Super Bowl Sunday morning, I was in a friend's kitchen with her young daughter and a tin of watercolor pencils. The girl dipped a red one in the water, didn't wait for a wet brush to trace the strokes after drawing first. Catching a strange word, the daughter asked an enormous question.
"What does revenge mean?"
She'd overheard me recounting a final line from Beyoncé's "Formation."
always stay gracious / best revenge is your paper
I had been describing the video directed by Melina Moutsakas as if something happened; as if something had been won. The image, of course, that accompanied this line in the video, was of Beyoncé sinking the New Orleans police car in the floodwaters of Katrina; a triumph of acknowledgement. It felt like a triumph, at least.
With the young girl's interruption, the moment slowed down in this kitchen talk - one of maybe thousands that have happened after the statement by Beyoncé and her creative team.
Everyone in this kitchen, though, including myself, was white. As I floundered in explaining the general idea of revenge as working hard and succeeding despite racist oppression to a seven-year-old, I wanted more time to consider this and other questions alight in me after watching the video. And, I wanted an image-maker to talk to about the way the scenes in this video, through the widely accessible vessel that is Beyoncé, were tapping so much feeling in different groups of people.
Both the time and the ideal someone appeared, thanks to a weeklong back-and-forth with conceptual/multi-media artist lauren woods [lowercase at the artist's request]. If it were up to woods, kids in Dallas would encounter unvarnished realities of racism in an everyday sense, through installations created with her collaborator Cynthia Mulcahy, at public parks reminding visitors of their segregated past. As reported last week, foundations censored her plans. Woods and Mulcahy are moving forward now, though, after speaking before the city's park board, asking the backers to step away. They did.
Some reference for woods' work, and her aims: A recent public installation by woods assigned projections of Jim Crow-era protests to the space above a drinking fountain at the Dallas County Records Building, reminding anyone who attempted to take a sip of water that remnants of a "White Only" sign can still be seen there. These images, and woods herself, demanded all comers to pause. The fountain only worked after they watched.
The artist stayed in touch as we watched other videos directed by Moutsakas, looking for threads in her work. We ducked out of Twitter chatter and its manic pace, compared reads on "Formation" and woods expressed the dangers she sees in pop culture as anesthetic. These are just some of her reflections. (Note: this exchange happened the week before the Beyoncé boycott and woods' appearance at the park board meeting.)
When you did stop and watch the video, what was your feeling after watching it the first time?
It was visually dynamic and arresting, just the sheer production quality of it - I actually need to watch it again. [laughs] But I was also very confused by the many conflicting messages.
That in itself is telling - the need to watch again. The discussion starts to swallow the work. But what images stood out to you the most?
The first image that stood out that made me really jazzed was the El Camino doing donuts on the asphalt with her micro-mini braids and stretched out fur-coat covered arms forming the sign of the cross. That was a dope image. In my own artistic practice, I am fascinated when black pop-culture icons use their bodies to reference the cross. I wonder, is the body the physical cross? And if so, what is being crucified upon it?
Of course, the scenes with the halfway-drowned police car – sublime.
There was a point where you saw the discussion become problematic — enough for you to take a Facebook break. Why did you decide to get back online and air your questions?
In general, when Beyoncé- or Beyoncé Inc. drops something new, it activates the BeyHive and her product is what becomes the trending topic on social media filling up one's FB feed for 24 hours straight in a scary, non-critical exercise in idolatry. I just refuse to participate in that sort of virtual mania. This time however, by the second day, "Formation" activated the intellectuals of the BeyHive and they put out some really interesting and clearly inspired writing about the moment. It took me probably about three days, however for me to start engaging in the discourse.
My sort of reluctance to sign onto the praise came from the feeling that Beyoncé wears borrowed aesthetics and politics for spectacle and ultimately, for profit, the same way she wears her lace-fronts and costumes. It's a question of artifice.
Are profit and activism mutually exclusive, though? Can an artist be successful both ways?
I don't know. [sighs]
Although her fans may dub her the queen of pop music, they also need to admit that "she" - her brand - is also the queen of appropriation.
If you look at Beyoncé's cultural products, her oeuvre, you will find that she has a history of this appropriation and co-opting for her own practice in order to amplify her brand. People need to consider the ramifications of this especially when it comes to political issues, economic justice, and the struggle for equity and justice.
