“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” — Malcom X, “Who Taught You To Hate Yourself?”
I struggled with whether I should even write this article. There is certainly no dearth of articles out there offering some analysis of the phenomenon that was Beyoncé’s LEMONADE visual album release on HBO or her Super Bowl performance back in February.
In case you forgot, there was a lot of public outcry about that first public Formation performance. Sure, there are frequently negative reactions to Super Bowl halftime shows — people saying that M.I.A.’s middle finger was offensive or that the Black Eyed Peas flat out suck (not arguing with that last point). However, the anger directed towards Beyoncé was different than the halftime disappointments that came before. This year, people were upset about the pro-black message of the show. But hey, when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade; when people vow to boycott you, you make tour shirts.
Since LEMONADE premiered on HBO rather than at the Super Bowl halftime show, there was less public outcry, but the same theme that defines Formation permeates through all of the visual album: the empowerment of the black woman.
If you are one of the people who were upset by Formation (and by extension, the entire LEMONADE album probably), I urge you to stick around and at least give these points a chance.
1) Are you surprised?
Beyoncé is a black woman. She was black when she came out with the mega-hit “Single Ladies” in 2009. She was black when she performed “Precious Lord Take My Hand” at last year’s Grammy’s, another performance with clear #BlackLivesMatter undertones. If you need time to process all this information, watch the SNL skit about it while you do.
Like any other artist, Bey draws on her experiences to create her art. Part of being an artist is synthesizing what she sees in the world and creating art about how it makes her feel. No matter how you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement, the objective truth is that many unarmed black people (many of them children) have been killed by police.
Whether you personally feel like these were in some way justified, it doesn’t change the fact that it has happened many times and it’s a problem. Clearly, she is one of many people concerned about it; it makes sense that her art would reflect that.
2) Criticism of Police Is Not Anti-Cop
I saw a lot of people upset about the “anti-cop” message of Formation, to which I say, what anti-cop message?
The most prominent cop-related imagery in the Formation video is the New Orleans police car that she’s lying atop as it sinks. There are several layers to what this might represent: the police failing to serve and protect in many cases (not just in NOLA), black people being at the mercy of the police, and of course the failure of authorities to respond to Katrina which led to mostly black people losing their homes and even dying.
The other time police enter the story is when a black child dances in front of a stoic SWAT team; the picture of innocence juxtaposed with the militant image of police. This is simply a reflection of reality; SWAT teams really have lined up like this many times, even when there is no reason to do so.
These are not-so-subtle criticisms of police, yes, but criticism is not the same thing as being against all police. Certainly you recognize that even good institutions made up of good people are not faultless — this goes for Congress, the baristas working at your local Starbucks, and your local Humane Society. All of them are (arguably) generally good, but they all need some level of accountability. None are perfect or immune to criticism.
You can respect Beyoncé’s message and listen to her point of view while simultaneously respecting your local police department and your aunt who’s a cop. It’s not either/or and it shouldn’t be.
3) The Black Panthers Are Not The Black KKK
If you have grooved to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” (I know you have), then you have enjoyed the music of a notable member of the Black Panthers.
The Black Panthers were a political party that played a big role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They are largely disbanded now, but still have many people who subscribe to their beliefs or organize on a smaller scale.
There is no question that Bey’s Super Bowl performance paid homage to the Black Panthers; the hats, the outfits, the X formation. It was pretty clear, but there is no basis for comparing this to the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s more complicated than I have time or space to summarize here, but the Black Panthers are certainly not anti-white. Their goal was to raise black people up while the KKK aims to tear them down (along with anyone else who isn’t white). I trust you can see the difference here.
4) It’s Not For Us
The most important point I want to make is that Formation — and LEMONADE as a whole — were not made with white people in mind.
For one, the album draws on experiences we don’t have. This is different from singing Katy Perry’s “Friday Night” even if you’ve never been to Las Vegas. There isn’t a history of discrimination against people who wake up in Las Vegas, and going to Las Vegas is an experience that you could potentially have. Having “Jackson Five nostrils” is not experience you will ever have as a white person, and being discriminated against for it is certainly something we won’t experience. We don’t know what it’s like and we never will.
We can support the album, we can love every song, we can relate to the relationship struggles that are also a main theme of the album, but ultimately we’re spectators here. The album doesn’t have anything to do with us, our experiences, or our struggles. It doesn’t make a ton of sense for a white person to sing it, just like it’s strange to hear someone from Wisconsin try to sing Rihanna’s “Work.” It’s not our dialect or culture; let’s enjoy it from our own seats, shall we?
If you started reading this article with negative thoughts about Beyoncé & LEMONADE, but now you’re thinking more critically about it and wondering if your anger is justified, then I have done my job. Even if one person starts to reconsider their gut reaction so it, it was worth it to write this article.
But now, think about why it took you so long to consider this point of view. Nothing I said here article is particularly fresh or new; it’s all stuff that black people have been saying for a long time.