Sunday 7 February, morning (Australian time): Beyoncé drops a new single and video, the proudly black, history-and-politics-steeped “Formation”.
“Formation” is steeped in culture and history that is not ours, and most of the links below are part of conversations that are not aimed at us. But they help to set “Formation” in context for us foreigners, to whom the work is nonetheless being marketed.
A Brief Guide to Beyoncé’s Formation for White People [and non-Americans and American people of colour who are not black]
So too can Beyoncé’s fans find common ground in their love of her music, even though they may not share her experience or heritage. Her hot sauce might be your mustard, your salsa, your sofrito, your soy sauce, or something else entirely. Either way, hot sauce is as integral to her cultural heritage as your traditions are to yours, even if it isn’t something that you’ve had to carry with you in the same way.
In the same way that Beyoncé has worked hard at her career, she has also worked hard at becoming a less apolitical, more civically engaged person. On BEYONCE, and in the promo cycle that followed it, she embraced feminism, putting a new vocabulary to ideas she has presumably spent much of her career bumping up against.
Formation is a great way to educate folks about black history, especially the notion of a radical blackness that perseveres in spite of it all. So many people are unaware of the migratory histories that followed them to where they are, of the ways in which African symbols and rituals were secretly embedded in the American cultural fabric. Formation is post-Katrina New Orleans as techno was post-industrial Detroit.
People are so used to Beyoncé being “Safe Beyoncé” who’s singing about single ladies and bootyliciousness and crazy in love right. A Beyoncé who’s talking about how Black she is, who’s standing on top of a cop car that’s drowning in New Orleans is a Beyoncé that people will not be able to stomach. It’s a Beyoncé that white people will be uncomfortable about.Critique (that’s worth listening to, obviously we’re not here for people whose delicate white feelings are hurt)
The paradox of Coldplay’s problematic video with Beyoncé’s woke one only further drives the point that not all people of color experience the same issues in the United States. She is present in both videos, carrying two very different political messages. In the way that “Formation” talks about the Black experience in a clever, tongue-in-cheek manner, “Hymn for the Weekend” attempts to depict the Indian experience by completely detaching itself from Indians.
The only white person’s opinion worth sharing
Meanwhile, in Australia
Andrew Bolt had a bit of a tanty because he gets scared whenever a person of colour is proud of their heritage. My tweet comparing the reactions to Beyoncé with Adam Goodes came a few days before Bolt’s column was posted, but predicting that Bolt will say something racist is like predicting that a day is going to end with Y.
(The highlight of Bolt’s column — no, I’m not linking it — was his whinge, “Why can’t Beyoncé celebrate her Spanish and French ancestry as well?” Dude, look up “Creole” — in the context of Louisiana — in the dictionary.)
The point is, even though all of this has been very UScentric, we Australians shouldn’t get complacent. We’re the country that gives Gurrumul awards for “world music”, after all. The second Jessica Mauboy says something even vaguely controversial, the knives will be out.
Finally, drawing a long bow
“I got hot sauce in my bag. Swag.”
The line became iconic about 30 seconds after “Formation” first appeared. It was four days before I realised that, in American English, “swag” doesn’t refer to a bundle containing one’s belongings, which is to say, a bag. That’s all Australia.
And that reminded me of the revisionist interpretation of “Waltzing Matilda” as the life and death of an Indigenous man displaced by colonialism, and that seemed like an excellent reason to share Ali Mills’ Kriol version, “Waltjim Bat Matilda”.
From Beyoncé to Banjo Patterson in one post. Peak No Award.