When Activism Meets Capitalism: Beyoncé and “Formation”

On the day before the Super Bowl, mega-star entertainer and icon Beyoncé dropped a bomb. I watched my Twitter timeline grow into frenzy as the news leaked that Beyoncé had released a new music video. “Formation” is a creative celebration of black culture—specifically southern black life. The imagery of the video stands out strongly. Beyoncé seems to be paying homage to New Orleans and its rich culture. In one scene her dancers sport afros, and, in another, she’s laying atop a sinking cop car: A powerful image indeed. The video is unapologetically black, and at first glance I loved it. At second glance, I loved it even more. As a black man, I support Beyoncé. She’s a powerful, hard-working, creative, once-in-a-generation talent that has always pushed the boundaries of entertainment, art and music. “Formation” affirms the black features (Jackson nose!) many of us have, and even suggests the possibility that little black girls might just be the next Bill Gates in the making! I loved it.

Beyonce-Formation

The next day, the Super Bowl happened. Beyoncé absolutely KILLED a halftime performance of Formation during the biggest television event of the year. She stole the show away from Bruno Mars and Coldplay. Her background dancers donned ‘fros and dressed like Black Panthers in what many called a tribute to the Panthers on their 50th anniversary. Her courage to perform such a “black” set during such a “white” event wowed me once again.

Then a tour was announced.

Slowly, my feelings began to change. Was “Formation” a simple statement of black pride and affirmation, or was it a carefully constructed PR stunt to announce another major tour that will line the pockets of the superstar? I started to think about the song differently. For someone who has never really been vocal about social justice, this particular video, and to a greater extent the Super Bowl performance seemed like a break in the norm for Beyoncé. This is why I believe many of her fans reacted the way they did.

In contrast, at the Grammys Kendrick Lamar performed two songs off his latest album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” It was a stirring performance. He celebrated Africa and spoke to the problem of black mass incarceration problem in this country. I don’t believe blacks who watched were reacting to the novelty of his performance—it was just another day in the life of Kendrick. It wasn’t novel at all, this is what he does. This is his art. The larger masses were just finally able to witness what he’d been doing all along. For Beyoncé, who has more albums and is much more famous than Kendrick, “Formation” was a step in a very different direction.

But, that’s not the point. A tour was announced.

beyonce panther

Why now? With the growing Black Lives Matter movement, is artistic activism now good for business? Is Beyoncé simply using black culture, black pain, and the black struggle for freedom as a way to sell very expensive concert tickets for a world tour? I felt uneasy. It was as if she, like many white people, understood that black culture is profitable and manipulated it simply to sell a product. When the tour was announced, I thought back to how I felt when I saw Hillary Clinton putting on the proverbial political “black face” as she unashamedly tried to court black South Carolina voters. Our story isn’t political capital. Our experience isn’t a marketing strategy.

I acknowledge that I don’t know Beyoncé’s intentions, but the optics raised questions for me. She’s not an activist, and I don’t believe she was trying to be. The lyrics to “Formation” aren’t political at all. Sometimes, racist white “tears” in the media will push us to create an ideological opposite narrative out of sheer protective reaction. Perhaps Beyoncé wasn’t being an activist, using powerful imagery in an untainted effort to push the community forward and make a statement to America on behalf of the black community. Perhaps she was being a capitalist, using art to promote a tour and sell concert tickets that would benefit the economic elite class to which she belongs. She may be doing both. Can she? Can activism and capitalism lie in bed together and produce something pure? You might be annoyed at how many questions are in this essay, and I can’t blame you. The fact is that I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that I loved “Formation.” I LOVED the Super Bowl performance.

And then a tour was announced.

By: Corey Johnson

Twitter: @coreymaurice

8 thoughts on “When Activism Meets Capitalism: Beyoncé and “Formation”

  1. I agree! I just can’t get behind a “statement” that seems to be so calculated, and it’s extremely convenient that she’ll be benefitting so much from standing up for what’s right. I’m sorry Bey, but I can’t get in formation, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree with this. It’s like there was a missing piece to the puzzle until the tour was announced and how everyone suddenly forgot about black lives matter and turn their attention swifly in formation to Queen Bee.

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  3. I must admit it does seem convenient, but when I first heard “formation” I heard a song that wasn’t about black people at all it was about Beyoncé and Beyonce’s family. As an African American, I am here for anything that brings awareness to our plight and what we go through in the black experience. As the old adage goes “any publicity is good publicity” and any awareness for BLM movement is awareness that is needed and so I loved Formation; but I’m not going on that tour though. -not a beyhiver

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  4. I somewhat agree with what you are saying. But she is a business woman and is married to a businessman. Perfect timing doesn’t negate the song nor the performance – especially since Beyonce’s tickets would’ve been sold out even she performed Drunk in Love for the Superbowl. I think Formation is about celebrating your culture. With the African-American culture being as downplayed and negatively potrayed as it is, it was refreshing to hear something great from someone with that pull.

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  5. I somewhat agree, but I do not think that capitalizing on an opportunity makes her any more or less genuine in her message. Formation is about celebrating who you are – specifically a culture that’s been associated with drugs, violence, crime, and ignorance. Also, I am not a member of the “Hive”, but I do know that Beyonce could’ve performed Drunk in Love, announced a tour after that, and still sold out within 24 hours. She didn’t need Formation to make money nor is she expected to be an activist. As an artist she chose to express herself by paying homage to the Black Panthers. I can’t afford tickets to her concert but if she’s a black woman out here paying her dues and doing it well, she has my support. She’s just a popstar businesswoman doing popstar businesswoman things lol.

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  6. Good food for thought! This may be because I’m not African American, but I agree with Paige. Listening to the song, as far as the lyrics, I don’t think she was trying to praise African-Americans/Blacks as a whole; she’s was definitely talking about her family. The music video however made some very bold BLM statements and I loved it! Like you said, we can’t be sure of her intentions but I think this song, the Super Bowl performance, and even the announcement of the tour are all classic Beyoncé antics. She may be a private person with little media interaction but she LOVES attention and hype centred around her. (Let us not forget she released an album in the middle of the night unannounced.) I don’t think she’s setting herself out to be a public activist but at the same time I don’t think she minds if people think that either. She doesn’t attatch her name to just anything. If people start to support the movement because Beyoncé seems to, that can’t
    hurt right?

    Liked by 1 person

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