Beyonce's 'Formation' Is A Visual Anthem

A still from Beyonce's "Formation." (YouTube)
A still from Beyonce's "Formation." (YouTube)

In what's become her modus operandi, Beyonce dropped not only a new song, but also a provocative video for "Formation" on Saturday, just ahead of her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. Set in New Orleans, the video conjures images of Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras and the Black South. There's natural hair and hot-sauce swag and a young black boy dancing in front of police officers. Hands are held up before we see the words, "Stop shooting us."

Needless to say, the Internet responded in kind.

In an on-air report for All Things Considered, NPR's Mandalit del Barco highlights reactions to the video, including thoughts from filmmaker and writer dream hampton. (hampton has a long-standing professional relationship with Beyonce's husband, Jay Z.) Below is an edited transcript of their full conversation, where hampton gives context to the images and timing of "Formation." "It's about a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power and magic," she says, "and I think it's beautiful."

I wanted to talk to you about the new Beyonce video "Formation." Maybe first your initial thoughts about it — well, you've seen this video.

Yes, like the rest of the world! She — I'm not even on the Internet and she broke my Internet. [Laughs.] I've been off social media for a while, and it was, of course, amazing to have this Super Bowl Sunday surprise. But more importantly, she dropped it very intentionally on a weekend that means something to the current movement. It is, of course, Black History Month, February, but that was Trayvon Martin's birthday, and the day before Sandra Bland's [birthday]. I mean, this is a generation that was kind of woke up by the Trayvon Martin killing, in terms of activism, in terms of being kind of nudged out of their post-racial slumber. And I think it was really significant that she dropped the video on Trayvon's day.

And what about the video itself? Can you talk about the images and the lyrics, both?

Well, the images are very much an homage to the black South, which is often forgotten, you know, in movements. And I don't know why, because we keep having to return to the black South, you know, as we should.

It's very important that this film is not only located –- well, I say "film," it feels like ... an Oscar-worthy feature — but it's very important that it's located visually and actually in Louisiana, which, of course ... is the site of this other trauma, and a kind of freedom and resistance also. It's longstanding trauma. Louisiana is this famous slave port, where so many cultures came together and mixed, but also she references the site of Katrina, where this horrible crime was committed against black people; where its nation didn't show up for us and where this generation is having to learn that its nation continues to not show up for us. And in that, she's both centering black women — her formation is one of black women, who are proudly wearing their natural hair, and she makes a circle amongst her daughter and three girls, which is a little bit of magic and conjuring. But there's also, you know, the centering of queer folks and trans folk, and both by the vocals that we hear and of what we visually see. And that has very much been an intentional thing that's been happening in this new Black Lives Matter movement. From the very outset, there was real messaging that talked about centering queer folks and black women in leadership. So it's really amazing to see all of that reflected back to us in a Beyonce video.

Some people are talking about the hot sauce in her bag.

[Laughs.] Right, I think that she's trying — kind of like a gun in your bag, right? [Laughs.] It's a cultural weapon, her hot sauce in her bag. I mean, there are a lot of just throwaway lines about how country she is, and I don't think that that's a new thing. ... That's been a part of her identity from the outset, since Destiny's Child.

I mean, this is very much who she is. She's always represented Texas. Again, her mother is from Louisiana, as she let us know in the song. This has always been a big part of her identity; it's not one that the mainstream focus is on. People talk about her not centering it. I saw an article that talked about her keeping that identity at the margins, but I feel like it's always been central to who she is — this kind of unapologetic blackness.

What about the image of the little boy in front of the cop, or her on top of the police car?

I think that the image with the boy who's basically conducting a police lineup is magic. This is about them being in a trance, and them having to do what they usually try to make him do, which is put their hands up. The next cut about "Stop shooting us," it's not the black power moment that we got in the late '60s and '70s, which she referenced on the actual Super Bowl day, with the Black Panther beret, but it is absolutely a message that comes straight out of Ferguson: "Hands up, don't shoot."

I think it was incredibly powerful. I think it was also a nod to Tamir Rice, you know. It's about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it's beautiful.

There was a big New York Times article about her being an activist. Is this something new for her? I know you talked about questions over centering her identity as a black woman, but in terms of being an activist — is this anything new, or is this a continuation?

I think it's a stretch to call Beyonce an activist. And I don't know that activist is such a compliment. What we need out here is organizers. No, what she is is a cultural force and artist and icon. She might be her own goddess, might have her own little Orisha power, but she's not an activist. I think that she's someone who is paying attention like anyone her age to what is going on. This is her generation's movement; she's absolutely a millennial, and she's tuned in to what's happening like we all are. So she doesn't live on some other planet, which I think we tend to think of pop stars, and Beyonce in particular. [Laughs.] She's very much in this world, paying attention to what's happening, and affected by it. You know, she's raising a daughter.

She showed up to the Trayvon Martin rally and met his parents, but that was disastrous for she and her husband. All of the eyes, which should have been on the dais, and they were all looking at Jay and Bey, who were kind of standing to the side of the stage. They understand what a distraction they can be. But this is all value add; this video "Formation" is not a distraction. It is a beautiful centering and a beautiful conjuring.

Do you think it's going to make a difference?

Well, what artists can do is provide narrative shifts. That is absolutely their responsibility, in fact. Nina Simone gave that charge decades ago, like, "What are you doing if you're not reflecting the times? How can you even call yourself an artist?" So in my mind, what's been happening is there's been this slumber — particularly unfortunately amongst black artists — for a long time, and now they're realizing that they can't not reflect back what their very audience is showing them.

Beyonce took that a step further; she really did. I mean, she created an anthem, a visual anthem in every way. And that's been beautiful to see. And it's been beautiful to see other artists kind of wake up around this and realize that this isn't going to cost them to put this kind of messaging forward; that it's actually going to benefit them.

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