What the Song is Really Saying

What is this song really about? Beyoncé released the music video for her new song Formation one day before the Super Bowl, where she also performed the song during the half time show. The song and music video took a strong political stance against the treatment of Katrina victims. The song was her protest against personal allegations and her appreciation of her ethnicity, during a time where black is not always seen as beautiful. Beyoncé uses her sphere of influence for black empowerment to contribute to the celebration of Black History Month. The analysis of this song can be divided into two parts: the lyrics and the imagery in the video.

All the lyrics are from genius.com:

[Intro: Messy Mya] What happened at the New Orleans?

Bitch, I’m back by popular demand

The introduction of the song opens with Beyoncé standing on top of a New Orleans police car reenacting the devastation of Katrina. Many were unsatisfied with the aid given to Katrina victims and still resent politicians. With the intentional placement of a New Orleans police car from the start of the video I believe it is a direct protest of Katrina not general anti-police rhetoric. After the scene of Beyoncé on a top of the flooded police car the video “shows” recreations of the flood and poor neighborhoods in Louisiana that were affected by Katrina and have not fully recovered.

[Refrain: Beyoncé]

Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess
Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh
I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’)
I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces

The video pans back to Beyoncé sitting on the car. These four lines represent Beyoncé’s personal protest. Because Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z are so successful, people throw around accusations that they are members of the ‘Illuminati’. An organization the supposedly runs the world. These accusations are based in conspiracies and ‘hidden’ symbols in her lyrics. There are entire websites made to prove Beyoncé’s connection to the illuminati, such as beyonce-illuminati.com. These conspiracy theories have floated around for years to justify her collected wealth and power. This is mentioned as “Givenchy dress” and “Roc necklaces.” Fortunately these lyrics do not have a hidden meaning; she cannot be anymore explicit. Shocking, Beyoncé is not in the illuminati.
My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama
I like my baby heir, 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
I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag
The second part of the Refrain speaks to Beyoncé’s identity. In this day and age black is not always seen as beautiful and is trying to oppose that assumption. The same way she embraces her ethnicity and culture, she wants the same for her daughter Blue Ivy that is featured in the video. At this stanza the music starts to pick up and the soft lyrics turn into a chant, while the flood slowly continues to raise drowning Beyoncé and the police car. She calls out Michael Jackson for being ashamed of his ethnicity in the lyrics; “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” He lightened his skin, loosened his curls, and changed his nose, all the things Beyoncé is proud of. She references her own face with the dance moves in the video to show that not only are these features beautiful, but she has them too to relate to viewers that have doubts about their appearance. The song repeats this Refrain as to emphasize its importance.
[Chorus: Beyoncé]

I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it
I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it
I twirl on them haters, Albino alligators
El Camino with the seat low sippin’

Cuervo with no chaser
Sometimes I go off (I go off), I go hard (I go hard)
Get what’s mine (take what’s mine), I’m a star (I’m a star)
‘Cause I slay (slay), I slay (hey), I slay (okay), I slay (okay)

All day (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay)
We gon’ slay (slay), gon’ slay (okay), we slay (okay), I slay (okay)
I slay (okay), Okay (okay), I slay (okay)
Okay, okay, okay, okay
Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, ’cause I slay
Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation, ’cause I slay
Prove to me you got some coordination, ’cause I slay
Slay trick, or you get eliminated

The chorus is an anthem of empowerment. She was able to overcome the Veil that Dubois describes in the Souls of Black Folk. Similarly to Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit”, Beyoncé is using her audience to protest modern injustice. She uses herself as a living example that black Americans are not second-class citizens. Throughout the video, and especially during the chorus, all women are shown with natural hair, something that is not common in Hollywood. The hairstyles range from tight buns, braids, Afros, and other natural hairstyles. This is a form of black empowerment because black women constantly see themselves as inferior because they do not fit in with traditional American society. Formation is a way for people to unite against the world; Beyoncé is joining her fans in their fight for equality.

