Beyoncé dropped her new song “Formation” on February 6th– the day after Trayvon Martin’s birthday and the day before her halftime performance at Superbowl 50. The pop star does seem to be caught in between politics and commercial success.
The video for “Formation” is the boldest the Queen has ever produced. Bey is perched on top of a police car that is submerged in water in post-Katrina New Orleans. Images of black women adorned with costumes from the antebellum South are spliced together with a young black boy dancing in front of police officers behind a wall spray painted with the words “Stop Shooting Us” while she’s singing in a maid’s hat. I think I’ve watched it a dozen times since this past Saturday. I can’t stop. And neither can the nation.
I’ve always admired Beyoncé. I’ve grown up worshipping her indomitable presence in music and the media. She made being a badass bitch the enlightened path to success. She is a self-proclaimed feminist and has made that very apparent in the last couple of years, literally performing in front of a screen with the word “FEMINIST” blown up to life-size proportions. However, she has never taken such an artistic stance on what it means to be a black woman before this moment in her career. However, it could be argued that being so incredibly successful, powerful, and monumental in the modern moment is, in fact, taking a stand for women of color everywhere. I should say she’s never been explicit about her politics.
I think the current state of the world has made it impossible to avoid being political as a powerful black artist. Bey has taken ownership of that cultural leverage with this video. Which brings me to the larger question– when is it time to be artistically political?
Beyoncé has been in the industry since she was 7 years old. She has spent decades acquiring clout, respect, world-dominance, and money. At 34 years old, she drops her first political narrative. She has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from across the globe. The Washington Post put it best, “…there is the feeling that Beyoncé has written a song specifically for black ears, finally. But because she is Beyoncé, she can also demand, on the largest stage in America, that the whole nation bear witness to her pride and her heritage.” And THANK GOD she did. But this forces me to stop and wonder– how much power does it take to make people listen?
What is the trajectory for making a stand as an artist? Do we prove ourselves before we take the platform for change? Do we have to record “Bootylicious” before we talk about what is really happening? I whole heartedly check my privilege at this point in the conversation and understand that almost no one is going to stop me in my career and ask when I’m finally going to start being political as a white woman. But I also wonder why that is. Shouldn’t I be?
I feel an overarching dread about what it’s going to mean to make money, balance commercial success, make artistic sacrifices and integral bargains about my principles for the rest of my life. While always asking if what I’m saying is enough.