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Audre Lorde said it best, "If we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others."
Well, on Saturday, Beyoncé did exactly that: She defined herself and every ounce of her Blackness with the video “Formation.” My plans to do responsible adult things like laundry and taxes suddenly fell away. Everything I had thought to do that afternoon was laid to rest as a barrage of text messages flooded my phone. Most came formatted in ALL CAPS excitement — all of them were written in the language of “YASSSSS!” Never had I felt such urgency to respond to texts about…a music video.
Why were we so damn excited? Why were we GETTING OUR ENTIRE LIVES? Because lately, being Black — particularly a Black woman — is exhausting. Especially on the internet. I can’t read a comment section without seeing Black women being called n-----s, being slut-shamed, or being compared to primates. And this is just the trivial stuff.
The beauty of “Formation” is how proudly unsubtle it is. The moment it opens, we hear NOLA legend Messy Mya ask, “What happened after New Orleans?” — an obvious reference to Hurricane Katrina. (The answer to that question is actually quite heartbreaking). The director of "Formation," Melina Matsoukas, then takes us on a fantastic voyage through a gritty New Orleans, with Beyoncé as our guide.
One of the most symbolic moments arrives early on, showing a buttoned-up Bey perched on top of a car. Except, it’s not just any run-of-the-mill sedan. Oh, no. It’s a cop car partially submerged in water. That opening scene reminded me a little of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 black-and-white masterpiece, "Alright," in which young kids dance atop an abandoned police vehicle. Yet this version felt much heavier. Spoiler alert: In the end, the car sinks, and Beyoncé, splayed across its rooftop, goes with it. The image of her drowning along with the car is powerful. More than 1,800 innocent lives were lost during Hurricane Katrina. Most of those lives could've been saved. If the system doesn't change, we'll continue to sink down with it.
And then, she begins to sing:
Y'all haters corny with that illuminati mess
Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh.
So no, this is not going to be a “We Are the World”-style anthem about police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter. This is Queen Bey, and as she has so many times before, she came to show out. If you love her, you appreciate it. If you don’t, by now, you’ve clicked the exit button. Buh-bye.
At first listen, these lyrics are about Beyoncé. However, for many of us who played the track on repeat Saturday afternoon, we started to realize the lyrics are about the roots of Black-American women:
My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama
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.
Blue Ivy Carter makes an adorable appearance with baby hair and an afro, hand on hip, smiling confidently at the camera.
And then, just when you think the song can’t feel any more righteous, she goes for the jugular:
I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.
(Faints. Kidding! Just gonna leave this iconic reference to hot sauce right here, though.)
Scene after scene, this video reminded me, my friends, and countless others that our lives and culture matter. The most empowering part of the video is seeing a group of Black women working as a unit in a “formation.” They move together in sync as one, in a manner often seen in big band performances at HBCUs. It’s beautiful. The video is absolutely an homage to Black lives.
February 5 was Trayvon Martin’s birthday, and Sandra Bland would have turned 29 yesterday, the day of Super Bowl 50. It's no coincidence that this song was released during Black history month. And in case there were any question about the message, Beyoncé and her #BlackGirlMagic army performed in Black Panther-inspired regalia for 111.9 million viewers in Santa Clara, CA. That says it all.
Few artists have achieved such a high level of fame while remaining an enigma. If Beyoncé is trending on social media, it’s because she’s dropped an album or a song; not because she’s made the news for tweeting various nonsense to her ex. She’s landed Vogue covers with no accompanying interview inside. Who does that?
Beyoncé’s cocky, unabashed declaration of self-love in her music is not to be taken lightly. Love her or hate her, in an environment that constantly tells women what they can and cannot do, how they should and shouldn’t act, seeing one of our own beat the odds — over and over and over — is forever inspiring. And actually seeing a Black woman peacock for the world? It's beyond inspiring. It’s #SelfGoals.
When I was in my late 20s, advice like “be yourself” and “own it” unfortunately did nothing for me. Those declarations were stripped down to meaningless platitudes by the time I landed my first job, and my boss asked me if I ever straighten my hair. I have bills and student loans. If I’m myself, I just may not get a job, and that’s what the world has told Black women forever, really. The older I get, the more I need to be reminded to forget all that noise and be me. And I need creative ways to help the message sink in. By now, as a Black woman, I’ve learned to navigate the world and shield myself from awkward conversations about my hair and the food I eat with an unconscious ability to code-switch.
What Beyoncé is telling me — telling all of us, really — is to be our entire selves. Don’t embrace the nuances of your culture behind closed doors, put it on full display. Bring your lunch to work and don’t forget the hot sauce.
"Formation" is a Black anthem for Black women. It's a rallying cry sent from Queen Bey to the masses, and it reminds us that, just as it was in the '60s, Black is — and forever will be — beautiful.