It’s not unusual for there to be an uproar whenever Beyoncé drops a new music video (I mean, it’s not like she has a big fan base or anything!); but when Queen Bey dropped the video for her new song “Formation,” I swear pop culture felt the tectonic plates move. With lyrics like “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/ I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” and “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it/ I twirl on them haters, albino alligators,” she stands up to the haters and speaks up about racism. The video is filled with political and cultural references, such as a still-wrecked New Orleans, a little black boy in a hoodie dancing in front of a line of police officers, and an all black church, just to name a few. And to really drive the point home, she performed the song at Super Bowl 50, with all black dancers, every single one clad in black (a reference to the Black Panthers).
But controversy erupted almost immediately, with some conservative sources and a few white commentators saying they were offended by the video and by her performance at the Super Bowl. Given Lesley’s focus on social justice, the Urban Scholars Initiative (USI) saw an opportunity to have an important conversation about perceptions of race in popular culture. USI hosted a panel discussion that included four professors (Jonathan Jefferson, Yolanda Neville, Angelica Pinna-Perez, and Donna Halper) and two students (Kaitlin Anderson, who is in CAB and Joana Martin- Tabora of the BLSU). For those who are not familiar with it, the Urban Scholars Initiative provides financial support, mentoring, and other services to under-served students, who are part of specific partnering organizations in urban communities. The USI coordinator at Lesley, Maritsa Barros, said that her goal with the panel was, “to have a discussion about whether or not Beyoncé crossed the line by using her voice and her platform in the way that she did. We wanted to give the Lesley community an opportunity to talk about Black pride, civil rights, the Black Panther Party, the state of New Orleans and anti-police brutality in a safe space (…) I believe we certainly achieved our objective, in part due to the amazing panelists who participated in the event.”
The panel turned out an enthusiastic audience of about 40 students and faculty; the event included a showing of the music video and then, two reaction videos– one commentator who spoke in support of Beyoncé and one who was vehemently opposed. After watching the “Formation” video, Ms. Barros kicked off the discussion by asking the panelists what their initial reactions were. The first to answer was Professor Donna Halper, saying, “I expected there would be a controversy. This has been going on forever, whenever artists use their art to speak out on social issues.” The other panelists agreed saying they failed to see the controversy until social media brought it up. Of the conflict, Barros said, “many were condemning her song and performance as representing anti-police rhetoric, and pro-black images of the controversial group, the Black Panther Party. However, supporters of this video saw how ‘Queen Bey’ reigned supreme on promoting self-love, empowerment, black pride and honoring Black Panther Party’s fifty year legacy.”
Yolanda Neville said that what she saw was another person of color showing that they are proud of who they are, only for it to be misinterpreted by the rest of society (i.e. the white portion). Professor Pinna-Perez said that the “imagery was so evocative that it could be interpreted as aggressive or angry” especially when presented in the face of white fragility or fear. It was stated that one source of the negative response to movements like Black Lives Matter and Beyoncé’s video is white guilt. Before Beyoncé got political, when she was not far apart from every other pop star, she was great! Everyone loved her– she sings, she dances, she’s pretty, la- dee- da- dee- da, all was simple and good. But once she gets political? Once she calls out her haters and a system drenched in racism? People feel cornered and taken off guard; they don’t know how to react. As the old saying goes, people fear what they don’t understand, causing them to get upset out of fear and angry or defensive over guilt, thus they put up an opposition. When the white majority, the ones who are accustomed to being spoken to suddenly aren’t being spoken to, they are faced with something that’s not meant for them, or something they don’t understand; so, they lash out. Professor Jonathan Jefferson said that those people need to remember that, “every time I want to support myself, it’s not about you.” “Formation” is more than Beyoncé sticking up for herself; it’s about an entire generation who are still struggling in a system of oppression.
One student in the audience called for a revival of love in society. He said that the “performance was all about love. Where is the love? We need to cultivate love. We need to be in touch with ourselves. I know that if I’m not in touch with myself, how can I express my love for other people? Think about love.” Also about spreading the love, Kaitlin Anderson said that when Beyoncé stands up and makes a statement like in “Formation,” or performs with her natural hair, she sees a role model for herself and her younger sister. Of the panel overall, Joana Martin- Tabora, a Junior Psych major said, “I like the fact that it was a teaching moment from all different perspectives. I feel like a lot of people assume that it might be just an all black panel, but the fact that we were able to have diversity and culture within the panel and the students that were talking brought a lot of different perspectives and lenses to it. I think it went really well, and I personally feel empowered now, hearing the conversation.” She also added that she felt inspired to “go out and do something, or change something, or push for something or think of some way to empower my culture within Lesley”.
As for what Maritsa Barros said is next on the agenda, there will be more events for empowering and celebrating students of color at Lesley. “The next steps are already in motion as the natural thing to do is create more events and discussions that bring hot button issues to the forefront in a safe space. I would like to see more perspectives join the conversation, as it would be a great learning experience for all (…) I hope that students and community members who share a different perspective will feel courageous enough to join the conversation, as these forums will always be a safe space for us to have life-changing teaching moments.”