By Josh Inocéncio
“Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation,” thundered Beyoncé last Saturday night at the NRG Stadium in Houston as she marched onto the stage flanked by a team of dancers dressed in Black Panther-inspired costumes.
Everyone in the audience, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, echoed the chorus of her surprise February single, “Formation,” that sparked controversy among police officers across the nation. The backlash even followed Queen Bey to her hometown where she’s contributed millions to combat homelessness. During the concert, a group of off-duty police officers silently protested outside and shot a searing blue light over the stadium.
Aside from blatant tensions with police over a methodical and historically charged dance number at Super Bowl 50, there are internal tensions in the Beyhive between the black women Beyoncé seeks to empower with her newest album, Lemonade, and the white gay men constantly citing their “inner black woman” to identify with (parts of) black femaleness.
Cue the clamor for white gays to stampede over each other to get into Beyoncé’s political formation.
So for whom is the formation, if not every member of the Beyhive?
In 2014, Sierra Mannie wrote a think-piece chastising the urge for white gay men to appropriate black femaleness through deploying particular attitudes, mannerisms, and cultural productions that reduce black women to stereotypes.
“Our music, our dances, our slang, our clothing, our hairstyles—all of these things are rounded up, whitewashed, and repackaged for your consumption,” she wrote in “Dear White Gays” for The DM Online. “But here’s the shade—the non-black people who get to enjoy all of the fun things about blackness will never have to experience the ugliness of the black experience, systemic racism, and the dangers of simply living while black.”
The tendency is fraught among white gay men to conflate institutional homophobia toward the white gay body with systemic racism toward the black female body as if there is little to no nuance. I am not referring to the femininity through which many gay men challenge the gender spectrum; but rather, a caricatured performance of blackness that fetishizes and steals from black female culture, ultimately glazing over black women’s history.
Don’t get me wrong. Beyoncé is for everyone. As cultural critic bell hooks argues on her website in regard to the pop-star, “Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world, and that world of business and money-making has no color.”
And this is explicit in Beyoncé’s lyrics, videography, and at her concerts. The penultimate song in Lemonade, “All Night” (Beyoncé’s avowed favorite from the new album), calls everyone to openly love their partners, because “true love never has to hide.” During the song, the visuals feature interracial and same-gender couples displaying affection without reservation or fear. Beyoncé sustains this in her Formation World Tour by asking between songs, “Do you know who you are? Do you know where you come from?,” inspiring affirming screams throughout the enclosed stadium.
But even though the concert offers inclusivity to all, the opening set list explodes with a celebration of unapologetic black female sexuality that immediately estranges audience members (especially men) who aren’t invited to this formation.
After the opening, Beyoncé and her dancers transition to another Lemonade song, “Sorry,” which reiterates “I ain’t sorry, I ain’t sorry” to listeners and, in the concert, becomes a thematic sequel to “Formation” as Beyoncé refuses to apologize for her political summons. Following her shout-outs to Houston, she asserts power by performing the “bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches (crown)/Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches (crown)/H Town bitches/H, H Town bitches/I’m so crown crown, bow down bitches” refrain from “Flawless.” When she gets to her classic “Me, Myself, and I,” she encourages all the women to sing along and reluctantly (though with a grin) tells the men they can, too. The concert may be open for everyone, but Beyoncé delineates early on to whom she’s speaking and striving to uplift.
Lemonade, the album propelling this tour, is, at the crux, about solidarity among black women and the pain they have endured from generations of male violence. More than the autobiographic Beyoncé album, Lemonade is an ode to black female survival in the South and a musical meditation on how the African diaspora empowers black women.
In both the concert and the album, Beyoncé invokes images from the Yoruba tradition in West Africa, which has survived in ritual manifestations across the Americas. Lemonade features a Beyoncé as “Oshun, a Yoruba water goddess of female sensuality, love and fertility.” According to Dr. Amy Yeboah, in “Hold Up” Beyoncé “channels the orisha, or goddess, by appearing in an underwater dreamlike state before emerging from two large golden doors with water rushing past her and down the stairs.”
There are secrets in this album, such as recipes for making lemonade passed down from mother to daughter. There are black women with white painted faces, inspired by the Yoruba, who flee urban sprawl to heal in the countryside, in what resembles a former plantation home in the South. There are close-ups of black mothers on lavish chairs grieving while they hold photographs of men they have lost to unjust violence. (e.g., Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin). Lemonade projects the quiet pain of black women wronged by both black and white men.
These are the ladies who get in formation.
The healing ritual Beyoncé cultivates is not for those of us outside the black female experience. She lets us peek into the ritual, but she does not ask us to join. At best, she offers the potentiality for ally-ship, for decolonizing our minds as we watch the formation happen from the sidelines.
So stand by, boys, and let the formation march through.