Like many twenty-somethings, I have been obsessed with Beyoncé’s new song and video “Formation” ever since its surprise release on February 6. “Formation” is everything we love about Beyoncé, kicked into high gear. It’s sassy, sexy, visually stunning, lusciously political, oozing with black pride and female empowerment, and catchy enough to play on repeat day after day after day after…well, you get the idea.
Also like many twenty-somethings, I have been devastated by the unrivaled success of Trump in the recent Republican primaries. As someone who hails from South Carolina, I could only drop my head in shame upon hearing my home state had thrown every one of its delegates Trump’s way. I am currently studying abroad in England, and whenever someone learns I am from America, that person will almost immediately ask me about Trump. There is, in their eyes and voice, a confusion I can only return.
Many Americans say they love how he says what he thinks. But what he thinks (and says) is overtly racist and overtly horrifying. He has been quoted with such jewels as: “Sadly, the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and Hispanics-a tough subject-must be discussed” (thank you, Twitter word limit); “But you have people coming in and I’m not just saying Mexicans, I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country.” His followers don’t seem much better. There have been videos released of a Trump rally during which a Trump supporter dragged Ariel Rojas out by the collar. Trump himself acknowledges that his supporters are not your average bear. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he said at a campaign rally in Iowa. So again I ask, what is going on? Why are so many voters, particularly among the white evangelical Christian crowd, celebrating him?
In an article published on the Atlantic in the wake of the SC Republican primary, Robert P. Jones asks a similar question: “How did Donald Trump—a twice-divorced, casino-owning New Yorker who curses during campaign speeches and is prone to church-related gaffes such as accidentally putting cash into the communion plate—win in this southern state where approximately seven in 10 GOP primary voters are white evangelicals?” Jones offers a crucial insight. What these supporters have latched onto is the last word of Trump’s slogan: “Make America great again.” These voters are not voting from a place of deep-seated religious values, but rather from a place of deep-seated cultural nostalgia. “Please, Trump, please, make America great again.”
What does all of this have to do with Beyoncé’s new video? I would say, everything. “Formation” could not have come out at a more fitting time. It is, in both lyrics and video, inescapably American; and it is, in both lyrics and video, inescapably black. The video opens in New Orleans, a city in which the black community has had remarkable cultural and musical impact, with a vision of Beyoncé, in New Orleans style dress, atop a police car. The floodwaters surround her and in the background the tops of houses peak out from the flood. The image recalls Hurricane Katrina. The presence of the police car, however, doesn’t let us rest with that easy answer. This is more than a flashback to Katrina. This is a symbol of the effect of police brutality on the black community. New York Times critic Wesley Morris suggests that there is ambiguity in the last scene—as the police car, and Beyoncé with it, sinks—as to whether this is a drowning or a baptism. Perhaps it is both. This nation is one that has throughout history sanctioned the murder of its black citizens.
The video is itself a visual tour through American history: New Orleans (the birthplace of jazz); Southern plantations (only now with black women sitting in privilege, decked in expensive dress and jewelry, fanning themselves); the black church (the one place the black community could self-govern, apart from white surveillance); newspapers boasting a picture of MLK with the headline “More than a dreamer”; and, now up to the present-day, a small black boy dancing before a line of police officers in riot gear, and a camera pan over the graffiti “Stop shooting us.” All the while Beyoncé proudly proclaims, “My daddy Alabama, mama Louisiana.” We even have echoes of the capitalist, up-by-your-bootstraps ideal with, “I dream it, I work hard, I grind till I own it.” This is America. This land is your land. This land is my land. As New York Times writer Jenna Wortham puts it: “ ‘Formation’ isn’t just about police brutality—it’s about the entirety of the black experience in America in 2016, which includes standards of beauty, (dis)empowerment, culture and shared parts of history.”
What’s more, Beyoncé released this video the day before her performance at Super Bowl 50. It’s hard to get more “American” than the Super Bowl. Beyoncé and her fellow halftime performers, however, took this longstanding American entertainment ritual and transformed it into a display of political activism. Coldplay, an all-white band, kicked off the show, only then to hand over the spotlight to Bruno Mars, accompanied by all-black male dancers, who then handed over the spotlight to Beyoncé and her all-black female entourage, clad in Black Panther outfits. Slowly, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, and Coldplay join voices, and we see a nostalgic sweep through the history of Super Bowl halftime shows. One cannot help but notice the diversity of performers throughout the years. All the while, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, and Coldplay sing together, “We’re gonna get, get together right now. We’re gonna get, get together somehow.” As the camera pans out, we see, across the stands, the words “Believe in Love” against a rainbow background.
What is the “America” that Trump voters are nostalgic for?
It is not the America that dreamers and visionaries have been striving for since the declaration that all are created equal. It is not the America I care to know, and certainly not the America I care to be a part of.Tweet This