Beyoncé’s capitalism, masquerading as radical change

The first time I listened to Beyoncé’s “Formation,” I was en route to the Brooklyn Museum for an event commemorating Black History Month. While sitting in the back of a cab, I held my phone close to my face, trying to relate to what Black Twitter instantly embraced as a groundbreaking slay. I watched the unexpectedly released video again and again before texting my friend, “So this is why everyone is so turnt?”

Cinematic and painstakingly crafted, the intentionality of “Formation” seems clear: It is a celebration of black culture and black womanhood. Sure, the video for Bey’s latest track, amplified by images of a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, is difficult to dismiss. Much like her prior singles, it is nearly impossible to escape the constant flow of praise and admiration stemming from fans and critics alike. It’s happened before, and it’s happening again. Yet another single by Beyoncé has been canonized as a call to arms. She has been lauded as a pop icon turned activist. An anthem that will make her millions has been dubbed a revolution.

The first wave of “Formation” fever had barely settled by the time her much anticipated halftime performance with Bruno Mars dominated the blogosphere. Bey took the stage, and black America alongside their non-POC counterparts could not look away. Every aspect of her performance was lauded as empowerment. From her crew of afro-sporting dancers dressed in a fashion reminiscent of Black nationalists to her intentionally designed Michael Jackson-esque costume, fans and haters alike were reminded of Queen Bey’s reign.

Yet what can be said about the irresistibly of and the lack of scrutiny surrounding Beyoncé and the “flawless” narratives that she “creates?”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I can’t buy into the hype. I am openly anti-Bey. I don’t find her music to be particularly transcendent, nor do I view her as representation of my black femininity. For me, her brand of feminism (and the brand of feminism assigned to her identity as a pop icon) is severely limited, and her latest activism via “Formation” feels more like strategic consumerist dramatism rather than empowerment. Essentially, aside from its forthright celebration of blackness, “Formation,” much like the star behind it, is a construction tailored for the masses. It is a message catering to a demographic willing to not only invest their dollars but also their political ethos in a celebrity.

Sunday’s performance, although viewed as radical through the eyes of fans, has subverted the very intentions behind the political party to which Bey’s troop of Panthers aimed to pay homage. Between retweeted images of her back-up dancers with their fists held high towards the heavens and trending hashtag movements like #BeingABlackGirlIsLit, it is clear that black Americans are indulging in a monumental cultural moment, basking in what many fans describe as the joy of seeing themselves represented in a realistic way by one of their own.

Despite this, I am caught in a perpetual moment of pause.

I am reminded of the continuous lack of attention given to unpacking the commercialized materiality of pop culture and its would-be gods. Above all else, Beyoncé’s music is created to generate profit much like Super Bowl 50 and its countless ads so many of us consumed on Sunday. Sure, pop music can be influential on an individual and communal level, but it is dangerous when we fail to consider the ways in which songs such as “Formation” or last year’s “Flawless” are essentially an advertisement for Beyoncé’s brand — making her forever evolving activism (and the public’s eager consumption of it) a self-sustaining cash cow with limitless potential.

As Jazmine Hughes points out in this week’s piece for Cosmopolitan, Beyoncé “knows that her activism is a conversation with her fans.” For Hughes and many others, this conversation “brings Beyoncé back to what she does best: representing us while encouraging us to do better.” But what if such representation leaves some of us yearning for a conversation divorced from the very system that has historically profited from black bodies, black culture, and now black activism?

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If the “best revenge” or the answer to progress “is your paper” as the lyrics to “Formation” suggest, Bey’s brand of activism is ultimately doomed. Viewing monetary prowess as power is not only a familiar (and flawed) trope within her genre, it is also a predictably capitalistic formula for agency. Prefaced by a reminder to “always stay gracious,” Bey’s suggested route towards liberation is contingent on two things: respectability and the mobility that comes with affluence.

Bey’s respectability politics operate on their own terms, allowing for her faithful followers to ascend but only to a point. The packaging may be different, but the pedagogy is all too familiar. Resist or dismiss her formula for agency and find yourself “eliminated,” banished to the fringe of black intellectualism and discourse. Bey’s route towards power in this sense is an ultimatum. As she addresses her listeners (“ladies”), she urges them to “get into formation,” to take action, while keeping herself at the forefront as a role model and example of how both “grace” and “paper” translates into power. “Prove to me you got some coordination,” she demands. Comply or be silenced. The options are clear: Utilize what Audre Lorde would call “the master’s tools” or be rendered irrelevant.

In such moments of contemplation, activist Bobby Seale’s words in “Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton” echo in my mind. “The cultural nationalists say that a Black man cannot be the enemy of the Black people, while the Panthers believe that Black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors. Although the Black Panther Party believes in Black nationalism and Black culture, it does not believe that either will lead to Black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system, and are therefore ineffective.”

Seale’s words and the conviction that “Black culture … will [neither] lead to Black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system” feels like a timely and relevant lens to apply when deconstructing representations of blackness within mainstream culture. Yes, “Formation” and its viral Super Bowl Sunday performance is inherently a black narrative, yet its mode of presentation is rooted in the same corrupt system that has lead us to this historical moment we stand in now. Activism and consumerism are one and the same. Its impact is temporary and perhaps “ineffective” in the long run due to being crafted by a capitalist we so lovingly call Bey.

The impact of her latest single and the visually arresting symbolism of her performance is undeniable, yet it is alarming how we as a community unabashedly endorse without question or pause the soft politics of pop icons. It’s problematic to consume without caution, even if we see a reflection of ourselves, our mothers or sisters in their narratives. As much as we might feel empowered by the grace of their choreography and the back beats of their latest anthems, we as black Americans should allow ourselves the space to question the messages we are given, even if those messages are tailor-made for us. Whether delivered via Tidal or Twitter, the politics of Beyoncé and similarly monolithic celebrities should not be applauded without hesitation.

Stay woke.

[photos: CBS Sports/NFL]