Getting in Line: Working Through Beyonce’s “Formation”

Don’t you love it when a video needs liner notes?

beyonce-formation-full-song

The first thing I immediately thought when I saw Beyonce’s “Formation” was that some folks ruts – “roots” – would show. You know, ruts: biases, fears of lineage, missing genealogies, shit like that. And folks don’t like their ruts or their slip showing. Beyoncé showed er’body’s slip, parasol, skeeta bite scars, and conjuring grandmamma essence in this video. And it was scary. Downright gothic. That is, of course, unless you’re southern – by affiliation or blood and maybe hot sauce preference – and your ruts are ALWAYS showing because there was no reason to hide them in the first place.

Look here: I done said this time and time again that Beyonce’s ass is southern and country. I’m still working through her calling herself a Texas Bama. I guess it’s not too far off – when I hear Bama in Georgia it literally means someone from Alabama. But in the DMV Bama is a diss. I digress.

“Formation” is Texas style fatback and biscuits with country gravy, a dizzying spell that pulls from multiple places and modes of the black southern experience. Beyoncé took a familiar cultural marker of black southernness – trauma – and flipped that bih into a working ideology to engage what it means to be southern and black now.

A few thoughts:

1. Beyoncé said “I’ma make me a world.” She conjured New Orleans’ past, present, and future, calling upon the memories and sounds of New Orleans pre- and post Hurricane Katrina. Because rule number 1 in the south is that the past is always present and the past and present is always future. Still shots of preaching reverends, half-drowned buildings, the weave shop, and plantation houses against a sparse synthesizer that sounds like a tweaked electronic banjo from the Bayou sonically position Beyoncé squarely in the middle of a messy Black South. Katrina is not just a historical event. It is a springboard for re-rendering southern trauma and its association with blackness. Trauma is the spring board of southern blackness. But its foundation is resilience and creativity. Beyoncé’s New Orleans – because there are multiple New Orleans and this one is undeniably hers and her sister Solange’s rendering/conjuring – doubly signifies resurrection and the city of the dead. She utilizes the southern belief that death is a medium instead of a destination. Cue Messy Mya, a social media celebrity who for many was recognized as the voice of New Orleans. Mya was murdered in 2010 but clearly and triumphantly declares “bitch I’m back…by popular demand.” Mya’s voice from beyond the grave adds spectral and speculative realness to Beyonce’s parallel statement of returning to pop music – and the south – with something new. Messy Mya sonically ‘haunts’ the track and like a brief séance, delivers a message to the living. He sets the stage for Beyonce to engage the literal and figurative reckoning of New Orleans as life after death.

2. Beyonce foraged through Black Spirituality, chile. Santería, Houdou, and other non-Christian aspects of spiritual (re)awakening took center stage in this video. And I ain’t mad. Alternative view points of how black folks survive and thrive should include Black Jesus’ kinfolk. Especially in the South.

Beyoncé took on a few conjuring woman roles in this video. The two that stood out most for me were her roles as the woman in black and sitting on top of the half-submerged NOPD police car. Beyonce ain’t nobody’s church mourner with that fierce black lip while shooting birds. She’s standing outside an abandoned plantation nodding her head on the front porch. Do you know the significance of black folks and the front porch? It’s a communal space and a space of reclamation. Who is Bey trying to reclaim? What wrongs is she trying to absolve and with which memories is she trying to make do some work?

screen_shot_20160206_at_6.36.02_pm.png.CROP.promo-xlarge2.36.02_pmIs it possible that Beyoncé, in her red and white dress, was summoning Mami Wata, the water deity who could be both a healer or lure travelers to their watery grave? I’m particularly fascinated by the end of the video, where Beyonce lies on top of the car as it drowns and the voice of Kimberly Rivers Roberts saying “Look at that water boy! Oooh lawd!” One possible intention here is a visual reminder of the many unknown souls that drowned and possibly took their place by Mami Wata’s side during Katrina. Yet the commentary, paired with Beyonce and the car’s ‘drowning,’ doubly signifies upon how we fetishize black death and the feminine power of water and rebirth.

And what about the dancing little boy in a black hoodie whose magic can’t be denied by an all-white police line? The one whose magic is so palpable he gets them to put their hands up? Undeniably a signifier of Trayvon Martin – who would’ve celebrated his 21st birthday on February 5thDr. Nettrice Gaskins offers a reading of the boy as Ghede Nibo, the spirit of a young man violently murdered and in death serves as a leader of the dead.

Conjuring blackness is physical, conceptual, and spiritual. All three are necessary to make protest and resurrection possible.

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3. Bey is the southern black woman pleasure principle. Black women’s pleasure is a top priority, even taking her man to Red Lobster for a job well done (have you had the cheddar bay biscuits? So good they are always said in plural). Dr. Kinitra Brooks reads Beyonce’s womanhood in the video as a manifestation of ManMan Brigitte, a vulgar female spirit that loves hot pepper and embodies both sex and death.

Additionally, pleasure in “Formation” is not just sexual. There is an organic trajectory of southern black woman pleasure politics. Red Lobster is just a stop on the ride. The joy of being a black woman “in parlour” with her girls while young black girls play dress up in white dress up and the joy of a good twerk also signify pleasure politics. I want to stress the joy of black girls BEING BLACK GIRLS and not little women. Blue Ivy’s adorable smirks and posturing hold on tight to the possibility of black girl innocence. They matter, ya’ll.

Still, my sister-friend the trilliant Dr. Zandria Robinson says it best:

Formation, then, is a metaphor, a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance. It is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins–woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant–before an overt action. For the black southern majorettes, across gender formulations, formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement. 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. The proper formation is, she contends, made possible by the participation and leadership of a blackness on the margins.

What type of south is Beyonce trying to get us to see and hear? Are we still in the Beyhive or down in the fire ant pit? I’d put money on the latter, and a lot of folks ain’t comfortable with that. It’s cool. “Formation” ain’t for everybody. Sometimes you need paper plates instead of fine china and Frank’s or Louisiana Hot Sauce in your bag. Swag.

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51 thoughts on “Getting in Line: Working Through Beyonce’s “Formation”

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  7. Aah..this post is bliss and is like the awesome aroma of a good gumbo wafting from a spot across the way that makes me want to run and order up. Now I can’t wait to get some of the magic. Thanks

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  10. Read the whole thing now. You broke down the video and song’s interplay beautifully. I still want to research who was the mad scientist behind all this because I am not convinced that this is Beyonce’s brainchild. One might argue, “Why is that important?” But I’m India Lauryn Lil Kim Mary J old skool, and the way my brain is set up, I need my artists to be singing to me the truth of their story, not a crafted one that somebody gave them. Also, as far as anthems or even songs that stick with you go, the song, was not good. But that says nothing of your write-up. That, was on-point.

    • I wholly agree that as a song, it wasn’t ” good”. However, as an expression of art, it was fantastic.I am sure the lyrics are Bey, the video concept/directing top notch is probably where the ” I’m sure it wasn’t Beyonce’s brainchild” comes from.Not a diss in the slightest, just a thought. I agree the on point of the right up nailed so much what the video and song had to say. While we probably won’t be hearing this in the radio, that bass line is killer.

      • Yeah, the song HAS to be taken in with the video, otherwise it doesn’t get the message across. It’s very cool as it is, however once you try to separate them, it does’t work. Well, the song singularly, anyway. The visuals work on mute as well 😉 Great Cinematographer, by the way, whoever she/he was.

    • She has been very open about the fact that she can’t do it all by herself, and I apologize if I’m projecting or taking your words out of context, but why is it unbelievable that Beyoncé came up with the idea and had others assist in fleshing it out. She is not stupid and if you’ve followed her career at all, especially since getting rid of Matthew, you know with something as impactful as the Formation video/song she does not do anything that she is not truly passionate about or connected to.

      Also the director was Melina Matsoukas. She is a good friend of Solange and Beyoncé and has directed videos for both of them in the past.

