Announced by a small all-women drum line contingent, 30 black women, led by Beyoncé, appeared in formation at the halftime of the 50th Superbowl. Their style marked a different 50th anniversary, with the afros, black berets and leather commonly associated with the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, founded in Oakland in October 1966. For their 90 seconds on the field before joining Bruno Mars and Coldplay on stage, Beyoncé and her complement of dancers used widely recognizable imagery of black empowerment, even raising clenched fists in unison, to reinforce the messages of black pride in “Formation” – the surprise single and video Beyoncé released on Saturday afternoon, which has us still sweeping pieces of a broken Internet into our collective dustpans.
Yet along with this easily discernible symbol of a national black justice movement, one like today’s movement, Beyoncé nodded in particular towards the South and her southern heritage. It was the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Alabama, also known as the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, that inspired the founding of the Oakland-based group with which we are now familiar. As Beyoncé reminds us in the lead-up to one of the hooks on “Formation,” her father and mother’s respective Alabama and Louisiana backgrounds begot her – a “Texas Bama” who likes her daughter’s “baby hair” to be in an afro, who prefers her partner’s nose with “Jackson Five nostrils,” and who keeps hot sauce in her bag in case of criminal under-seasoning or an unexpected fish fry. Even on a national stage, Beyoncé brought the black South, and its formation, into the conversation.
Beyoncé has a long history of using her pop platform to make her regional birthright explicit. For 2008’s “Single Ladies”, she drew on choreography inspired by Jackson State University’s Prancing J-Settes. The Houston screw sound was central to 2013’s “Bow Down/I Been On”, on which she tells us that she snuck and listened to UGK, ate boudin in the parking lot and wore dookey braids. Later that same year, “No Angel” was a visual love letter to a gritty black Houston. Through this work, Beyoncé has quietly built her position in global pop by claiming and accomplishing a black southern specificity, albeit one largely contained on the margins of how she presents herself as an artist.
But the video for “Formation” does not settle for restrained allusions to black southern identity or an easy conversion of black southern into black American. In her latest work, Beyoncé opts to tell a sweeping history of her southern identity and the black South writ large, bringing the weight of black New Orleans, past and present, and black women’s and queer black men’s cultures to the task. The voices of black queer artists Messy Mya and Big Freedia provide opening context and guidance for the formation of country, southern black identity. Women sit in parlors fanning themselves carefully and twirling umbrellas, reminiscent of the sartorial splendor of black New Orleans. There are grand gestures to conjure work, from little girls’ play circles to a little boy conducting a line of police. Mardi Gras and second line imagery pepper the video, offering a celebration of the city that accounts for the black and indigenous cultures that created and sustain it through their labor. The majorette choreographic styling reflects black southern parade and club cultures, as drum majors march and bounce dancers twerk. From the parlor to the street, the black South slays in rhythm and formation.
Through its affirmation of the culture, resistance and resilience of black southerners, and the slaying of black women and black queer men in particular, Beyoncé’s “Formation” asks us to remember the dire circumstances of racial violence – Jim Crow, Hurricane Katrina and police brutality among them – that have shaped black life in America. She centers the voices and visuals of black women and queer black people so that they can give and get in-formation and bring the roots of current black justice movements into view. In so doing, “Formation” makes unprecedented use of a pop platform to recognize some of our nation’s most marginalized groups and tell an important story about the black South and black America.