As an artistic product, I am perfectly OK if the initial motivation for "Formation"was, "Hey, I wanna make a film that places Maman Brigitte in a modern context. The massive 'Black death' happening in NOLA is raising her spirit. How would she flow in our times? How would she 'slay'?"
But unfortunately, the PR surrounding the happening contextualized the video as a potential
manifesto for Black liberation, especially with the spectacle of the Super Bowl that basically
radicalized Janet and Michael Jackson as pop idol archetypes by putting them against a black -drop of sexy Black Panthers.
So now we need to deconstruct the moment accordingly and really look at the messages her
brand is putting forth, if only to keep ourselves sober and not confuse the tangible work that
needs to be done to dismantle the structures of oppression. In terms of the space between the
imagery and music, there's a lot that's going on, a lot that works, and a lot that doesn't.
The second apprehension I have is how un-reconciled the messages, visuals, and lyrics of "Formation" are. There are colorism issues, which she is notorious for; there's also some low-key glorification of placage —a practice that began under slavery. There is nothing to glorify about the institution of slavery — even if there were small gains by individuals in terms of freedom and finances.
I don't know. Maybe she took heed of Harry Belafonte's finger wagging and this was her brand's way of answering that call.
But the answer she is proposing, her brand of activism right now - she dubs herself "The Black Bill Gates," she closes "Formation" with "always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper" - is fairly problematic.
It basically aligns resilience with revenge, respectability politics, religion, and capitalism. Which is why the "Formation" video and Super Bowl moment are so messy, and why so many have been inspired to take to online discourse to hash it out, to clap back, to critique... to praise.
Where does that need come from, or that feeling, that put her fans in this stream of adrenaline? Speaking specifically to the images in the video: what about them sparked these layered responses?
I think "Formation" sparked the imagination, first because of who was producing this artifact. The Melina Moutsakas and Malik Sayeed collab leads me to believe Arthur Jafa was possibly a creative whisperer on the product at some point because Sayeed and Jafa just launched a production company/collaborative with curator Elisa Moorehead Blunt.
So when folks say they get a "Daughters of the Dust" vibe from the video, that could theoretically be Jafa. So you potentially have a dream team of black creative genius at the helm in a way that hasn't, in my opinion, happened on other Beyoncé projects. The sheer multitude of references to very charged moments in history and cultural artifacts I believe springs from this. Put those visuals to the hot beat produced by Mike Will Made It and you have a product that seems to come out of nowhere. Like magic. It really is an interesting alchemy that may be a first for her brand.
The biggest reason why this Beyoncé happening created such a Twitter storm is because of the times we are in now.
We are in a movement moment. This is art produced in a movement moment. A time when folks are calling upon pop cultural icons to stand for something, to use their platform to amplify the movement and bring the issues that folks on the ground are fighting to shift to an even larger mainstream audience.
In the same way that the Black Brunch actions happening all over the country a year ago were meant to interrupt the status quo, I think that folks, particularly Beyoncé fans, saw this video and the Super Bowl performance as her way of using her platform to not let anyone forget what is happening in black America right now – what is happening that is tied to what feels like a never-ending struggle for liberation from oppression.
It opened the door for people enacting what many would consider explicit political action to jump on the moment – like the two activists who won tickets to be on the field during the halftime show and convinced Beyoncé's dancers, as they were being rushed off the field, to take a pic holding up a sign declaring justice for Mario Woods. That ultimately went viral and folded into what some folks thought was Beyoncé's doing.
To the tone of what's considered explicit political action: there's straightforward civil rights imagery throughout, footage of activists marching for Dr. King, apartheid protests, in a video "Formation" director Melina Moutsakas made for Solange in 2008. The song, "I Decided," lyrically, is a kind of crushy recount of a man's pursuit of her. How do you feel about the way the visuals and the music work together as a statement?
I feel it's very coherent. I think the statement of the video is Black Love that survives despite ALL of the bullshit. That's what I saw. Not to compare two sisters, as their respective artistic/musical practices function differently. But, the "I Decided" video... there is no question in my mind what the statement is. You have a song done in the throwback style of 1950s-60s Motown R&B; Solange is styled as so.
