Beyonce's 'Formation' Is A Visual Anthem

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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.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When Beyonce releases a new song, it's going to get attention no matter what, but her new single, "Formation," and its video has been an even bigger deal than usual. It was released Saturday, the day before her performance in the Super Bowl halftime show, and NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on why the reaction to it has been so big.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Beyonce's "Formation" video was set in New Orleans with images that evoke Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras, elegant Creole women and black Southern culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMATION")

BEYONCE: (Singing) My daddy, Alabama, my ma, Louisiana you mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texasbama (ph). I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils - earned all this money, but they never take the country out me. I got hot sauce in my bag - swag.

DEL BARCO: The video celebrates Beyonce's power, her success, even her natural hair and her hot-sauce swag. Filmmaker and cultural critic Dream Hampton says Beyonce's video is unapologetically black.

DREAM HAMPTON: It's about a black future that we are imagining ourselves having power and magic, and I think it's beautiful.

DEL BARCO: The video also includes a scene of a young African-American boy dancing in front of police officers in formation. The police hold their hands up before we see the word stop shooting us.

HAMPTON: It is absolutely a message that comes straight out of Ferguson - hands up, don't shoot. It was incredibly powerful.

DEL BARCO: Hampton notes that the video not only dropped during Black History Month but also the day after what would have been Trayvon Martin's 21st birthday. The unarmed African-American was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. His killing and the police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, to which Beyonce and her husband, producer Jay Z, have donated big money. Some fans may seem surprised that "Formation" is so political, but Rutgers professor Kevin Allred argues Beyonce has always been.

KEVIN ALLRED: She's dropping politics all along subtly, and now she's just being explicit about them.

DEL BARCO: Allred teaches a course called politicizing Beyonce that looks at her earlier songs and videos that include some of the same elements.

ALLRED: She's always really focused on Black women's experience, blacks feminist messages. And there's always been, like, a Southern reference because of her own heritage. She also has a lot of other stuff just in terms of gender and sexuality, challenging the way power works.

DEL BARCO: Beyonce performed the song during the Super Bowl with her dancers dressed in Black Panther berets. That angered some, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who spoke out on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUDY GIULIANI: And I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers, who are the people who protect her and protect us and keep us alive. And what we should be doing in the African-American community and all communities is build up respect for police officers.

DEL BARCO: It's pretty clear Beyonce knew she'd cause a stir. In the video, she gives the finger on both hands, and she ends up laying on a police car as it sinks. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMATION")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I see it. I want it. I stunt, yellow-bone (ph) it. I dream it. I work hard. I rhyme 'til I own it. I twirl all them haters, albino aligators - El Camino with the seat low, sipping Cuervo with no chaser. Sometimes I go off. I go hard, get what's mine. I'm a star 'cause I slay. I slay. I slay. I slay all day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.