[Originally posted at Eris Magazine]
I recently watched and have been spending some time with the semiotics of the video and Super Bowl halftime performance of Beyoncé’s “FORMATION.” And if that statement makes you snicker, then YOU NEED TO SPEND SOME TIME WITH THE SEMIOTICS OF THESE PERFORMANCES.
There have already been thinkpieces on this in Vox, the Guardian, The Washington Post, and many influential unaffiliated blogs, and rightly so. They’ve all variously and collectively discussed the connection of the visuals and clips used to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the current work of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the deeply feminist message that Beyoncé has been working to build for the past several years. What most of them don’t do, however, is recognise that she’s not only invoking these images and themes to use for her own ends, she’s evoking them. She’s conjuring the truth of a particular perspective into being. Beyoncé has created an act of magic, here.
In order to have this discussion, we are going to have to reference certain kinds of magic, and religion, and voodoo, and hoodoo. I’m not necessarily going to give you individual treatises on these each of things, right now, but rather, we’ll do a quick primer.
Magic is generally understood as the process of causing something to happen, by mysterious or impossible means. Action at a distance, words of power, ritual formulations (and formations) to bring about particular ends. We can talk about the work of Crowley or Spare or Foisy or Any other prominent magicians who evoke and invoke powers beyond the “normal,” and who resonante with language and the manipulation thereof. One of the theories of Austin Osman Spare’s chaos magic is the Sigil—an intention written down, then abstracted into a piece of art. Many have taken this and evolved out of it the idea of the hypersigil. A play or television show or a song that carries the intention out into the world, and gains potency as it is viewed, heard, engaged. Think Chalmers’ The King In Yellow or Sorkin’s The West Wing.
The kind of religion we’re seeing, here, is deep south Black Christianity, of a specifically New Orleans variety, and we have to understand that that was always tinged with the Hatian, with the Creole, with Voudun. The dancing and drumming traditions West African Yoruba traditions (hear that beat, in the halftime Show?) melded and blended with the work of Christian Missionaries and became the immediate subject of white terror. It was always a way for the black population to remain familiar with the spirits and gods of their ancestors, while nominally capitulating and then actively incorporating the beliefs of their captors.
Hoodoo is of a similar lineage, but can be seen as more organic, in a literal sense; a system developed by the slow accretion of emotion and spirit and desire to survive through whatever means nature brings to hand. Hoodoo is often referenced as “rootworking,” or “conjuration,” and it ties the ideas of the Justice or Providence of the Christian God directly into the more practical, “down and dirty” aspects of doing what you have to do to make a life. Hoodoo is, in many ways, more akin to the kind of “messier” witchcraft, Western audiences are used to seeing, with it’s potions and herbs.
In “FORMATION,” Beyoncé has braided all of these elements and more into a single working. While the nature of the thing necessitated that there would be far more spectacle at play in the Super Bowl Halftime Show, at base, both of these performances constitute Beyoncé broadcasting an immediate reappropriation of power to her community—power from her ancestors and people, power from their struggle and overcoming—as well as a warding against all those who might try to ape, steal, or dilute that same power. The repeated scene on the plantation steps encompass a system of power that was specifically denied to the people of this place, for a very long time, and Beyoncé is reclaiming that system, manipulating it (see the section below about hands), and standing present as matriarch of this place. She is at once source and example of power. This working (because that’s the only way it feels right to talk about the song, the video, the Halftime Show, together) is a show of strength through particularly highlighted points of vulnerability, a casting of a protection that is felt to be needed, now.
Look at how hands move, in the official video. There’s the interplay of the Raised Hands: In the church scenes we see hands raised in praise and surrender to the God of that church; these are interspersed with shots of the extraordinarily sharp double edge of what appears to be a 12 year old black boy* dancing as hard and as well as he can in front of a row of white police officers decked out in riot gear. As the boy dances harder and harder, the praise in the church reaches a pitch, and as the congregation throws their hands up, again, in surrender, the police throw their hands up to the boy. Surrender and praise, intertwined. The recognition of something more powerful, more perfect, something worth surrendering to.
I can’t even deconstruct this scene without crying. And if you still didn’t get it, there’s a shot of graffiti at the very end of it all that says, “Stop Shooting Us.”
This working is also an expression of Self-Possession, in all possible senses of that term. Either explicitly or implicitly, in “Formation” Beyoncé calls out every criticism leveled at her in recent months and years, from the ridiculous to those that must have hurt her to read or hear. Member of the Illuminati, too white, too black, too slutty, too rich, too reckless. She takes every single one of these and she holds them up, turns them to the light of who and what she knows she is and can be—what we all can be (“We Slay”)—and focuses it back on any and all who would try to tear down her or her people. Beyoncé’s constant hoodoo hand and body movements are specific and intentional, meant to evoke the grasping of power, the constant, predatory awareness of all comers, the building and creation of her self, and an exhortation for others—specifically other women—to do the same.
There hasn’t been a series of lines as powerful to rally around as “Come on ladies, let’s all get in Formation/Prove to me you got some coordination/Slay, trick, or you get eliminated” in a very long time. In her specific articulation of these syllables, she simultaneously reinforces herself as Slayer while leaving open the possibility of being slain—either in the sense of impressed, or of taken down—by whatever women can work hard enough, dig deep enough, and come together to slay her and the whole wide world. And anyone who doesn’t, she warns, is lost.
Again, much has already been written about the powerfully pro-black, pro-feminist message of this song, the video, and Super Bowl performance, with several writers opining that they don’t feel that this was “for them.” And maybe it wasn’t. That is, this was not something that those writers were meant to feel as a deep shared connection of lived experience, in the way that it would be felt by those ravaged by Katrina, or disproportionately targeted by police action and the United States’ prosocutorial justice system, or who struggle to maintain a balance of what it means to be a “Negro.” Some may not be meant to “get” that; it may not be “for you.” But, if not, then what is for you in these presentations is to recoginze that the people who do feel this,have felt this for a long time; that entire communities are still strong and getting stronger—like broken bones are stronger after they heal, like forests grow back stronger after fires.
What is for you is to realize that Beyoncé has done something in this working that many many people have felt needed to be done for a very long time.
Everything about the “FORMATION” working is an act of evocation and conjuration. A reification of the truth and need born out of the lived experience of the people in the world that Beyoncé outlines and encircles, with her hands.
[*UPDATE 02/10/16, 12:55pm: On repeated viewings, that boy is much younger than 12. Eight years old, at the most.]