Beyoncé whips up storm over new activist role
Super Bowl performance draws mixed reaction as singer delivers politically driven message to maximum audience
With slogans against police brutality and celebrations of African beauty in her new song, Beyoncé has suddenly transformed from crowd-pleasing entertainer to outspoken spokeswoman for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.
The 34-year-old superstar, who had been relatively quiet in 2015, returned in spectacular fashion with a surprise new song, Formation, marked by a video rich in political imagery and a raw bounce beat in the style of Southern hip hop.
One day later, Beyoncé took the message to the largest possible audience as she performed the song during the half-time show at last week’s Super Bowl, the most watched US television broadcast of the year which drew more than 111 million viewers.
Trading her soaring vocal range for a rap delivery, Beyoncé – who is estimated with her husband, rap mogul Jay Z, to be worth a combined US$1 billion – takes on much of the attitude of hip hop and boasts of her success.
But in Beyoncé’s version, the bragging also turns political as she insists that she remains true to her African-American heritage.
She describes herself as a “black Bill Gates in the making” – referring to the Microsoft billionaire turned philanthropist.
“Earned all this money but they never take the country out of me/ I got hot sauce in my bag, swag,” sings Beyoncé, who was born in Houston to parents from Louisiana and Alabama.
The video brings together fleeting but poignant scenes of African-American struggles, especially the string of killings of black men by police in the past two years that have triggered the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
In the most striking image, a boy in a hoodie dances before a phalanx of police in riot gear. Later, the police raise their hands up like people under arrest as graffiti on the wall reads, “Stop shooting us”.
Setting the video in New Orleans, Beyoncé sings from the roof of a police car that is sinking in water – an implicit reference to criticism that authorities botched relief efforts when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005 and killed nearly 2,000 people, disproportionately African American.
In a more subtle touch in the video, which was directed by Melina Matsoukas, a newspaper appears that features the picture of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr.
“More than a dreamer,” reads the newspaper’s headline, a message that King was about more than his classic “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
Beyoncé extols natural African hair just as the camera turns to her smiling four-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy.
And she makes clear her ideal of beauty: “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”
Formation – which came at the start of Black History Month in the US – marks the most political turn yet for Beyoncé, who rarely generated controversy with smash hits such as Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) and love songs with Jay Z.
Beyoncé quickly came under fire over the performance at the Super Bowl, whose programmers are usually careful to pick non-controversial acts – such as Beyoncé herself, who won acclaim for her 2013 half-time show with former band Destiny’s Child.
At one point during the performance, Beyoncé and her troupe of dancers in short leather jumpsuits raised their fists – a gesture interpreted by some as the salute of the nationalist Black Panthers.
Members of the National Sheriffs’ Association, who were attending a convention at a Washington hotel, lowered the volume on the television and turned their backs to Beyoncé, the group said on Facebook.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican known for his tough-on-crime politics, said that Beyoncé should have instead tried to build respect for police officers within the African-American community.
“This is football, not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive,” Giuliani told Fox News.
Beyoncé’s performance, however, heartened many internet users.
Opal Tometi, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, voiced appreciation for her on Twitter and noted that the Super Bowl fell on the birthday of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was found hanging in a Texas jail in disputed circumstances after she was pulled over for a traffic violation.
The political leanings of Beyoncé and Jay Z are no secret. They have supported President Barack Obama, throwing a fund-raiser for his 2012 re-election campaign.
But the couple has also come under fire. Harry Belafonte, the calypso king from the 1950s who used his money to bankroll activists during the Civil Rights Movement, in 2012 said that the younger stars had “turned their backs on social responsibility”.
Even if she faces a backlash, Beyoncé seems confident of her solid fan base. A moment after her Super Bowl performance, she announced a 40-date tour of stadiums across North America and Europe.