'Get in formation!': Music videos as a medium for social activism
February 8, 2016
Beyoncé lounges provocatively on a drowning New Orleans police car in the "Formation" video
Beyoncé just dropped a new single and video unexpectedly and the internet went crazy, what's new? Well, "Formation" is a black power message and the video is an equally brave, unapologetically socially charged work of art which is a game-changer for Beyoncé's music career and for many has sealed her entitlement to the label "Queen B".
"Formation" sees Beyoncé sitting on top of a drowning New Orleans police car, rocking an afro and braids, singing "I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros" and "I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils." In light of the current race crisis in the Untied States, with black lives being taken by police on a far too regular basis and the Black Lives Matter movement, "Formation" is what black America needs to see from one of the most prominent of their community.
Adored by millions worldwide, the sheer magnitude of Beyoncé's success is unquestionably, in no small part, down to her versitlity and ability to tap into different markets and have mass appeal. Up until now that has involved a very careful balancing act wherby Beyoncé - through her lyrics, her image and who she has collaborated with - has managed to maintain extreme popularity among black and white audiences; crossover appeal.
At times Beyoncé (and to a certain extent husband Jay Z's) blackness and commitment to the interests and struggles of African-Americans has been questioned by black communities. From being criticised (along with other powerful black celebrities) for not speaking out publicly against injustices against African Americans, to being chided for that L'Oreal advert where her lightened skin and dead straight blonde hair make her almost unrecognisbale, Beyoncé's appeal and loyalty to her black fans has, naturally, wavered at times where it has appeared that she may be losing touch with her roots.
Beyoncé and Jay Z at a Trayvon Martin rally
Of course it is not easy for a celebrity of Beyoncé's status to express her views and to align herself with any kind of politics too clearly - racial or otherwise - would be a risky career move with the likely outcome of alienating large numbers of fans, resulting in a drop in sales. That said, it would be unfair to suggest that Beyoncé has somehow abandoned black America or is detached from their experience and culture - to date she has publicly showed support for Obama when he was running, supported (along with Jay Z) campaigns for justice for Trayvon Martin, as well as reportedly having secretly given thousands of dollars to support Black Lives Matter and to help bail out some of the protestors arrested whilst demanding justice for black Americans. It has also recently been announced that the couple will be donating millions from profits made by Tidal to organisations like Black Lives Matter.
Beyoncé showing support for Barack Obama
Beyoncé is smart and her dominance in much part owes itself to her incredivle ability to constantly reinvent herself and her music, to always be contemporary and not only keep up with but create new styles and trends. When Beyoncé teamed up for Lady Gaga for pop hit "Video Phone" - the song and style of video - seemed a far cry from music and image of the Beyoncé who had once been in Destinys Child and who had created songs like "Soldier", "Check On It" and the videos that accompanied them. Indeed it was a completely different sound and image but did that mean the "old" Beyoncé had been lost forever? No. Since then Beyoncé has brought out songs (and videos) like Yoncé - where black supermodels Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls strutt around whilst the camera zooms in on Beyoncé's mouth as she sings with grillz gleaming out - and "Feeling Myself" where she teamed up with Nicki Minaj, which show that she is still very much identifies as an African American and is at the forefront of modern black American culture.
Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj - "Feeling Myself"
Enter "Formation", the ultimate testimony to Beyoncé's ablity to shock audiences and the unpredicatable direction of her music and proof that she definitely does care about the injustices being suffered by African Americans.
Not many black artists could bring out a song and video like "Formation" without receving extreme backlash and alientation from mainstream music fans but herein lies the genius, if you will, of Beyoncé; because she has aligned herself into such a central, powerful position, when she does speak up about race issues not only is her message heard by millions of people worldwide but it is somewhat popularised and validated by her status. Whilst many non-black fans may not be able to relate to "Formation" and its message many others will; others who would not have necessarily tuned into the lyrics of Nas or Talib Kweli or attended a Black Live Matter protest. What Beyoncé can do with her privileged position, then, is take the plight of a minority to the majority, something which conscious black artists who have not sought out mass white appeal are limited in doing.
Of course Beyoncé is not the first to bring politics into her music, far from it; she is at the end of a long line of black musicians who have used their lyrics and videos to draw attention to social issues. In fact, part of the reason why "Formation" stands out and has created so much conversation is because socially conscious music in the maintream has become something of a rarity in the twenty-first century.
In 1982 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five rapped about the terrible conditions in America's ghettoes: "Broken glass everywhere / People pissin' on the stairs, you know they just don't careI can't take the smell, can't take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice / Rats in the front room, roaches in the back / Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat." The song's video showed the conditions that the lyrics described; poor areas of the city, the police harrassing black men.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five - The Message
In the 1980s and 1990s many hip hop artists were using their music to make a social commentary. KRS-One, Public Enemy, 2Pac and Talib Kweli are just a few who were putting politics at the heart of their music and using their platform to highlight social injustices and push for change.
KRS-One - Sound of Da Police
More recently artists such as Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Common, Lupe Fiasco and J Cole have used music to reflect on race in America.
Kendrick Lamar - For Free? (Interlude)
Kendrick Lamar's "For Free?" - which explores slavery and freedom - is a playful, satirical video which sees Uncle Sam transform into a black man (Lamar).
J Cole - G.O.M.D.
The video for J Cole's "G.O.M.D." tells the story of a slave uprising. These kinds of videos are powerful and important because they document black history and are extremely accessible with an international audience, ensuring that African American stories are heard and race issues in America are not swept under the carpet or silenced.
Beyoncé - Formation
Although Beyoncé is not the first black artist to use music to criticise racism in America she should be applauded and respected for doing so. Now we just need other major black artists to do the same; you heard her, "Get in formation!"