It starts in this time period at the height of the American Civil Rights movement when the beautifully strategic public spectacle of the movement occupies the television airwaves. Solange then personally moves through the decades in different popular fashion of the period, but there is always the public political moment happening in the background.
The part where she and the object of her affection, the first time you actually see her love personified as a black man, are in outer space: that can reference a future iteration of the archetypal love past the 1980s or maybe positing Afro-Futurist philosophy as liberatory.
But I didn't actually read that as a future iteration of the couple, but more as the space where intimacy takes place – the space that always exists, some other-worldly connection and production of Black Love that happens despite the complete and utter bullshit that may exist around it in real time – the oppression that attempts to frame and interject itself into intimacy between black people at any given moment.
I think that's what's confusing about "Formation." Clearly this video is broaching some idea of black resilience and maybe joy, but framing it with, as my friend and prominent Chicago-based activist Jasson Perez pointed out: "violent Black death."
"Formation"in my mind does this without really confronting the notion of Black death and the many ways that Black people not only survive it but materially resist the notion, whether it was during Katrina or in the anti-police brutality movement.
I think it's slightly dangerous to put forth that art, cultural expression and dance are the way to dismantle oppression, or in the scene with the little boy dancing in front of the cops, resist/change it. I am little weary of "Magical Negro" archetypes.
I staunchly believe that it is not up to a precious little boy to help the criminal justice system become more just towards people of color or remind individual policemen of not only his own personal humanity but theirs as well.
So, for you, is "Formation" too much about death to be a statement of empowerment?
I mean, we're talking about police brutality, a catastrophic flood that disproportionately killed Black people – plus an institution rooted in racial and sexual violence. And because it's delivered through art we are now dealing in the libidinal economy.
The really fashionable and captivating scene where she repeatedly throws up her middle fingers, she is styled as Maman Brigitte, the loa of death and the cemetery as well as resurrection –like down to the hot sauce reference! Yeah, Maman Brigitte with a little bit of that character, The Alchemist, from the film The Holy Mountain (1973), there's that one line where The Alchemist tells The Thief: "You are the excrement. You can change yourself into gold." [laughs]
The reference to this archetype would lead one to believe that these references in"Formation" speak to some sort of resilience or ability to persist by way of the spiritual realm despite everything else. But is Beyoncé positing that the way to survive is by "getting paper" or something as an act of revenge?
What struck me, in the storyline of the video - is the way Beyoncé closes her fist as we see her other self sinking. There's a dichotomy in that moment; it's like the artist is making it clear to the viewer that the character who's sitting up and closing her fist is in control, even as the woman in peril sinks into the floodwaters. It's right when that line hits: "best revenge is your paper." It puts Beyoncé in this role, almost.
She also says right before that, "You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation." Which makes me want to be anti-conversational as to maintain my position in "anti-Stans"-land. [laughs]
But for real, James Baldwin said:
"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won't destroy you."
I think this quote is the key to why so many folks were living for this moment initially. The Beyoncé brand delivered a rendering of blackness that speaks to the complexity of the identity through the so-called "slay" or alchemy of fashion, dope choreography, a lyrical call to action and a hypnotic beat mixed through history. This made people feel something. I am sure that many couldn't and still can't articulate what that something was. The ability to feel something out of the well of pain is a sort of triumph especially in the sea of vapid and nihilistic expression happening in pop culture right now in what is considered a "movement moment."
These images folks will take to the dance club to work out whatever it is that they need to work out. These moments are how the rage gets "controlled" so as not to destroy.
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But James Baldwin also said in his 1963 essay, "The Artist's Struggle for Integrity."
"It is time to ask very hard questions and to take very rude positions. And no matter at what price. It is time to recognize that the major effort of our country is not to change a situation but to seem to have done it."
I don't believe that Bey has taken the explicit "rude position" as of yet -even if she is on the receiving end of rude blowback . Beyoncé as a pop culture icon holds a lot of power from the sheer mass and diversity of her audience. I am excited about the discourse that sprang forth from this moment and I'm hoping her camp takes note of it –particularly the criticism.
I also hope that folks - particularly her fan base - sort through the messages for themselves if only to understand the difference between actual change and the illusion of it, and the impact that misaligned messages can have on mass culture. Rage, channeled properly, is fuel for movement - so we don't want to risk anesthetizing ourselves while we're twerking it out.