Whose rights should matter more – those of armed hatemongers or those of a vulnerable community?
Politics shape art, and art shapes politics. Since its launch in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has had a thrilling effect on African American music – whether it is the D’Angelo’s masterful Black Messiah album that speaks of “people rising up in Ferguson, Egypt, Occupy Wall Street”; or Kendrick Lamar’s landmark To Pimp a Butterfly; or J Cole’s song Be Free, mourning Mike Brown, the 18-year old killed by the police in Ferguson in August 2014; or in the work of young jazz phenom Kamasi Washington who has been described as the “jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”.
R&B and hip hop diva Beyonce has been largely removed from the movement, criticised by fans for being a “bad feminist” and meagerly concerned about Black Lives Matter.
Not any more. Beyonce has not only entered the dialogue, but added layers of controversy to the conversation. Politicians are irate. Businesses are looking for ways to cash in on new fashion trends the singer has triggered. And conservatives are organising a rally in protest over her Superbowl performance.
Even before her half-time show on Sunday, the hashtag #BoycottBeyonce had taken off, with critics saying that they would turn off their television sets during her half-time show. These viewers took issue with the song Formation, released on Youtube on Saturday, February 6.
Political and historic allusions
The visually dazzling and historically panoramic track makes myriad political and historic allusions. There are shots of New Orleans, a city wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, and a scene of a young boy wearing a hoodie, dancing in front of police officers, while the words “Stop shooting us” appear on a wall.
There is Beyonce sitting on top of a police car, singing, “My daddy Alabama/Momma Louisiana/You mix that Negro with that Creole/Make a Texas bamma”. She proclaims, “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros/I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”.
Critics called her video an affront to the police - and lambasted her for aligning herself with Black Lives Matter movement.
Fans loved the song, seeing it as tribute to New Orleans, and to Queen B’s southern roots; the video – with its shot of little girls wearing their hair natural, and a Moorish Science Temple followers in a fez hat – was dubbed a “visual anthem” to Black America during Black History Month.
Critics called her video an affront to the police – and lambasted her for aligning herself with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sunday’s half-time show had even more references to black empowerment. Beyonce appears surrounded by back-up dancers, decked in black leather and black berets, in a style reminiscent of the Black Panther Party, the black nationalist organisation established 50 years ago in Oakland, not far from where the Superbowl was being played.
The Panthers movement was founded by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale to challenge police brutality, but the group also provided social services, until it was destroyed by the FBI.
Law enforcement and white supremacy
During the routine, the back-up dancers formed an X, a reference to activist Malcolm X, also known for his unflinching criticism of law enforcement and white supremacy.
As Marni Senofonte, Beyonce’s stylist told Essence magazine, the Black Power references were fully intentional, “It was important to her to honour the beauty of strong black women and celebrate the unity that fuels their power. One of the best examples of that is the image of the female Black Panther. The women of the Black Panther Party created a sisterhood and worked right alongside their men fighting police brutality and creating community social programmes. That they started here in the Bay Area, where the Super Bowl is being held this year, was not lost on her.”
After the half-time show, the dancers would stir more controversy, posing with raised fists just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously did at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
Then the dancers posed with a picture – handed to them by Black Lives Matter activists – with the slogan “Justice 4 Mario Woods”, referring to the 26-year man shot dead by the San Francisco police in December 2015.)
Formation was also criticised from the left , by commentators who think that in telling fans to just “dream”, “work hard”, “be gracious”, and that they might be the “next Bill Gates”, Beyonce is ignoring structural racism, and the policies that undermine black mobility, and in effect using Black Panther imagery to market a very neo-liberal American Dream. The video and Superbowl show were, in this view, a marketing ploy to draw more people to buy the singer’s products, and to gin up interest in her upcoming 2016 Formation world tour.
But most of the backlash has come from the right. Peter King, congressman from New York, tweeted, “Beyonce Formation video & #SB50 act was anti-police, shameful. Repeats big lie of Michael Brown innocence. Cops deserve support not criminals.”
Rudy Guliani, a former mayor of New York and one-time presidential contender, was also furious.
“I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers,” he told Fox News on Monday, “And what we should be doing in the African American community, and all communities, is build up respect for police officers.”
It’s not clear how this conservative backlash will affect the Black Lives Matter movement.
Viewers offended by Beyonce’s performance have called for a “Anti-Beyonce Protest Rally” to take place next week at the National Football League’s headquarters on Park Avenue, in New York.
“Are you offended as an American that Beyonce pulled her race-baiting stunt at the Superbowl? Do you agree that the Black Panthers was/is a hate group which should not be glorified?” said the anonymously-posted announcement. “Let’s tell the NFL we don’t want hate speech & racism at the Superbowl ever again!”
The diva’s fans have also announced that they will organise an anti-anti-Beyonce rally: “This is a counter protest to a racist, ahistorical attack on the Black Panther Party and Beyonce … Sisters, dress in your Formation video/Super Bowl performance-inspired gear and make this moment a joyous one!”
Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.