By Grace Rogers
Hello hello and welcome to BROADER, a weekly arts column examining feminism through the books, TV shows, films, music, theater and visual art we consume in our short lives. Each week I’ll take a certain piece or artist and put it in conversation with some of the prevalent feminist issues happening IRL. Using New York City and the interwebs as my backdrop, I hope to fill this corner of the Internet with art that explores the diverse experiences encountered throughout womanhood.
You may or may not agree with every word I write, and as a nineteen-year-old woman originating from the suburbs, my personal viewpoint is simply that — personal. I can’t speak for all women of every color and class, and I won’t attempt to. What’s important is that we start critical conversations about the art around us, and make a deliberate attempt to understand its social implications.
I named this column BROADER for two reasons: (1) The point of this is to broaden our view on art and (2) I appreciate “Broad City” too much to not steal its girl-power slang word. Yaaas queen. But now that our speed dating sesh is over, let’s talk about the queen that is Beyoncé, shall we?
On Saturday afternoon Bey dropped “Formation,” her new single that celebrates confident women like “***Flawless” did, but with a grittier, bolder and more political stance. Her first song since 2014, its lyrics meditate on re-appropriating black identity, maintaining one’s personal history and finding agency in a world that keeps putting you down. It’s a celebration of black womanhood, an anthem for her southern roots and a tangible endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement. Paired with stunning visuals by director Melina Matsoukas and killer choreography by Dana Foglia and JaQuel Knight, it’s easy to see why B’s “Formation” is already being heavily GIFed.
A few of my favorite lines illustrate “Formation”’s key statements:
“My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma. // I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros. I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”
Beyoncé’s use of “Negro” is significant — she’s taking back the word and using it as a term that unites a black southern experience. Historically, white people have taken bits of black culture (such as the popularization of “n****” and Miley’s dreadlocks and twerking), but Negro, as Rembert Browne points out, is “uncharted waters for your run of the mill non-black Bey fan.” Beyoncé also takes “bamma,” an outdated racial slur specific to the D.C. area, and reappropriates it to make it a term rallying around her own black identity. Bey is black as hell, and wants us all to know she won’t apologize for it.
In referring to Jackson Five nostrils and Blue Ivy’s afro, Beyoncé chooses characteristics of black beauty we don’t usually find in pop music. “Formation” has no lyric about big booties or thick thighs — which some see as pandering to white audiences — throwing it once again in uncharted waters and whole-heartedly declaring black woman are beautiful.
“Earned all this money but they never take the country out me.”
Bey wants us to know that even though she’s rich and famous, she’s still all about her Houston roots. There’s an expectation for successful people, especially for women and people of color, to leave behind their past identities and abandon their previous cultures to better fit a “standard” upper-class identity. (This struggle is gorgeously illustrated in this piece exhibited at the Colored Museum.)
But no matter how famous she is, B still takes pride in the coolness of her collard greens and the hot sauce in her bag, and that shows how unapologetic she is about staying true to herself and her culture.
“You might just be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay. I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay.”
This line gets me AMPED. Beyoncé’s giving a shout-out to the business-savvy black woman she is, and is reminding other women they can be successful in a centuries-old world of foolish racism and sexism. It’s powerful, confident and barrier-breaking, a single lyric that sums of the “Formation” experience.
Visually, “Formation” made several other statements. Artwork depicting Martin Luther King, a wall with the word “Stop shooting us” and a little boy dancing in front of a police squad make for an activism-focused art piece. Historically, B has supported the Black Lives Matter movement in quieter ways, such as donations, but “Formation” is her boldest statement of solidarity yet. On the day of the song’s release, The New York Times published an article titled “Beyoncé in ‘Formation:’ Entertainer, Activist, Both?” and I think it’s clear she’s embracing the “both” — she’s blending the two roles with a newfound sense of Yoncé-styled spunk, and I can’t wait to see more.
Grace Rogers is a Highlighter staff columnist.