How Beyonce and Super Bowl 50 Led Us to Talk About Black Lives Matter
Super Bowl week has come and gone, leaving San Francisco and surrounding areas with the daunting task of cleaning up after an epic seven-day party. While thousands poured into Super Bowl City over the weekend — causing SFPD to officially close off the area at 3PM Saturday because it had reached capacity — arguably the biggest moment of the weekend was Beyoncé’s internet-breaking surprise video, “Formation,” which dropped Saturday afternoon.
Standing in line at Market and Beale, waiting for my $12 fried chicken sandwich, I casually scrolled through Facebook and was perplexed by the seemingly endless references to “hot sauce in my bag.” Watching Bey et al shake that thang against a sparse but chills-inducing trap track as she growled references to the illuminati, a “Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” haute couture, and America’s favorite seafood spot (Red Lobster), I was struck more by the optics than the lyrics. What I was seeing — Beyoncé posed atop a police car sinking in rapidly rising waters, black women poised in a parlor and dressed in all white then poppin’ it in a hallway in red low-cut leotards and garters, Mrs. Carter perched on the porch of an abandoned plantation, serving full Voodoo priestess realness in head to toe black and dripping with adornments that pay homage to ancestry — I immediately recognized as being more than simply slick, stylish pop cultural references. And in this case, with the “Formation” video and, of particular import to the Bay Area, her Super Bowl 50 half-time performance, she has managed to shine the spotlight on police brutality, the displacement and dispossession specifically of poor people and people of color in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (and the broader impact of gentrification in urban centers throughout the country), and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
What struck so many who watched the “Formation” video on Saturday and began to discuss and dissect it via the blogosphere, was how unapologetically black it was. Here is an international superstar who has deliberately released a video that celebrates black bodies, black history, black beauty, black intelligence, black excellence and black love with lyrics that boast of the wealth she’s amassed and the work ethic and drive that got her there. But the video also examines a space deeper in the interior of black life; with lyrical references to cornbread and collard greens (and the aforementioned hot sauce) and visual representations of struggle and survival that aren’t merely mythologized but that actually take into consideration the lived experiences of the black community. From the images of New Orleans to the words “Stop shooting us” scrawled across a wall and a little black boy dancing in front of a sea of armed police officers, even as the song’s lyrics aren’t necessarily as deep and contemplative as some would prefer, the video itself speaks volumes.
As Beyoncé and her dancers took to the field at Levi’s Stadium Sunday, social media lit up with comments about the group’s very obvious nod to the Black Panther Party; clad in all black with voluminous afros and berets, Bey’s squad delivered a post-modern, highly stylized vision of militancy as they performed “Formation.” The most poignant aspect of this display, however, was the sign reading “Justice 4 Mario Woods” that a small group of the dancers displayed before going on stage. Woods, the 26-year-old Bayview resident shot more than 15 times by SFPD officers on December 2, 2015, was said to have been resisting arrest when police opened fire on him, ultimately killing him in broad daylight. Bystanders and passersby — including a bus full of school children — watched the dramatic events unfold and some captured the incident on their cell phones. Woods is yet another in an ever-increasing number of African Americans killed by police officers, even as the Black Lives Matter movement has sprung up around this issue in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014, who was shot by Officer Darren Wilson.
As the list of black lives snuffed out by law enforcement continues to grow—calling to mind Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, LaQuan McDonald, Freddie Gray, and far too many others (not to mention Oakland’s Oscar Grant in 2009 and Demouria Hogg in 2015), it’s no wonder that the phrase “black lives matter” would not only come to represent a powerful social and political movement, but would also become the theme around which some of today’s most popular and influential artists and cultural critics would base their work. Where D’Angelo’s 2014 surprise album, Black Messiah, and Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly offer a direct and immediate musical response to the devaluation of black lives and melodically express why hope is essential to our survival (see Cornel West’s Restoring Hope). And now, here is the biggest pop star on the planet, Beyoncé, catching folks off-guard and forcing them to deal with her own black power moment, at the most unlikely of places: The Super Bowl.
The Black Lives Matter movement has spread throughout the U.S. and abroad, with black millennials leading the charge in drawing critical attention to matters of police officers’ excessive and far too frequently deadly force, criminal justice and prison reform, and more recently, the Flint, MI water crisis. As presidential hopefuls on either side charge full-speed ahead into election season, Black Lives Matter activists are not letting the candidates off the hook as they stomp from state to state to drum up support. Women claiming to represent BLM notoriously interrupted a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle last summer to demand the democratic senator, who boasts of his past civil rights record, address the issues the movement seeks to advance.
Although both democratic contenders have responded on some level to Black Lives Matter issues, few—if any—of the Republican presidential candidates have addressed their concerns in any capacity (other than, perhaps, to antagonize the activists). And while many white and black conservatives criticize Black Lives Matter for everything from “reverse racism” to its seeming lack of focus or cohesiveness, the movement has come to occupy an essential space in our collective consciousness. On college campuses across the country last year, we saw black and other students of color and allies assert their presence and demand substantial, measurable change and accountability from their schools’ administrations, most notably at Mizzou, Yale, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Students cited micro-aggressions and overtly racist remarks and gestures made toward them by other students and professors, racial and cultural insensitivity in multiple aspects of campus life, and the universities’ failure to tackle these issues in more than just ephemeral, symbolic ways as the impetus for their protests. When University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was beaten by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officers last March, Black Lives Matter activists and others rallied around the young man on and off campus to bring attention to his case. Throughout 2015, Black Lives Matter played a pivotal role in how we framed conversations around race, and will no doubt continue to serve as crucial focal point for social justice.
As many hail “Formation” as a no-holds-barred anthem and announce that the song and video are for “us” (black folks) and no one else, others criticize the song for not going far enough to push the proverbial envelope in establishing a firm, undeniable allegiance to and alliance with the Black Lives Matter movement. We could devote an entire editorial to all the reasons why it’s not necessary to demand that every artist, regardless of reach and celebrity, write and perform decidedly message-driven music that’s heavy on the social commentary; that’s not Beyoncé’s lane, and that’s actually OK. This weekend she proved, once again, to be a brilliant business woman and brand ambassador (with herself being her brand) who used her star power to send the world into a frenzy over a song and video that situated her within a movement that the self-proclaimed “Texas Bama” intimately identifies with. Following her performance, some white viewers took to Twitter to blast the NFL for “allowing” Beyoncé to perform such a “racist” song, calling for boycotts of the NFL, Beyoncé, Pepsi, maybe even Coldplay. If that isn’t proof not only of Beyoncé’s power and influence but of that of the Black Lives Matter movement, I certainly don’t know what is.