Beyoncé and Bruno Mars were a sight to behold at the Super Bowl 50 halftime performance. Did you ever think you’d see so much blackness, or so many Black Panthers in Afros at a halftime show? Or any Black Panthers in Afros at a halftime show? Maybe Beyoncé has tapped into something here, opening up some space for other artists to bring politics into pop culture and to make more of today’s music more relevant, reflective of and responsive to the realities in which we live.
After the rock band Coldplay did whatever they did on stage, Sunday’s halftime performance was dominated by Beyoncé, a rendition of her new song “Formation,” and the animated battle between Beyoncé’s and Bruno Mars’ respective crews.
Now, Mars did a great job with “Uptown Funk,” but Beyonce’s “Formation” was on some other level. And it was quite a political statement, too.
The Superbowl halftime show is the most widely-watched performance of the year, and this was a prime example of making the most of a potentially momentous occasion and turning it into something special. Aside from the visuals of the sisters accompanying Bey with the black berets, Afros and black leather outfits was the message of the song itself. “Formation” is an ode to the victims of Katrina in New Orleans and a shout out to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, complete with floodwaters, riot police and the iconic “hands up don’t shoot” stance.
The music always is a part of the movement. We have seen other points in time and other artists and groups — Public Enemy, N.W.A., Rage Against the Machine, and so on — who have made political statements in their music and entertained their audiences at the same time. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. Besides, music always reflects our dreams, our hopes, our challenges, loves, fears, and the myriad emotions and experiences we face.
And we can go back even further to examples such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and others who influenced the times for black people but also echoed the struggles and movements that were taking place at that moment in time. And now, we are living in a social climate where people are hurting — whether from lead poisoning in Flint, police violence in Anytown, U.S.A., racial harassment on college campuses, mass incarceration, unemployment, poverty, racism or injustice. Across the country, black people are demanding reform, demanding more of their leaders, better leadership, even taking leadership in their own hands and creating the change they want. There is even a natural hair movement to complement the Black Lives Matter movement, with hints of the “Black is Beautiful” and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
As for Beyoncé, she must have surprised more than a few people with this latest song. Surely, many would not have expected her to release a highly political song or video. She is getting attention, and the Super Bowl show provided effective advertising for her 2016 tour. Until now, with a few exceptions such as the Fox series Empire, the movement had not been fully-integrated with popular music and popular culture, only making cameo appearances and being injected with short, fleeting references. But this Super Bowl show tells us how far the public consciousness has come in a short period of time, as the music is catching up to the activism already out there.
Perhaps Beyoncé is setting a trend that other black artists will follow, the way that Jay Z has committed $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter-related causes. People in the music industry can combine activism and entertainment, and maybe others should try it, especially when we know these issues are on the minds of the community. Why not give the people what they want?
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove