Beyoncé Sets the Stage: Black Lives Matter, Formation, and Lemonade

In 1962 Malcolm X called the black women the most disrespected person in America—a soundbite recently sampled on Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. The pop star evades disrespect or any sense of injury and is generally non-threatening and inconsequential, sidelined. When criticised, it is often because she is too popular, an outsider looking in. Even in writing this, I wonder if she’s really that important but recently at Space Doctors, we look to her as beacon of things to come and after seeing her live at Wembley Stadium, I have a better respect for just how adored she is.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter, Beyoncé shines even more, bridging a tenuous racial divide that was felt even across the pond in the standing room arena. The question was there: who has more claim to Beyoncé? A black girl or a white girl? But this figure of royalty collapses the otherness pronounced by Malcolm X almost sixty years ago. While she certainly lays claim to her southern roots, she is an American icon—and a generational icon. Our age gets Beyoncé—and she is a roaring exemplar of everything we’ve been waiting for.

url-2The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman recently called this the era of the “female confessional,” citing that “nobody does it better than Beyoncé.” “Confessional” became popular parlance in 1992 with The Real World’s confessional booth. It’s a diaristic and patronising descriptor for today’s fourth wave feminism. Freeman notes upon seeing Beyoncé in concert the same weekend I was there, “I resent the modern message that tells women to use their personal lives in their work, so I should have hated it. I did not.” This modern message coincides with the acceptance of women as leaders and what they might be like. Freeman resonates. We do not hate the queen of pop despite her transgressions (or Jay-Z’s as the case may be). We love her in spite of them.

When “Formation” debuted at the Super Bowl, tactfully turning middle class fanfare into a protest, Beyoncé gathered her army while the opponent was drunk. During this annual moment of Americana, Beyoncé kind of just snuck in, the Trojan Horse in everyone’s homes. The black woman exposes America, bringing a history of black violence into American football. Since this performance, Beyoncé very quickly became a national (and international) icon.

Lemonade is considered an exposé, which is a tiring account. It’s a personal narrative but one that is nearly indecipherable from the collective history it portrays. It’s an emotionally raw world that came to life on stage where she incorporated even more stories, including a tribute to Prince and songs from Destiny’s Child. Her personal and cultural appropriation pieces an identity built on metaphors of strength and survival, inherent concepts of renewal and rebirth. Fittingly, water plays a significant role in Beyoncé’s recent communications—from Ivy Park to Lemonade to the Formation tour.

Beyonce NOLAIn one of the first scenes of Lemonade, “Denial,” a hurt Beyoncé jumps off of a building and falls not to her death but into a subterranean bedroom full of water, a magnificent sunken dollhouse. She appears drowned, naked, and drifting but then morphs into an embryonic tadpole—like a Francis Bacon painting depicting the trouble of being represented, of a singular amplified identity. The digital media exacerbates the trouble by speeding up her body so that it’s a spectre and hard to pin down. But of course she swims to the surface and emerges triumphantly through lofty doors and Doric columns—Nike, victoriously broken free with a deluge rushing behind her. She struts. Grecian robes quickly re-contextualise as a Southern party dress with chunky platforms as Beyoncé gleefully handles America’s most treasured sport: baseball. She bats, squirting water across the street and recalling Ivy Park’s sexy street scenes where active wear is no more about exercise than baseball is about sportsmanship. She metaphorically pisses on everything. Beyoncé is probably both jealous and crazy—and announces these as the forces that rule the world.

The singer drowns again at the very end of the last vignette, the video for “Formation,” which is almost a postscript of Lemonade (and opened the Wembley Stadium performance). It begins with Beyoncé casually draped on top of a police car, a significant subversion of power. She has the full support of the city of New Orleans and local bounce legend Big Freedia, who is featured throughout the song and whose voiceover narrates as Beyoncé submits herself to the waters upon the sinking NOLA police car: black woman as martyr. Again, she begs the question of ownership and propriety. Does she have the right to pick at such a fresh wound?

Beyonce NOLAIt feels like old news, but “Formation” is the first transparent political response I’ve seen to Hurricane Katrina, which happened eleven years ago and remains a pivotal moment in recent African American history. When the waters hit in 2005, I (alarmingly) wasn’t fazed by George W. Bush’s response time. There was a certain numbness in America that was solidified by his distance. So when it comes to addressing the nation, who did it better and who was more timely?

As America’s first black president is about to end his second term in office, some would argue that not much has changed since Ferguson, since Messy Mya’s unsolved murder in 2010 in New Orleans, since Bush’s desertion, since Ronald Stokes’ murder in 1962 in Los Angeles. Beyoncé digs even deeper in “Formation,” flipping the patriarchy upside down as she assumes the role of white male slave owner. She is the enemy and the victim, the conqueror and the conquered. In a country that hungered for Barack Obama, for his black vision of hope, we realise that he’s not enough.

During Beyoncé’s final set at Wembley Stadium, she and her dancers stomped barefoot in a reflecting pond—a final rush, the proletariat taking off her shoes for us. It’s been called a “sexy baptism” and it is; but it’s also a birth of something that is not just about getting over Jay Z’s infidelity. Her confessional is unsuspecting, a long progression reaching its apex and crowning the next generation of leaders. The most disrespected person in America sets a stage.

– Hannah Hoel