When Beyoncé dropped "Formation" out of the blue on Saturday, the internet, predictably, lost its shit. This has become standard practice anytime Bey releases new work, but Saturday was different. "Formation" is a Big Deal not simply because it is a new Beyoncé song that exists, but because it is a song about Beyoncé's blackness. The track highlights her Southern roots, draws on the strength of her ancestors, and wills that empowerment on to her daughter, Blue Ivy. And it comes at a time when frustration at unfair policies and policing practices that disproportionately affect people of color has spread across the country.
Beyoncé didn't sanitize "Formation"'s Afrocentrism the next day, when she performed it in a black-and-gold leather militant costume in front of an audience of millions. Her onstage clique was made up of 30 black women, their curly afros topped with berets. Dressed in Black Panther regalia, the women's movements blended physical finesse with revolutionary symbolism, switching from hip jerks to raised fists with a synchronicity that suggests it's all from the same ancestral power. This was the peak in a show that included a thrilling trade-off with Bruno Mars. It was almost as if they didn't even invite Coldplay, technically the headlining act, to rehearsals.
Beyoncé isn't the first to pull off such a big, black cultural moment at the Super Bowl. Michael Jackson's 1993 performance essentially birthed the halftime extravaganza as we know it. No musician has ever been able to nail the high notes in the " Star-Spangled Banner" quite like Whitney Houston in 1991. And then there was Prince's unforgettable 2007 appearance, the clear highlight in what was a dry period for halftime shows (who was frothing at the mouth to see The Who?). But there has never been a Super Bowl performance this subversive, militant, or flagrant in its assertion of blackness. Here is Beyoncé, at the height of her superstardom—on CBS, the whitest channel in network television—flanked by a cadre of other black women dressed in all black. At one point the women arranged themselves into a giant X on the field. If the Super Bowl pays in publicity instead of US currency, Beyoncé spent all of it on a spotlight pointed directly at a centuries-old struggle.
The statement comes almost a year after Kendrick Lamar revealed the cover for To Pimp a Butterfly, featuring a family of black men and boys posing with stacks of cash in hand and standing over an incapacitated white judge. The message was clear: We're taking back what's ours . It's an important message, but the lack of women in the tableau is glaring, and not unique in the broader history of the struggle for civil rights.
The Black Panther Party was made up primarily by men when it was founded in 1966, but evolved into a female majority by the early 70s, according to Stanley Nelson Jr., director of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution . And yet a bepenised remembering of history has pushed the outsized role of male revolutionaries as canon. Even the movement itself relegated women to the periphery.
"A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant," former Black Panther member Elaine Brown says in her memoir, A Taste of Power . "A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race."
The Super Bowl is a holiday made for Americans to indulge in our time-honored tradition of rampant consumerism. It's a male-centric atmosphere that allows the privileged to easily discount the voices of the disenfranchised. By using only black women in her set, Beyoncé's Super Bowl performance acknowledged the tremendous contributions women have made to the civil rights movement. The symbolism behind that decision doesn't only give her voice as an activist validity, but also the voices of the sisters and mothers who came before her.
"Formation" is a throughway that runs from Angela Davis to Blue Ivy, past to future. But it's also an urgent cry that's very much of the present. The dancers held up a handwritten sign that read, "JUSTICE 4 MARIO WOODS"—a tribute to the 26-year-old man who was shot dead while surrounded by a gang of San Francisco police officers in December. Footage of this slaying, and multiple others, is available through just a click on YouTube. The breaking of a black body is readily available for viewing, but there are too few spaces that show the opposite: black culture and its resilience. Beyoncé forcefully took one last night in front about 114 million people and made the most of it.
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