Beyoncé is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. “Stop shooting us,” reads graffiti on a wall in the music video for the R&B singer’s new single, “Formation,” intercut with scenes of a boy in a black hoodie facing off against a line of riot police with nothing but his dance moves. But the clip, directed by Melina Matsoukas, is much more than simply an audio-visual manifestation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Doubling as a tribute to New Orleans, the video opens with a pointed shot of Beyoncé standing atop a New Orleans Police Department car submerged in floodwater, and it dips even further back into our country’s racially charged history to ask, via a fake newspaper titled The Truth, “What is the real legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and why was a revolutionary recast as an acceptable Negro leader?”
Though she’s fond of surprises, Beyoncé, who chose to release “Formation” a day before she’s set to take the stage in front of millions of viewers alongside Coldplay at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show, has never been an overtly political artist, a fact that makes the video an even more startling, and subversive, statement. “You know you dat bitch when you cause all this conversation,” she quips at the song’s end. The track is rife with quotable bon mots that will no doubt be causing conversation for the next 12 months (choice lyric: “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster”), but it’s Beyoncé’s decision to include a queer hype man—New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia—and redirect the world’s attention to a city whose minority communities are still struggling, over a decade after Hurricane Katrina, that’s truly worthy of discussion.
Like her under-appreciated music video for 2006’s “Déjà Vu,” “Formation” slyly turns the antebellum South on its head, with Beyoncé, donning Givenchy, serving as plantation mistress. For a superstar like her, reparations, and forgiveness, might come a little easier (“Always stay gracious/Best revenge is your paper,” she advises), so she could have easily dropped another “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” or “Drunk In Love.” That she didn’t speaks to either a cynicism this writer’s not willing to ascribe to such a bold, if indulgent, video, or her refusal to simply be cast as an “acceptable Negro leader.”
“Formation” is available now as a free download exclusively on Tidal.