The second time the chorus plays the video flashes scenes of Martin Luther King Jr., a young black boy dancing in front of a swat team, and a church scene during two dance numbers. At the end of the stanza the young boy stops dancing and raises his hands, the swat team raises their hands too. The video pans to a white brick wall with the words “Stop Shooting Us” in black spray paint. Though not explicitly in the lyrics, this scene shows Beyoncé’s greater protest. The same way President Obama said that Trayvon Martin could have been his son; he could have been Beyoncé’s son as well. I do not Beyoncé’s goal is to fight the police, but to encourage greater regulation. As of right now policemen are facing zero penalties for the death of black men; Beyoncé is highlighting this atrocity through her music.

[Verse: Beyoncé]

You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, ’cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

[Bridge: Beyoncé]

Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, I slay

Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation

You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation

Always stay gracious; best revenge is your paper

[Outro]

Girl, I hear some thunder

Golly, look at that water, boy, oh lord

The video ends with the police car and Beyoncé drowning in the flood. She expected this video to cause adversity in the line, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.” It was meant to be confrontational. Now that she has established herself as an artist, she no longer needs to appeals to the masses. The song was meant for protest and empowerment, not consumerism. Great art is risky and Beyoncé took the risk.

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Beyonce in Formation video, S.
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Music in Black Culture

Music has been integral to the foundation of black culture in the United States. It all started with spirituals while many African-Americans were enslaved. Dubois coined these spirituals as sorrow songs. The Sorrow Songs represented the struggle of slavery and hope for freedom in the future. Dubois invents the term Sorrow Songs, however he was not the first to draw attention to their importance. At the time Dubois was writing about the Sorrow Songs, the genres of Blues and Jazz were taking shape. Today Hip Hop is the modern phenomenon of these genres. The lyrics still represent the message of black culture, awareness and empowerment.

The spirituals were songs that connected all black bodies regardless of background or experience. I say black bodies instead of African-American because this is concept that transcend ethnic background. All that have been oppressed or seen as other can relate to this movement. In The Souls of Black Folk Dubois explains that though the songs originated in the South, as a northerner knew the songs are a representation of his identity (DuBois 204). One of the most famous examples of a spiritual is “Swing Low.” This song evokes feelings of hope and reassurance that God is looking out for those enslaved. Many classic spirituals have a Christian influence to reinforce hope.

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Fisk Jubilee Singers, Christopher Benfy

* This is the Fisk Jubilee Singers, circa 1870 who sang ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’

Within the same work Dubois speaks a lot to double consciousness and the Veil that all black men and women have. The Veil is a representation of being non-white in America, a veil covers the details of ones face because white Americans can only see to the broad context of blackness, ignoring the details and individuality .The Blues was seen as an outlet to express their frustration to control simply being in the world, “his contradictory condition of free and not-free” (Eyerman 76). Similarly, Jazz was able to transcend the racial divide. Jazz went from being a predominantly African-Americans genre to needing to appeal to white audiences in the 1940s; this emphasized the double consciousness in black culture because producers began to appease its new audience.

Billie Holiday transformed the idea of vocal protest through her rendition of “Strange Fruit”. She would only sing the song at the end of her set if she had the respect of audience and the club wasn’t aloud to serve drinks during her performance. This song instead of promoting hope, it produced awareness. Billie Holiday was successful because she was able to sell the emotional impact of lynching. Black bodies in a tree are as commonplace as fruit in the South, juxtaposition between life and death.
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`Duane Lee Holland came to Colgate University and presented on the idea of Hip Hop as a movement. Hip Hop dance is a series of purposeful movements styled after tradition dances from West Africa. Each dance step acts as a word in the continual conversation. Hip Hop was created in the poor boroughs of New York City to unite the community. It was created for empowerment similarly to all preceding music genres in black culture.

*This image to the right is from duaneleeh.com of Duane Lee Holland

*Billie Holiday feature image