      • Giselle, I agree, she’s not stupid. Let me explain my train of thought: you see, for me, activism is most effective when words and images and action, meet. Kinda like what Kaleem Poole said up above, that the two (the video and lyrics) work as something of a package: one does not work as effectively without the other. When I think of packages, Easter baskets with all their different goodies inside, the Peeps, the chocolate eggs, the bright toys, all enshrined in a layer of plastic, come to mind….for a long time, for me, Beyonce’ has been the Easter basket that has the chocolate missing. Like it was left out at the factory on purpose, or even, somebody stole it out of the basket and hid it. The chocolate, is her voice in regard to her intellect. Her thoughts, off the cuff, not pre-recorded, not rehearsed. What does Beyonce’ think about the issues, about these images that she and her Parkwood team have compiled? Where do these things strike a chord with her as an artist? To give more insight on this, here are two good perspectives on Beyonce’s routine Silento: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/fashion/beyonce-is-seen-but-not-heard.html?_r=0
        and, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/08/23/fashion/readers-respond-beyonce-silence.html?action=click&contentCollection=Fashion%20%26%20Style&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article
        And let me be clear: I am aware that both she and Jay donated “tens of thousands” of dollars to the #BLM activists who were arrested during the Baltimore unrest and protest efforts most recent. That activism is necessary and awesome. That awesomeness does not change the fact that Beyonce’ does not speak…on pretty much anything. And so, because of that, if I am to believe that she stands in solidarity with me, that this is not a stunt, that this is not a phase, I would like to hear her speak on it. I profess what I believe everyday. There is real power in other people seeing you do that. That was a bit convoluted, but I hope followable.

    • Hello again!

      I would say I am very similar to Beyoncé in how she seems to observe situations and is aware and learning, but may not speak very openly about these issues because of fear of backlash. Not because I don’t care, but I struggle with having the confidence to articulate my thoughts in certain public spaces/forums. For example, this year, a goal of mine is to be more vocal about issues I feel strongly about instead of just liking posts on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have always been slightly jealous of people who were unafraid to truly speak about how they feel. Even replying to your initial comment made my heart beat a little faster. If someone were to go through a history of posts I have liked, many of them are in support of the Black Likes Matter movement, women rights issues,and so on, but until recently I have not actually posted my person thoughts and opinions on these topics. Since doing so I have received comments from family and friends on how genuine I am and “why all of a sudden”. It’s not necessarily all of a sudden, it is just that I now have the confidence to have more open conversations. In the same vein, if someone were to look at a history of the organizations and charities she has donated to, they mostly support to the same types of issues and ideals. Obviously her criticism is on a much grander scale than anything I have been privy to, but as a super shy person I understand the nervousness that comes along with the territory.

      Also, your argument made complete sense and I now understand where you’re coming from. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • Thank you as well and you’re welcome! And Sister Friend, I know allll about painfully shy! I embodied it all throughout my childhood and into my teen years. I too had to grow, learn more about myself, be braver, change, evolve, and in many ways, just get away from my family and community I grew up in (many who meant well, but often pigeon-holed me into a box). The great thing about us starting out super-shy, is we temper our conversation. We are more aware of what we say and using tact to get our message across. And that, is not something you see often, especially in social media exchanges. This discourse has been most refreshing. Feel free to engage me in conversation down the road ma’am! I’m gonna go find you on WordPress and follow.

        In Solidarity and Struggle… ;o)

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  13. “The joy of being a black woman “in parlour” with her girls while young black girls play dress up in white dress up…”

    Err. There’s an error here. Those shots were actually recreations of the look & feel of some of the Storyville brothels of the time (which entirely had white women, though Storyville’s other residents were almost entirely black). It’s actually there to undercut some of the sexualization of black women and girls…those women are there, and though they wear the white and lace, look again at their faces. They are *pissed off*.

    if you go through this pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/kebehe11/storyville-prostitutes/), you’ll see several pictures that show women in white, in groupings like in the video, and Bey’s solo shots, too, Then they do indeed break out into the twerking in the hallway, but that part is more reclamation.

    • Ah. I’m getting familiar with Storyville and I definitely can see that as a lens for reading them in the parlor. Thanks for sharing and reading.

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  17. Not impressedwith the Black Panther line up…they didn’t like Dr. King for his peaceful approach. Professing ‘artistic’ old school violence is not helpful to the Fergusons’ or Baltimores’. But everyone gets an opinion, including Beyonce. She talented and has the opportunity to influence our youth…but to purposefully back violence? Too late to rethink that one.

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