It is just after the 2016 Super Bowl, and I keep stumbling across Beyoncé. This may not seem surprising, but I’m not a pop culture maven in the least. I didn’t watch the Super Bowl; I don’t even have cable. I don’t have much opinion on Beyoncé’s music. I am aware of the critiques – especially of her feminist posturing, and her unabashed capitalism. But very few people have the platform that Beyoncé does, and how she uses that platform matters to culture.
She dropped a new single, Formation, a day before her controversial Super Bowl performance, in which her back-up dancers were clad in costumes reminiscent of Black Panther Party uniforms, complete with giant afros and military style black berets, to commemorate the Party’s 50th anniversary (an anniversary that, officially, has largely been ignored). On its face, this was a bold, provocative and typically savvy marketing move, standard operating procedure for Queen Bey. But the rhetoric in the clickable headlines popping up in my Facebook feed captivated me, because they seemed to so perfectly encompass the discussion around race, class, and power in the US right now.
I first clicked on “Breaking: Old white people find Beyoncé’s black activism distasteful” on Gawker.
This clip from the Fox News show Fox & Friends featured Rudy Giuliani how “outrageous” her Super Bowl performance was, after being told it was in honor of the Black Panther Party. His commentary ranged from the paternalistic “I didn’t know what the heck it was, a bunch of people bouncing around” to the truly incensed. What really bothered him was her shout-out to the Black Lives Matter movement, and that she should use her platform not to “attack police officers,” but that what she should be doing is to “work within African-American communities to build up a respect for the police.” He painted her, and others of her race, as ungrateful to “the people who protect her…and keep us alive.” He criticizes the NFL for letting her on the stage at all, reminding them that “you’re talking to Middle America out there, let’s have some decent, wholesome entertainment.”
It’s easy for liberals like myself to take pot shots at Fox News, but the fact remains that a swath of America would agree with Giuliani (case in point is the “All Lives Matter” pushback to the Black Lives Matter movement). A lot of Americans do not know, and do not wish to know about the radical black activism that Beyonce celebrates. In fact, they wish desperately to refute it. Black radical activism has called for the reform (and in many cases, the complete abolition) of the prison-industrial complex because of the devastating institutional racism embedded in every step of the justice system, economic systems, and social systems that send millions of young black men through the correctional system every year. This activism does not wish to assimilate into a broken and undemocratic system—undemocratic because it (still) does not work for millions of its citizens. This is activism that imagines entirely new societal structures. And that is profoundly terrifying to someone like Giuliani. Of course he would rather ignore it. Of course he would rather believe that America is great, and that these “problems” are foundationless rabble-rousing.
But Bey’s ploy, saavy marketing or not, was hard to ignore. Black radical activism, throughout much of its history, has been about making things hard to ignore.
The great Angela Y. Davis spoke this past weekend in Los Angeles, at a panel entitled “Abolition and the Radical Imagination.” She spoke about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex as the last step in the abolition of slavery itself. But, she contended, the conception of a future with no more jails requires a radical imagination, and art becomes a necessary piece of that puzzle. Poet Fred Moten, who sat with Davis on a panel after her address, saw radical imagination as encompassing two key activities – both imagining the things that do not yet exist, but also eliciting the empathy to imagine and understand things as they are. These two sides of the coin summon the black radical experience for Moten – to both understand the real horror of things, as well as hope for what they can be. What is it to live with loss and tragedy, Moten asks, only to turn around and celebrate?
Formation is a lush video, unsubtle and full of imagery of both tragedy and celebration. Images of a drowning New Orleans are juxtaposed with Mardi Gras Indian dancers and Social Aid and Pleasure Club parades, tightly knit and powerfully resilient Black community traditions. Most of all, as Dr. Zandia Robinson of the site New South Negress explains, Formation highlights the “margins of Blackness” as a resistance practice. We see the imagery of queer blackness, feminist blackness, and those both in the center and the margins of Black society as organizing forces. Robinson argues:
Formation is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins–woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant–before an overt action…to be successful, there must be coordination, the kind that choreographers and movement leaders do, the kind that black women organizers do in neighborhoods and organizations. To slay the violence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy, we must start, Beyoncé argues, with the proper formation.
In this sense, Formation is about organizing. It’s about community, the rise of critical consciousness, but also just being with the people who have your back. Organizing creates collective power.
