Beyoncé’s Formation video and halftime performance were instantly polarizing. Some said this was her “I’m black and IDGAF” moment. She scared some folks and even seemed to set boundaries about who could and could not dissect her performance. Rudy Giuliani was not happy to say the least (he called her performance anti-police), and some planned to protest outside of NFL headquarters. She was also accused of appropriating queer and trans genius, among other things. At the very least, Beyoncé proved she wasn’t beyond criticism.
I wouldn’t consider Beyoncé to be a subversive activist. On occasion, her choice of words, appearance and actions have played into patriarchical ideals and Eurocentric standards of beauty. Less than a week before Formation dropped, she was accused of misappropriating Indian culture in Coldplay’s video “Hymn for the Weekend.” Many, including close friends of mine, chide her for not taking a more public stance on political and social issues, given her (and her husband’s) influence both in music and pop culture.
Yet the Formation video and ensuing Super Bowl performance was a bold statement and a subversive act. Everything from her choice of outfit, to the hair and skin tone of the dancers, seemed deliberate. And the lyrics speak for themselves. That display was the blackest thing I had seen all game.
In my eyes, being subversive is gaining access to a space one normally would not be invited to, and not acting in accordance to the rules of the space, whether just by one’s presence or by overt action. Here, Beyoncé, because of her perceived “safeness,” was able to enter a space (the Super Bowl halftime show) many could not and deliver a message. The impact and importance of the message is not diminished by Beyoncé’s past inconsistencies when dealing with racial issues or her platform. Even if you disagree, we’re still having an important dialogue as a result and I don’t think the dialogue is merely a distraction.
In short, consistency is not a prerequisite for subversion or activism, and the lack of it doesn’t undermine the achievement. I think we admire those who constantly strive for consistency, but realize that they’re human at the core. Most importantly, while we reserve the right to criticize them for their past or present displays, the power of their choices should be recognized. One of Beyoncé’s fiercest critics within the black community bell hooks appears to dance along to Beyoncé’s hit “Drunk in Love” two days after calling her a terrorist
Historically, we’ve accepted that someone or something can be in the same instance critique-worthy and celebrated. For example, Booker T. Washington’s legacy as an “Uncle Tom” and a “White Accommodationist” is undercut by his private donations to civil rights litigation and black colleges. Some of his writing indicates that he supported black efforts toward achieving freedom through political means, not just through education. We laud the achievements of the Civil Rights Era while recognizing the pervasiveness of misogyny within that movement. So many were disappointed by Obama’s perceived apathy towards black Americans but we hold his historic achievement as the first black president high and also recognize the constraints that come with his position. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently came out in public support of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders even though he’s disappointed in Sanders’ views on reparations.
I personally strive to be consistent but know I continually fall short. Although the natural hair care products are SUPER cheap at Wal-Mart (the shea butter struggle is REAL), I’ve stopped shopping there because I care about the way workers and local economies are affected. I don’t support Chick Fil-A’s anti-LGBT philosophies so even though their chicken is delicious, I don’t eat it (Note: this ban might be under reconsideration based on new evidence). Do I own Nikes and occasionally eat a McDonald’s hash brown? Yes. Part of being human is being flawed and inconsistent. Permission granted to be ratchet and woke at the same time.
And in case you missed it, watch Kendrick Lamar give the only performance that mattered at the 2016 Grammy’s. People felt uncomfortable with Beyoncé having her dancers wear Black Panthers outfits? Lamar walked out in chains.
Overall this principle has further implications as we anoint leaders in the various fights for justice across our country and within the political arena. We will likely see people rise through the ranks who have inconsistent pasts or previously held contradictory views. It’s called progress. And sometimes those pasts allow us into spaces we never could have imagined, in order to do things that people in those spaces never imagined. Let’s see how the next step goes before we judge and dismiss.