Art & Identity in New Orleans

HNRS 109 Spring '18

Beyoncé, “Formation”

…the images are very much an homage to the black South, which is often forgotten, you know, in movements. And I don’t know why, because we keep having to return to the black South, you know, as we should.

It’s very important that this film is not only located –- well, I say “film,” it feels like … an Oscar-worthy feature — but it’s very important that it’s located visually and actually in Louisiana, which, of course … is the site of this other trauma, and a kind of freedom and resistance also. It’s longstanding trauma. Louisiana is this famous slave port, where so many cultures came together and mixed, but also she references the site of Katrina, where this horrible crime was committed against black people; where its nation didn’t show up for us and where this generation is having to learn that its nation continues to not show up for us. And in that, she’s both centering black women — her formation is one of black women, who are proudly wearing their natural hair, and she makes a circle amongst her daughter and three girls, which is a little bit of magic and conjuring. But there’s also, you know, the centering of queer folks and trans folk, and both by the vocals that we hear and of what we visually see. And that has very much been an intentional thing that’s been happening in this new Black Lives Matter movement. From the very outset, there was real messaging that talked about centering queer folks and black women in leadership. So it’s really amazing to see all of that reflected back to us in a Beyonce video.

— dream hampton on NPR

It’s a song ostensibly about Beyoncé’s identity that forces the listener to acknowledge their own identity – a bold move from the world’s biggest pop star, who over her career has been no stranger to the kind of song written so vaguely as to apply to anyone and anything. The presence of New Orleans bounce rapper Big Freedia works in a similar fashion; Formation may be Beyoncé’s blackest song yet, but thanks to Freedia and a healthy dose of exhortations to slay, it’s also her most gay…

The central tension in Formation is between its playfulness and the anger underpinning it; often, there’s a disconnect between Beyoncé’s carefree voice and the powerful images on screen. As it goes on, though, the significance of the dance becomes clearer. If Beyoncé’s self-titled album was a fundamentally personal statement, the painstaking work of a woman engaged in deep analysis of herself, her desires and her place in the world, Formation finds her turning her attention outwards. Ultimately, it is a rallying cry, and it couldn’t be more timely; when Beyoncé begins to exhort her ladies to get in formation, it’s the sound of a militia being prepared for battles ahead.

— Alex Macpherson in The Guardian

Here are the song’s lyrics, with analysis of their structure.

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