For the first several hours of its existence, I knew only that Beyoncé had dropped a new single and video called “Formation”—and consistent with my usual approach to all things Beyoncé, I decided to wait a while. On Sunday morning, I awoke to no fewer than three text messages urging me to crack the seal on this video—“refuse to watch Bey’s new joint at your own peril” one friend warned. And so, just a few hours before the kickoff of Super Bowl 50 and Beyoncé’s halftime show appearance, I watched.
You may not think so yet, but let me assure you of the following: Sunday, February 7th, 2016 will be discussed and debated for decades—and assuredly not because of the sorry excuse for a football game some of us watched through to its conclusion out of little more than respect for the game and—let’s be honest—an eagerness to witness exactly how the vanquished Cameron Jarrell Newton would respond to this devastating blow.
It is, to be sure, a most interesting time to be alive and African-American. On an almost daily basis, I find myself nearly floored with astonishment as I consider the things some of us are now capable of doing in the American marketplace, and the institutions of social and economic power to which a select few (we need to broaden this, btw) are now granted access. And so, as I sat somewhat discombobulated on my couch after watching “Formation” once in its entirety, I nearly suffered a conniption when I heard noted ESPN sportscaster and all-around football maven Chris Berman express his confusion as to why Cam Newton’s race is such a big deal. After all, there are many black men starting at the quarterback position in the NFL today, and several have now successfully competed in and won the sport’s crowning jewel. Ohhhh man (*theauthordavid gives Chris Berman the patented Kanye side-eye*). So I guess I’ll just repeat here what I can often be heard whispering to my friends immediately after hearing this type of foolery: it’s not so much the flagrant bigots we need worry about; it’s the unbigoted Good Guys—who, for whatever reason, still don’t get it—that should keep us up at night.
Why is Cam Newton’s race so important?
It was in the aftermath of Berman’s professed confusion on this point that I revisited “Formation.” “What in the world,” you’re probably now wondering, “does Cam Newton have to do with Beyoncé’s latest single?” I ask now, as I have in the past, that you just take a chance and follow me on this one. I promise I’m going somewhere.
When you stop and think about it, what talented black musicians, actors and sports figures (among others) have achieved in America, particularly those who have on some level leveraged the sociopolitical movement known as hip-hop, is without precedent or parallel anywhere in the world. You can be black and broke in America, with no prospects whatsoever, and still be deemed “cool” (there are, of course, certain seriously negative consequences often attending this reality, but that’s a separate discussion for another day). Black is so cool in fact that we’ve had to create new words to articulate the essence that the term “cool” no longer completely captures (the term “swag” comes to mind). But on the still relatively rare occasions when blackness is combined with talent, physical beauty and wealth—well, now we’re talking Eighth Wonder of the World territory. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that we—Americans, but particularly African-Americans—exert massive amounts of energy extolling the likes of Cam Newton and Beyoncé, deservedly, for the incomparable talents they bring to their chosen crafts.
You know you’re getting old when you start quoting—and finding the logic in—those annoying little aphorisms your Godmother used to pound into your head as a child, over and over again, hoping that repetition would do what her estimable powers of reasoning could not. One such phrase has been on repeat in my head since seeing Beyoncé’s latest work and watching Cam’s three-minute, hooded post-game interv—well, I can’t even really call it an interview now can I?:
“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask all the more.”
Here’s the relevant news flash for both Cam and Bey: you can’t come in here looking like this, and you really ought not do so during Black History Month. To say that the power and reach that these two mega-stars have acquired is “important” to the social and economic goals of the millions of people whose background they share is quite possibly the understatement of this still young century. Black History Month is a time for reflection on, and thanksgiving for, the progress we’ve made, but it really ought to be more about cobbling together effective means of implementing sound solutions to lingering issues and articulating strategies that will take us forward in light of lessons already learned.
Perhaps it goes without saying, and it really hurts to say this, but brother Cam…what you did after Sunday night’s game was disappointing and reprehensible—and it’s exactly what the Bad Guys have been dreaming of since the day you were drafted: a justifiable opportunity to demonize you. And yes, I know that your behavior on Sunday couldn’t be further from the thing actually driving their lust to ruin you—but we can’t be in the business of giving them movement-crushing freebies.
The responsibilities you owe your fans—and yes, particularly people of color—aren’t temporarily suspended in moments when you’d rather pack up and go home. To the contrary, it’s in those moments that the substance of your conduct is most critical. Your admirable determination, Cam Newton, to stay true to Cam Newton, and to refuse to accept the self-serving archetypes others would have you fill is inspiring. But your dedication to that worthy, and at times admittedly difficult task, cannot cause you to forget, even for a second, what it means for someone like you to be sitting where you are in America. It is a burden of blackness that, right or wrong, you chose to bear the second you donned that NFL uniform for the first time, and I cannot begin to describe the depth of the damage we’ll all suffer if you forget the importance of the far more consequential work ahead of you that has nothing to do with how you perform on the football field.
