The sound may not have been working correctly, but Beyoncé made a statement during Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 halftime show that didn’t escape anyone’s notice.
Audio trouble couldn’t prevent an estimated 100 million viewers from watching the pop superstar – flanked by a platoon of female dancers in fishnet tights and Black Panther berets, at one point forming a giant X in tribute to civil rights leader Malcolm X – cap the latest evolution in the career of one of American music’s most scrutinized and celebrated artists. Beyoncé has gone through many transformations, and over the weekend she began another one: from a well-established pop music legend to a meticulous, passionate, if still inexperienced, public activist.
The performance during the most-watched television event of the year – in partnership with the band Coldplay and singer Bruno Mars – instantly became the most-talked about and most controversial halftime show in over a decade. And, unlike Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Beyoncé’s performance had a broader cultural significance. In an era of Black Lives Matter and continued protests over police treatment of minorities, one of the biggest pop stars in the world deliberately and defiantly claimed her racial identity and history on live TV, experts say, embodying a new political moment.
“This is not some sudden awakening for Beyoncé.… But now she is moving this highly visible assertion of identity centre stage. Her blackness, her femaleness, her pride, her politics, are not some kind of mysterious subtext,” writes Suzanne Moore in The Guardian. “The more Black Lives Matter is ignored or bypassed politically, the more it will be present culturally. Artists like Beyoncé … are amazingly powerful. What is striking is that they are no longer asking to be ‘let in’ to the culture. They are the culture.”
It was also just the second of three acts, delivered in rapid succession over the weekend, announcing the superstar’s newly public political activism.
The day before the Super Bowl Beyoncé released the video for “Formation,” her first new song since 2014, which was dubbed a modern protest anthem even before she and her dancers gave the black power salute. From the visuals to the lyrics, she explores the past traumas, present-day concerns, and future dreams of African-Americans – specifically southern African-American women – in the most explicit way of her career.
“ ‘Formation,’ and her [Super Bowl] performance last night, is an evolution for her, it’s her being more explicitly political,” says James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn.
“She’s taking a risk,” he adds. “It’s a risk she can afford to take, but it’s certainly a risk.”
After absorbing criticism last year for her prolonged silence on the Black Lives Matter movement, experts say “Formation” is a response that goes far beyond contemporary concerns over the policing of black communities, and exhibits not only Beyoncé’s musical talent and business savvy but also her increasingly nuanced politics.
The video starts with a visual shout-out to post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans – Beyoncé sitting atop a half-submerged New Orleans police car – and a verbal shout-out to her parents (while reappropriating a racial slur): “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma.” The images are arresting: She’s shown in mourning, making an obscene gesture; a line of police in riot gear raise their hands at the command of a small boy in a hoodie; graffiti saying “Stop shooting us.” The final shot is Beyoncé singing that the “best revenge is your paper,” (a reference to money) before both she and the police car disappear under the water.
Her Super Bowl performance was immediately followed by an announcement of a “Formation” world tour that will begin in April – merchandise branding some of the song’s catchiest lyrics is already available, proving that the singer’s marketing instincts are still in top gear. But “Formation,” and the Super Bowl performance in particular, immediately divided opinion.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was one of several critics denouncing what they described as a militant and antipolice message.
“I thought it was really outrageous that she used [the Super Bowl] as a platform to attack police officers,” said Mr. Giuliani on Fox News Monday. “What we should be doing in the African-American community, and all communities, is build up a respect for police officers.”
Critics have been largely wowed by the video, with The New York Times’s Wesley Morris saying, "Like Nina Simone and peak Madonna before her (Beyoncé lands somewhere between the two as a polemicist), this is a woman who understands her own power, how to harness and magnetize us to it.”
Beyoncé has been quietly active in recent years. She and her husband, rapper Jay-Z, have donated more than $7 million to the homeless in Houston, Texas, and bailed out Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. She’s also donated to causes supporting Flint – a Michigan city dealing with lead-contaminated water – including helping create a fund to “address long-term developmental, education, nutrition, and health needs” of Flint’s children.
And she hasn't shied away from using her music to make a statement, notably with her last album – “Beyoncé” – which pushed an explicitly feminist message (she performed one song at the 2014 Video Music Awards with the word “feminist” lit up in lights behind her). But she has taken her activism to another level with “Formation,” experts say.
“This is the most explicit she’s gotten on race,” says Treva Lindsey, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who specializes in popular culture and black feminist theory. “I think her brand is at least opening itself up to be more publicly politicized around these issues.”
But not everyone is ready to fall into “Formation.” Besides criticism from conservatives, the song has also raised the eyebrows of some on the left. Regina Bradley, the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellow at Harvard University and an assistant professor of African-American literature at Armstrong State University, writes in an e-mail to the Monitor that Beyoncé is “treading a thin line between capitalizing off of the Black Lives Matter movement and using her capital to help benefit Black Lives Matter’s objectives.”
High-profile Black Lives Matter activist Deray Mckesson, for his part, praised Sunday night’s performance.
“Beyoncé has made calculated steps in revealing her political and cultural stances bit by bit,” adds Dr. Bradley. “Her cultural performances are reflective of her evolving and increasingly bold uses of black protest and performance.”
With her musical superstardom cemented, she may have only just begun flexing her political muscles. And some of her fans may choose not to follow.
“This isn’t going to sink her career, or not make her a global superstar, but it will make people think: What do we do with this new chapter in the Beyoncé narrative?” says Dr. Lindsey.