Before this past Sunday, I was unsure if I would be watching the Super Bowl halftime show. I am a fan of all three artists that performed. In fact, the last time Bruno Mars or Beyoncé were on the Super Bowl stage, their performances were incredible. This year, however, I wasn’t completely invested in the teams playing — my crush on Cam Newton notwithstanding. Rather than tune in for 15 minutes, I had convinced myself to watch the playback of the performance afterward.
Beyoncé shattered all of these doubts with her new song, “Formation.” While I pride myself on being a fan of her and her artistry, it was my roommate who saw someone excitedly post the new music video on Facebook. I was not prepared for what happened when we pressed play.
The first scene of Beyoncé perched on a New Orleans Police Department cop car, partially submerged in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, was one of the most powerful images in the video. And from there, it only got better. We heard the voices of Big Freedia and a passed Messy Mya, both idols of New Orleans bounce. We saw beautiful black women flanking both sides of Beyoncé as their afros moved with their dances. We saw a little boy dancing in a hoodie in front of a line of police officers with their hands up.
The lyrics themselves were just as powerful. Beyoncé pays homage to her roots, singing, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana, you mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” There are even lyrics speaking of hot sauce, cornbread and collard greens, proving that food equals love of her blackness. She goes on to address the petty people who have criticized her husband’s nose or her daughter’s hair, saying she loves her baby’s afro and her “negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.” She repeats, “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation… prove to me you got some coordination. Slay trick, or you get eliminated.”
The song hits all the right notes. Beyoncé reflects on her black Southern roots like never before, reveling in all parts of her blackness. She challenges police brutality and general political incompetency when we consider the terrible responses of the NOPD to the aftermath of Katrina. Equally important, she demands that all black women put in the necessary work to thrive in a social hierarchy in which we’re not meant to. It’s not enough to be adequate: as black women, we must slay or get eliminated.
As I work on my thesis, apply to postgraduate opportunities and continue considering the life I hope to carve out for myself — all while reflecting on black history and my place within it — this song was a wakeup call from one of the most hard-working black women in the industry.
But as 111.9 million Americans tuned in to her live performance of “Formation,” it was a wakeup call to the blackness of Beyoncé.
Understanding the meaning and necessity of “Formation” could prove to be challenging for those for who have not directly experienced the beauty of black culture or the struggles of racism. While Beyoncé frequently claims her country and Houston roots, we have never seen such unabashed pride in black culture from her. Songs like, “***Flawless,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and “Run the World (Girls),” have made her work easily accessible to everyone. “Formation” marks a change, as it is a definitive song for the black community and black women especially.
Undoubtedly, this former Beyoncé is the one with which most people are comfortable. Yet the black community has been waiting for “Formation” Beyoncé, as other prominent black artists have voiced their support — not only through demanding accountable justice systems, but also by shamelessly enjoying their culture and the diverse black narrative in the music and film industry dominated by whites.
In an outfit reminiscent of Michael Jackson, with her backup dancers wearing the berets of the Black Panthers, Beyoncé brought blackness to an event that has long been a cornerstone of American culture. There is no other artist who could have acted so radically on such a large platform.
The wait was worth it. Connecting Beyoncé as an artist and Beyoncé as an activist depicts how we must nurture every critical part of our identity, especially when others would try to forgo them. “Formation” made clear that any Beyoncé you love does not exist without her black roots. It made clear that any Beyoncé you hate will continue to thrive, not in spite of black culture and history, but because of it. And as a black woman, it has shown me that I must do the same.Lea Trusty is a politics major from Saint Rose, La. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.