By: Gigi Grimes
Beyoncé’s video for her new song Formation definitely stopped the world, but it had us all wondering: what do you mean? *Justin Bieber voice*
Beyoncé isn’t known for publicly supporting social justice issues, and Formation is her way of affirming her support. The song, now seen as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter Movement, has extremely deep messages revolving around race, stereotypes, and Beyoncé’s heritage. When listening to her music, most listeners don’t understand all of her references and subtle metaphors that are overshadowed by her queenly-ness; however, after taking Professor Dyson’s Sociology and Culture: Beyoncé course, I’ve taken the time to analyze and relay everything that Beyoncé (likely) means in her new song. Here are some of her major themes:
Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans:
The song opens with a deep, raspy male voice asking, “What happened after New Orleans?” Though some might recognize the voice, New Orleans (NOLA) residents would be happy to realize that this is local comedian and YouTube sensation Messy Mya. Messy Mya, born Anthony Barre, was a local favorite in New Orleans, best known for his fluorescent hair and his outgoing social media presence. His most popular video had 1.7 million views even before Beyoncé sampled it. Mya, known for his outlandish and sometimes savage comments on life in New Orleans, built a major following in the area. In 2010, he was tragically shot and killed leaving his girlfriends baby shower in NOLA’s 7th ward. His killer remains unknown.
Beyoncé’s reference to the local star is not only a shout out to NOLA’s culture, but a statement on violence and disregard for Black lives. Her stark imagery of Hurricane Katrina references one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history and highlights the deepened racial inequity in Louisiana following the hurricane. She closes the video with a similar message, likely a reference to Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rices’ killings, when she displays a young boy in a hoodie dancing before police officers in riot gear. Behind the boy, a wall coated in graffiti states, “Stop Shooting Us.” This is arguably one of Beyoncé’s most direct statements regarding her stance on the Black Lives Matter Movement (she also walked in the Trayvon Martin march after he was killed). For an artist who almost never directly displays her political beliefs, this reference has been long awaited and much needed. Beyoncé’s power to influence the world and make a statement is unparalleled to other stars and seeing her use her lyrics to take a stance is a positive step forward.
Additionally, the song, which dropped before her second Super Bowl appearance, might be viewed as a reflection on her 2013 jaw-dropping performance in New Orleans. In 2013, Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl was a signal of recovery and strength in the New Orleans community after Hurricane Katrina devastated citizens years earlier. Now, Beyoncé reflects on that experience by not only supporting the still recovering NOLA community, but also making a statement for how important it is the help the community rebound.
Southern Black stereotypes:
Beyoncé is still a southern girl and she doesn’t want us to forget that. She asserts in the song, “earned all this money but they never take the country out me,” a statement which she repeats confidently. Beyoncé uses another New Orleans native, Big Freedia, to empower her message. Big Freedia, known as the Queen of Bounce, takes control of Southern African American stereotypes boasting, “I like cornbread and collard greens, b****h. Oh yes, you best believe it!” Beyoncé reaffirms this by asserting that her version of swag is still having, “hot sauce in my bag.” On the surface, these seem like your perfect Instagram captions; however, they have a much deeper meaning and tie into major underlying themes of the song. By asserting these stereotypes, Beyoncé assumes control of them and takes the power away from those who negatively use them against Black culture. She’s embracing her race and foregrounding Southern subculture norms into the popular culture—something that very few people can do. Beyoncé isn’t just embracing stereotypes; she’s changing them and making them a symbol of the uber cool.
Much of the song pays homage to Beyoncé’s blackness and her history. Beyoncé is known for her great appreciation for the black female artists that came before her; however, she hasn’t mentioned much about her ethnicity or history until this song. Defining her lineage, she repeats, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas Bamma.” In just this statement, Beyoncé reveals a host of information about her heritage. First, Creoles, who are descendants of French settlers, are generally considered distinct from Blacks, even if they have African roots. This is key in understanding Beyoncé’s heritage in the complex racial landscape of the South. Because of this mix, Beyoncé has an almost racially ambiguous look that she uses to appeal to a wide range of audiences and to empathize with various groups.
Next, Beyoncé uses the word “bamma” to describe herself. The word, slang for someone with “no style, taste or class” and usually describing a southerner, is extremely deprecating. In the South, it’s considered a major insult to someone’s image. Though the word doesn’t seem to match Beyoncé’s chic head-to-toe Gucci look in the video, this is Beyoncé acknowledging and reclaiming stereotypes about her home and changing the way people look at African American Southerners.
Black beauty and Female Empowerment:
In her lyrics Beyoncé asserts, “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros. I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” with a cameo of Blue Ivy and a group of Black female backup dancers appearing on camera. This is a powerful statement for African American women and girls of all ages. In a society that continuously defines strict beauty standards, Beyoncé affirms that natural Black beauty is her preference. In doing this, she provides agency to young women and girls and an acceptance by showing that how they look is how the biggest pop star in the world likes to look. She provides a platform for women of all colors, hair types, and ethnicities to recognize their beauty and see it portrayed in popular culture—a medium that predominantly displays White beauty ideals.
Additionally, she calls these women to come together and “slay.” The term, popularized in the African American gay community, calls for people to come together, conquer, and dominate—a direct reference to female power and growing dominance. Beyoncé makes a quick quip at those who oppose her statements chanting, “I twirl on my haters, albino alligators.” She borrows from Kenya Moore of the Real Housewives of Atlanta who is notorious for “twirling” away from her enemies. “Albino alligators” takes several connotations here. First, it could be a reference to Beyoncé’s past trouble with animal rights groups for her use of rare animal skin in her clothing. It could also be a reference to the movie “Albino Alligator” (1996), which took place in New Orleans.
She closes this section with a cry of support for the entire black community. Her lyric, “You might just be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay/ I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making” suggests that she wants to create a culture where African Americans aspire to incredible success and achieve Bill Gates-like levels of wealth, power, and respect. This lyric becomes especially empowering when juxtaposed against scenes of Hurricane Katrina and Southern plantations, events and locations that robbed African Americans of their power.
References to slavery and racism:
Though Beyoncé doesn’t use many blatant references to slavery in her lyrics, she uses the imagery in her video to illuminate this underlying theme. Beyoncé takes the classic images of a plantation and flips it. Production Designer, Ethan Tubman, describes the theme of the plantation home stating, “this is not a house the slaves are working in, this is a house where the slaves are the masters.” Displaying a Black almost aristocracy, Beyoncé rewrites the power dynamics of the Southern slavery era. This scene is especially important because Beyoncé surrounds herself with women, demonstrating the female dominance in the household. By placing herself in a position of power in these vignettes, Beyoncé takes control of the image, not rewriting history but reshaping the dynamics.
The continuous social justice references in the song come at a poignant time—just days before the song dropped Jay Z announced that Tidal would give $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups. This song only further acknowledges and enhances Beyoncé’s support for the movement.
Overall, the song is viewed as a social justice anthem and Beyoncé’s solidification as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through this song, Beyoncé reshapes the dialogue around black stereotypes and generates power from them. This is one of Beyoncé’s most explicit statements of support for social justice and acknowledgement of her Black history—and it definitely slayed.
Watch the full video here: https://youtu.be/LrCHz1gwzTo