“Yes,” cry the organizers and the activists, who have been working for change in their communities for decades. “But what about your unabashed capitalism, Beyoncé?” As Robinson acknowledges, and Black activism has recognized for centuries, racism, class, and economic power are inextricably interconnected.
Dianca London of Death and Taxes calls Beyoncé’s activism into question in an article entitled “Beyoncé’s capitalism, masquerading as radical change.” She rolls her eyes at the laudatory response to Formation: “Yet another single by Beyoncé has been canonized as a call to arms. She has been lauded as a pop icon turned activist. An anthem that will make her millions has been dubbed a revolution.” London goes on to acknowledge the power of Beyonce’s storytelling and representations of Blackness, but deeply questions her brand of activism. She strongly suggests that Beyonce’s participation in this platform (Super Bowl 50 and all it represents as part of global capitalism) is playing into the very system that has always profited from black culture. This is co-option, she argues, not a call to arms. It is a very slick branding play. In London’s view, Beyoncé makes this clear when she says “the best revenge is my paper” and “always stay gracious.” As London suggests, the route towards liberation for Beyonce “is contingent on two things: respectability and the mobility that comes with affluence.” In fact, this reliance on “paper” betrays the very Party that Bey seeks to celebrate—the Black Panther Party has always argued that nothing less than the overthrow of the capitalist system would lead to Black liberation.
And when Red Lobster starts calling their spike in sales the “Beyoncé Bounce,” it makes you wonder if London doesn’t have a point.
I feel this critique, but I also don’t blame Beyoncé one bit for using her platform with every iota of craft and thought and storytelling that she is capable of. We all swim in capitalism, and Beyoncé can’t remove herself from it, no matter how hard she might want to. None of us can. Times have changed since the BPP, and methods of resistance must evolve as well. Because although I agree that in order to end racism, we must end incarceration, and provide affordable housing, and create better social services, and invest in communities, and have excellent free healthcare and education, and fundamentally rethink the way we organize ourselves and our societies as humans—I also believe that systems undergo drastic alterations only after many, many microscopic shifts have occurred. I am fundamentally a pragmatist in that way. I would never advocate revolution nor violent overthrow, but rather the small movements of hearts and minds. When people work hard in communities on a grassroots level, convincing people one by one and empowering them to change their conditions, things start happening. When this work is bolstered by national media conversations and bold statements by pop stars that drive more and more people towards organizing…even more starts happening. Beyoncé does not work in isolation. She is just very hard to ignore.
Angela Davis said, “Capitalism has affected the way we think about ourselves.” We are taught to always think of ourselves as individual actors, not as a community that “extends backwards and forwards in time.” Part of the role of art is to re-orient that conception of self in relation to others.
Which is why another thread of internet chatter disturbed me more than anything else—one calling for white people to “shut up and listen” to Beyoncé. These were the articles that gave me the most pause. Blogger Melissa Hillman on the site Bitter Gertrude came out with a post titled “White people: Shut up about Beyoncé.” As a self-described white woman, she lauded Beyoncé for “brilliantly telling Black stories for Black people, brilliantly seizing the narrative,” and urged white people not to voice their outrage or opinion, but to shut up and listen. Another white woman writer and fat activist Kath tweeted “It’s not that white women can’t write about Beyonce and Formation, but maybe they shouldn’t,” and this sentiment has cropped up a lot in commentary and other articles (ironically). NB: I am not black, but I am not white either. I get asked “What are you?” A lot. So what should I do?
I completely agree with Melissa Hillman that people should listen. True collective listening is the foundation for meaningful critical discourse, which we sorely need more of. But she and Kath are utterly, tragically wrong that white people should shut up. This reminds me of the Paulo Freire quote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.”
Nobody should ignore this struggle, and everyone should rumble with it. We should understand what the Black Panther Party was fighting for and why. We should know what “Bama” means and why Beyoncé talks about albino alligators. This is about organizing, and fighting for the imagination of a different future for all of us. And empathy is the key to that future. So yes, listen, listen, listen, and know when to give up power. Know when to give up control. That is an incredibly radical act as an artist. But also, understand when you do have power, and when you do have a platform. And use it to amplify silenced voices and unpack the insidious nature of oppression.
About the contributor: Sue Bell Yank organizes, educates, enacts, reads and writes about social practice in contemporary art. She worked on the Watts House Project and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, among various other independent endeavors. She also produces online educational programs at the Oprah Winfrey Network. suebellyank.com