Saturday, February 13, 2016
Identity ‘Formation’: Beyoncé’s Cultural Revolution
By Biko Agozino
A brilliant undergraduate student of Sociology at an Ivy League university has written to ask me to explain how anyone could see the performance of Beyoncé during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show as revolutionary when she was apparently celebrating her privileged light skin color and fake white women’s long hair while flaunting her husband’s ‘Jackson Five nostrils’ just to make more money for herself in a capitalist economy but she did not mention that the backlash to boycott Bee is growing.
The mother of the student, a family friend, also wanted to know how the lyrics that talked about taking a lover to eat at a seafood restaurant after making love and about sporting designer labels could be conceived as revolutionary just because she took advantage of the iconic Black Panther Party clenched fist salute and used her dancers to invoke the revolutionary image of Malcolm X in their ‘formation’. What is revolutionary about that?
I responded by saying that Bee is a cultural revolutionary who is helping to redefine what an African American woman is capable of getting away with in a world where people still need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter – the backdrop of her representations of police brutality and the neglect of Hurricane Katrina survivors due to racism in her song, ‘Formation’ in which a sign was raised demanding "Justice 4 Mario Woods".
The use of the X formation during the dance and the choice of black leather bikini costumes to honor Michael Jackson, who wore the X across his chest during his own 1993 Super Bowl performance but no one noticed the reference to Malcolm until now, and also to remind us of the Black Panthers who rocked serious fashion themselves and stressed the importance of reproducing the next generation of freedom fighters. Mayor Giuliani picked up this message quickly and tried to condemn it because he mistakenly saw it as an attack on police officers to express love for black people.
Bee is a performance poet in the sense that all songs are poems although all poems are not songs. Therefore, we should not read the allusions in Bee’s performance literally because she was obviously using her poetic license to address messy current events and add her powerful voice to causes that she believes in.
Although she is a role model to many young women, I do not think that she has the power to legislate how parents should dress their children nor was she dictating what every woman should do to her lover after being freaked out. Bee is a grown donkey woman who is a married mother with the right to dress as she pleases, to speak her truth to power, and to treat her lover as she pleases without taking permission from anyone.
Just because this singer of ‘Independent Woman’ and ‘If I Was A Boy’ also used phrases and sang songs that some may consider sexist-racist-classist does not mean that we should remain blind to her revolutionary transformation of the opportunities that a black woman with a global stage has to address serious politics. No revolutionary is perfect and Bee may yet regret allegedly accepting a one million dollar performance check from a corrupt state governor and later president Jonathan of Nigeria who was said to have taken the funds from allocations meant to fight poverty. Bee could make it up by extending her famed philanthropy to poor Nigerians.
Those who do not like the lyrics of the popular songs that Bee sings should see it as an opportunity to write better lyrics for her to sing since she does not write all her own songs. But those with privileged elite education who may despise the low cultural expressions in pop music should know that almost all the new musical genres originated in the world in the past 200 years came from poor people of African descent with little education and hardly any from came those with Ph.Ds.
I sympathize with those who may be offended when Bee boasts about her flawless skin because they may see it as a reference to her light skin color and straight hair the way that Eric Williams boasted that having good grass (hair) may have helped to make him more successful than his brothers with kinky hair. But the prosecution of people for lewd dancing in Trinidad and Tobago (homeland of Eric Williams) should not be the standard of morality for judging the performance of Bee in the US.
Moreover, being flawless has nothing to do with skin color given that there are many white people with unsightly skin and there are many black people with flawless skin. People of African descent come in many different shades of color and for that reason Africans do not tend to love or hate based on color alone but based on the character of the person or the inner beauty. After all, we name our children after white people, dress like them, eat at their restaurants, send our children to predominantly white colleges, speak their languages, and affiliate with their religious beliefs. It is white people who appear to have problems with others that they need to get over.
Perhaps being teased that she was too light-skinned to be black may have contributed to the bouts of depression that Queen Bee suffered as a young lady. That may be part of the reason why she publicly campaigned for the election of President Barack Obama who was then considered to be too ‘white’ to be African American by many.
Let me end with a quotation from a lecture on ‘The Origin of Cultural Studies’ in which Stuart Hall (2006) clarified why we should take popular culture performers like Bee seriously by reminding us that:
‘The violence, aggression, hatred implicit in racist representation is not to be denied, but we understand very little as yet about its double-sided nature, its deep ambivalences. Just as so often the cultures of the West, the representation of women has currently appeared in its split form, the good-bad girl, the good and the bad mother, Madonna and whore…. Sexually available, half-caste slave girl is still alive and kicking, smoldering away on some exotic television set or on the cover of some paperback, though she is no doubt simultaneously also the center of a very special covetous aspiration and admiration in a sequin gown supported by a white chorus line. Primitivism, savagery, guile, unreliability, always just below the surface, just waiting to bite.
Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech.