Beyoncé’s Cultural War

She’s gone and done it again.

Some people – mostly old conservatives and Fox News analysts – have gone on record to state how offended they were with Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 halftime performance on Sunday, February 7.  (Yes, I consider it to be Beyoncé’s performance because – of the three acts who shared the stage – hers is the only one people are still talking about days later).

Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani called Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 halftime performance “ridiculous.”

Most notably, former New York City mayor/presidential hopeful (and 9/11 hero-emeritus) Rudy Giuliani, who called the performance “outrageous,” labeled it an “attack on police” and deemed it inappropriate for a family world stage like the Super Bowl.

Yeah, that same family stage where 300-lb men try to tear each other’s heads off in their quest for that one Lombardi prize.

I guess Giuliani expected Beyoncé to channel her inner Broadway, form a chorus line with her array of dancers, and give us those head-high, kick-line dance moves that made the Rockettes so famous.  (Actually, there was a time as recently as the 1980s when a woman of Beyoncé’s color wasn’t even allowed to be a Rockette).

The famous Radio City Rockettes

But I digress…

Actually no I don’t.  That’s the issue here.  Beyoncé’s latest “formation” was as purposeful in its messaging as it was entertaining, maybe even more so.  And there’s a place for it right here in America in 2016.

Her surprise new single, “Formation” – the one she introduced on the eve of the Super Bowl and partly performed during the controversial halftime show – is her surprisingly bold statement about black pride.  Its music video, issued the same day, unabashedly places the superstar singer in an all-black cast of dancers and other characters and is an homage to her southern black roots.  Its imagery evokes Hurricane Katrina and Dr. Martin Luther King, and it basically tackles the delicate issue of race relations in America, or the same elephant-in-the-room that many celebrities – both black and white – have “safely” avoided for most or all of their careers.

The controversial “Formation” single and video were released to Tidal and YouTube the day before Super Bowl 50.

It’s Beyoncé’s latest controversial expression of art – but art nonetheless – and as always, it’s got people talking.

That the song was surprise-released a day before the Super Bowl performance was sheer marketing genius and a great setup for Beyoncé’s upcoming album and tour.  But that it was issued a day after what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday (and a day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s 29th) is no less significant.

Quite frankly, “Formation” is Beyoncé’s “Rhythm Nation.”

No, more accurately, it’s her “Mississippi Goddam.”  Her alleged Super Bowl nod to the Black Panther Party (which also celebrates its 50th birthday this year) was much closer to Nina Simone’s M.O. than Janet Jackson’s.

And it’s all that imagery, along with the new song’s black empowerment (and black pride) messages, that apparently rubbed Giuliani and others the wrong way.  (Funny how Giuliani or the Fox News right aren’t as outraged by the divisive language used by a certain billionaire presidential hopeful whose name I won’t mention here…but I digress again).

Back to Beyoncé vs. Giuliani.

It’s clear that Ms. Knowles stopped caring what her “haters” think about her music and videos long ago.  In a politically correct world where it would be much safer for the biggest star of the millennium to conform to society’s demure expectations of her, Beyoncé has deliberately and shamelessly taken a different route.

It’s also clear where Beyoncé stands on the sociopolitical spectrum.  Her alliance with the Obamas is well documented and that fact must only intensify the ire of Republicans like Giuliani.

But what is it about her latest “political” statement that bothers people so much?  Is it the mere fact that it’s Beyoncé?  We can celebrate when rappers (yes, black ones) and other artists known for their edginess drop albums full of the same lyrical messaging and imagery as hers, but she’s supposed to play it safe all the time?

Kendrick Lamar will be the toast of the town on Grammy Sunday, for an album with essentially the same message's as Beyoncé's latest single.
Kendrick Lamar will be the toast of the town on Grammy Sunday, for an album with essentially the same messages as Beyoncé’s latest single.

To wit, the current critic’s darling rapper Kendrick Lamar is up for 11 Grammy Awards this Sunday for what is essentially an album about black pride, black oppression and well, the overall black experience in America.  His songs drop enough N-words (which almost seems like art when he does it, btw) to fill a large graffiti wall.  Yet he’s being lauded for his “best work ever.”  It’s “countercultural,” it’s “ambitious.”  It made a connection.  (Oh, and don’t expect Giuliani to criticize Lamar anytime soon, he likely won’t even know who the artist is unless he watches this Sunday’s Grammys).

Now Beyoncé is using whatever stage she can find as a platform to get her latest message across.  And certain people don’t like it.  Yet, it’s a message she’s been honing for years and one that has come into sharper focus with each new album release.

Witness her evolution.  She’s twice the age she was in 1999, when as the 17-year-old leader of Destiny’s Child, she sang unapologetically about wanting a man that could “pay her bills” (in the #1 Destiny’s Child song “Bills, Bills, Bills”) and later about being “Bootylicious” (another chart-topper).

Now I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d be willing to bet donuts to a dollar that those early career hits were the marketing decisions of some male figure with a very limited sense of what women entering the 21st century should be singing about.  Race was not yet an issue for Beyoncé (although it really was).

Yes, she was a black woman on her way to superstardom in an industry still dominated by white men, but she quite frankly hadn’t lived long enough to be scarred by anything.

Now at 34, with 17 more years of living behind her, Yoncé has seen the same things you and I have.  She’s lived through Election 2000, 9/11 and Katrina.  She’s seen the first black presidency and the sort-of unfulfilled promise of racial unity it brought.  She’s seen the Trayvon Martins, Eric Garners, Michael Browns, Freddie Grays and Sandra Blands play out.

Quite frankly, Beyoncé could easily be this generation’s Ida B. Wells, having already declared women’s supremacy (2011’s “Run the World (Girls)” and a number of other tunes) and now taking on the social injustices that have been documented too often in recent history.  While the two feminists’ (Wells and Knowles) methods are no doubt different, their messages of equality for both women and “negroes” (yes, Beyoncé returns that term to the vernacular in the lyrics to “Formation”) strike a common chord and a necessary one during their respective eras.

But did those messages belong at the Super Bowl is the fundamental question being raised by Giuliani.

My answer:  Why not?  Messages of racial and gender equality should be shouted from the highest mountaintop so that all people can hear.  If you can’t do it from there, then the world’s most watched television event will suffice.  And if a race of people cannot achieve that equity in an otherwise oppressive society, then they can at least be unified in their displeasure about such a plight.

Beyoncé apparently felt that the Super Bowl was the right time and place to show that such unity can be achieved and celebrated.  After all, she was invited to the party to save the show (no offense to Coldplay – I’m a fan, but I never believed that they could carry a SB halftime performance, and so, apparently, didn’t the show’s producers).

And lest we not forget, outfits aside, Beyoncé used dance – not guns or knives – to get her points across.  And she ultimately joined hands with the show’s actual “headliner,” Coldplay’s Chris Martin – a white male – and its other performer, Bruno Mars, in a display of racial unity and diversity that was completely overlooked by her critics.


Beyoncé, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Bruno Mars

If there are any criticisms to be had (Beyhive members brace yourselves and hold your venom), one could legitimately ask what took her so long to deliver these messages.  The fact that her latest declaration comes nearly 20 years into her legendary professional singing career is certainly noteworthy, particularly for a woman whose legendary long blonde locks and light skin have been the source of black criticism for years.

But the timing shouldn’t matter.  Everyone’s journeys to self-actuation aren’t the same.

One could also criticize the seeming lack of artistic creativity in her performance.  On the surface (again Beyhive members hold your horses), the syncopated dance moves seem the same, with the same old booty-shaking and p****-popping she’s been doing for years.

Again, none of that should matter in this argument.  No one criticizes [insert old rocker’s name here] for standing on stage and strumming away at a guitar while belting out the same tunes for 40-plus years.  It’s Bey’s expression of art, and it’s what people have come to expect of her.  It’s why they loved her in the first place.

Even the song “Formation” itself could be criticized.  It’s heavy on repetition and devoid of melody, and frankly it’s not one of her best tunes (IMHO).  I certainly don’t expect it to return her to the top of the Hot 100 – a place she hasn’t been in seven years (okay, now the Beyhive can come at me).

But again, that shouldn’t matter.

What should matter, though, is that one American (Giuliani) just called out another’s form of artistic expression as un-American, when it is anything but that.

In fact, in a month where black (American) history is to be celebrated, one could argue that Beyoncé now belongs in a discussion with other activists, or at least agents of social change.  After all, she is the most recognizable woman in music, and certainly the most powerful.  And she just used that power to raise the bar on the discussion of race in America.

Giuliani – whose relevance expired about a year after 9/11 – represents that part of America that just doesn’t get it.  It’s that group of people who feel that their picture of what America should look and behave like is the right picture (and in some cases, the only one), regardless of how far from it the country is actually moving with each new generation.

Beyoncé, however, is taking her conversation to a new level.  She is now smack dab in the middle of a cultural war that could very easily have negative implications for her future record sales, product endorsements and – heaven forbid – Super Bowl halftime invitations.

But it’s a line she no doubt gave some thought to before crossing it.  And it’s a line that – once you’ve crossed it – it’s hard to go back.

I hope she’s ready.