Speaking of football fields, the game at Levi’s Stadium Sunday night was pretty difficult to watch right?—so not surprisingly the speculation around what song Beyoncé would perform started pretty early at the watch party I attended. I preemptively stated with supreme confidence that there was absolutely, positively no way that Roger Goodell and Co. would allow that woman to perform that song on that stage in front of that many people. And then to my utter surprise—why the extent of this woman’s sway still shocks me from time to time I don’t know—she performed precisely the song she wanted to perform…the same song that left me so confused just hours before.
So here’s my issue with this song and this music video. Well…let me start with what I liked. Beyoncé has been, since the beginning of her career, the consummate (and, I might add, devastatingly gorgeous) black feminist, and though I don’t always agree with what she says or how she says it, I have generally refrained from critiquing Mrs. Carter (and Miss Knowles) because of the undeniably favorable impact I believe she and her music, on the whole, has had on an entire generation of black (and non-black) women. In many ways, the essential thrust of this latest work is yet another iteration, though I hope not the culmination, of the principal feminist themes she’s been formulating and seeking to perfect throughout her career. The substance underlying the double-entendre call for ladies to “get in formation” is the most recent in a fulsome catalog of works dedicated to the proposition, I think, that women ought to take what society has only slowly and grudgingly begun to cede and acknowledge: their independence and equality—and maybe even superiority? I couldn’t agree more with the substance of her sociopolitical objectives, and I applaud the various ways in which she has throughout her career skillfully inverted, and consequently enfeebled, degrading and sexist stereotypes—many of them disseminated and glorified by her husband.
And so, perhaps, it is in that context and vein that Beyoncé and others believe that lyrics like, “When he f*ck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster” need not only be accepted, but also lauded.
I must admit that I’m having a great deal of difficulty doing either.
In the final analysis, it seems to me that the song’s greatest strength is also its principal weakness: its ambition. She just tried to do too much and inserted too many weathered, and at times fruitless and gratuitous tropes and images—I’m still not sure how the value of black lives relates to twerking—and as a consequence, it you really try to pay attention, the work seems slightly schizophrenic. Yes, what happened in the aftermath of Katrina was horrible and we ought to continue to shed light on the unconscionable manner in which that disaster was managed by governments at multiple levels, and the racism—express or otherwise—underlying that mismanagement. And yes, the gender gap in America is as egregious as it is unforgiveable, and women shouldn’t be passive in fighting to rid this nation of one of its original sins. But at the end of the song, I’ve gotta tell you, I was left wondering what I suspect many others were too: “what precisely are you trying to accomplish here B?”
Will Beyoncé and Co.’s marketing prowess from this past weekend net her and hubby Sean Carter millions of dollars? I don’t see why not. Did the visual of Bey marching with her beautiful, afro-puffed female soldiers during halftime inspire millions of women watching across the planet? Undoubtedly. Will “Formation” help to transform the disgusting, small-minded modes of thinking both Beyoncé and I so vehemently disdain?
I’m not so sure.
I must admit something here. I’ve also considered the possibility that my inability to find something transformative in this work, at least with respect to gender, may be symptomatic of the very gender problem she’s seeking to eliminate with “Formation,” which would also explain why she generally speaks to and exhorts women instead of knuckle-headed men like me. I’ll happily cede that as a possibility, however remote. But let’s start a conversation…that’s what really matters anyway.
Setting aside for the moment the substance of Bey’s “Formation” and Cam’s scant post-game remarks, here’s what Bey, Cam and everyone else engaged in the continuing fight for equality must remember: the forces of the status quo are playing for keeps, and as a consequence, we must be surgical about the methods we use to further the critically important causes of race and gender equality. The fact that a black girl from Houston has climbed so far up the American socioeconomic ladder that she’s able to perform a song like “Formation” during the most widely watched spectacle in American sports speaks volumes about the extent of American progress on issues of race and gender. But the ingenuity and tact with which we utilize our newfound, often transnational platforms to further our causes will dictate just how far we can go. There is a time and place to experience and project the fullness of one’s disappointment, but it’s not on national television. And there is a time and place for militancy, to be sure, but I’d respectfully submit that when deployed it ought to be narrowly tailored to defeat or meet a clearly delineated target or purpose—and it should avoid the deployment of distracting, gratuitous and ultimately de-edifying imagery and words. Many would-be successful movements throughout history have learned this important lesson the hard way: success depends not just on the ferocity of the will, but equally—if not more—on the precision underlying the plan and execution.
Love you Cam, and yes I love you too B, but we’ve come much too far to fumble the ball now. And yes B, you are “that b*tch” (though I really wish you’d consider settling on some other less loaded and demeaning adjective, particularly since kids are watching) but not simply because “you cause all this conversation”—the substance of these conversations matter. The artistic methods you use to spark these conversations, and the ways in which the Bad Guys will hone in on extraneous, non-critical elements of your work to entirely discredit the essential elements, matters. We need both of you and we can’t afford too many self-imposed chinks in your armor. I cannot even begin to quantify how much you both matter to us and to our fight. But you have to remember…there are folks who still don’t get what all the fuss is about—even some of the Good Guys. There are children out there—including your own—watching and trying to make heads or tails of what they see from you. What better reason could there possibly be to get in formation?