. The only thing black struggles share – from the street corner to the board room to the NFL press conference to the classroom to the fashion runway – in any absolute sense is black people as a target. Having established a goal of zero blackness, there isn’t much racism won’t do to dismantle it wherever it resides and however it exists. And because anti-racism work remains perpetually outstripped by racism’s numerous and constantly evolving constructs, it becomes very difficult not to over-generalize the steps to a win. In short, Beyonce’s effort here becomes all or nothing, depending on whose scorecard we’re looking at, and to hell with you if you keep score any differently. If what you have to offer the struggle doesn’t meet my needs or standards of qualification, then it’s useless. Now, black people have historically made some fairly creative leaps in regards to what’s been helpful in their interests (Straight Outta Compton should have won the NAACP’s Black Thirst Reinvention award), but anyone publicly suggesting that the “Formation” video isn’t a stringent political black art piece is just trying to see if they can induce heart attacks in large swathes of black people.
All of which raises another major problem we face in combating these struggles: we continue to throw our energy into Black exceptionalism. Now, this one I get. Hero worship is not only ingrained as a social value, it’s easy to do and in the past it looks like it’s worked for some people somewhere at some time (see Martin Luther King, Jr. See President Obama. See, see, see). The problem is that it’s largely never reflective of the reality around the hero (who has a whole gang of people around them) or their worship (which can feel good at the time but not feed a family of four tomorrow).
To compound matters, the reality of our differing struggles punches through and fractures the moment of exceptionalism into criticism camps. So Beyonce’s offering then falls somewhere between being perfectly Black and not being truly Black at all (both of which are exaggerated conclusions on their own). We see more of this as a reaction than we used to because technology has armed everyone with the ability to not only access these moments as they occur, but to research or lodge an opinion on them instantly (though rarely both, it would seem). We frequently dismiss the fact that, regardless of whatever level of black awareness you may possess, there are scores of people struggling with their own levels of awareness far ahead of us and well behind us, and at no point is there a cultural mean, an average blackness. Beyonce’s activism here, if that is indeed what it is, can be picked apart or lauded, but the determination in part falls on who the art is really for. It’s been very easy for a lot of people to say, “This ain’t for you, white people,” and white people are largely happy to step back and let black people sing their way to revolution. But it’s also true that Beyonce’s song wasn’t offered to or on behalf of a number of black people as well, and that’s okay. We’re not monolithic. We don’t talk about ourselves publicly that way much – it’s dangerous and politically negligent to do so – but it’s also true.
I don’t need Beyonce to be the blackest artist on the planet, or to get her blackness right for my benefit. I don’t even need her to fully understand all of the things that could be culled out of the art she’s presenting. If you’ve ever talked to an artist about their work, you’ll likely discover that it’s rarely as deep as advertised. I also didn’t need Kendrick Lamar’s album to be politically perfect. I needed him to speak honestly and as freely as possible about his blackness in that moment so that he could speak to other black people in similar moments – say, the black people who don’t read think pieces about music videos – with the hope that they will see the value in possessing political self awareness and expand that value into their lives, and ours to each other. If the plan were to wait until black people got our political game right before we were allowed to participate in our emancipation, we’d have never made it out of slavery. Make no mistake: we’re still fighting for emancipation. To that end I’ll take “Formation” all day as one more piece of ammunition in that fight. You don’t win a war with one bullet. The question shouldn’t be, “Is Beyonce the right avatar for blackness?” The question is “How can we get 20 more major artists like her and Kendrick to do the same thing and change unapologetic black narratives from being an exception to being an earnest normal?”