How Beyonce Made Football a Protest Space

Johnson: And why her show tonight at the Linc will feel different as a result of what's been happening in the NFL.

Beyonce performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 7, 2016

Beyonce performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 7, 2016

When “Formation” came out during Super Bowl Weekend, the height of American consumption, culture and entertainment, the opening image of the music video featured Beyonce atop a police cruiser in a flooded New Orleans. There was much to be unpacked in the imagery that coursed through the video, and while many fawned over the instances and message of bad-assery accompanying all things Beyonce, there was an undeniable power in those images in a music video showcasing not only a renewed Beyonce, but also the best leveraging of her brand: politicized, policed and persistent Blackness.

There’s been a litany of thought pieces about her use of a New Orleans styled setting evoking not only the tragedy of southern racism — a thing we still like to assign to geography as if racism’s waters don’t dampen things here up North — but her supposed co-opting of Katrina, the flood that drowned a city and tsunami-ed a black population out of the city. It was seen by some as an insult, an affront to the actual ordeal. A friend who spent some time in New Orleans around Katrina shared this sentiment: “I feel some kind of way about her using the Katrina/New Orleans stuff though.” The argument here being that of cognitive dissonance; that Beyonce — famous, rich, beautiful, presumably untouched by the taint and turmoil of Katrina — was therefore somehow aloof about the importance of utilizing those images and that setting; that, in essence, she had no right to do so. 

But “Formation,” an opening salvo, a fragment of a much greater whole that was the visual, aural spectacle of Lemonade, was an important move by an artist at the masthead of an industry that seemed to overlook not only its core audience but particularly their current day conversational pain, and the way that much of that pain echoed times and generations that came before these times. This was an artist symbol attached to a moment; in the weekend that Beyonce released “Formation” she also performed a Super Bowl halftime show that was framed as unapologetically black, militant and anti-police. The message, from the artist, her music and her music video became the stuff of controversy, and the once unassailable Beyonce became quite the opposite: assailable.

An artist that had had such a practiced distance from vulnerability chose to not only become personally but politically vulnerable, seemingly choosing now, for whatever reasons, to merge all her beings into a newer version of Beyonce. It gave us Lemonade and it gave us the beginning of a public fight. Soon after the “Formation” phenomenon was born a new phrase: “boycott Beyonce.” Police unions, taking umbrage at the megastar’s statements about disproportionate police brutality at the expense of black bodies, quickly turned on the star: Miami, Pittsburgh, New York City, Massachusetts and Tennessee all issued various statements about the star’s protesting voice and music, with some, like the National Sheriff’s Association, going so far as to say that four officer deaths could be linked to the “Formation” video’s airtime and popularity. William B. Johnson, executive director for the National Association of Police Organizations, stated, “Why would any group of working men and women support a rich celebrity who openly glorifies murderers? Why would anybody?”

In early 2016 “Formation” and its supposed disruptive power was all that many could talk about; it could be easy to forget how much Beyonce and the song/video dominated public talk and ire, placing the artist and her fan-base in a peculiar spot usually only reserved for hip-hop artists: anti-authoritative, political and black. She was no longer just entertaining; she was politically informative from a place of blackness. She wasn’t singing about climate change or save the whales; she was singing about the political, brutal climate that blacks found themselves in that made them feel like a hunted, endangered species. That was a problem captured not only captured by the police, but by outlets ranging from blogs, to CNN to Saturday Night Live.

But the embedded images and stories in Lemonade reframed a lot of the album’s and Beyonce’s purpose in this outing: This wasn’t only about all of that though; Lemonade is an anthology of the travails of the black female experience in America. Critics may say that this isn’t new or original, and that’s largely true: Mary J. Blige, Jazmine Sullivan and Jill Scott (just to name a few) have been singing this song for decades now. But few of them have done it with the flourish of Beyonce’s Lemonade, and none of them have curated a stage as big as the one she takes tonight, literally and figuratively.

This will be my second time seeing the Formation World Tour; I saw Beyonce’s first stop in Philly back in June. It was also my first Beyonce concert; Lemonade having fully pulled me into the Beyhive due to much of the substance touched on here. The first show was pure magic; Beyonce took the stage, appropriately opening with “Formation.” In stride with her was a phalanx of black dancers, clad in serious attire and faces, and as Beyonce strode along the stage there was the undoubted feeling that she was a field general taking stock of her troops — the dancers and us. From there she went into a deep series of songs in her catalogue — I don’t remember the order (I was delirious half the concert), but there was everything that made Beyonce the pop culture war crier of a generation for many of us: “Girls,” “Love on Top,” “Drunk In Love” — Beyonce has at this point found a rallying cry for every situation in life from single, to coupledom, to hanging out, to going out, to blackness, to justice, to femininity.

And it’s just those ingredients that will make her return to Lincoln Financial Field different tonight. In that three months’ time, much has changed with our association with football fields and anthems; Colin Kaepernick, another celebrity accused of being too famous, too rich and too removed, has been joined across the country by tons of professional, collegiate and high school players and coaches who have taken a public space — the football field — to demonstrate their disdain with the climate around blacks and police brutality.

In much the same manner, police unions and public disdain have risen in counter-protest, lobbying threats, disagreements and boycotts for peaceful protest of our current times.

Occasionally, detractors try to link these types of protests, like “Formation,” or Kaepernick’s kneeling during the National Anthem, to tragic violence against police, overlooking that the core message is to show solidarity in addressing racial and police reform issues in the country.

It is ironic to think that in many ways, Beyonce was at the forefront of this specific protest space as early as February’s Super Bowl Halftime Show. It highlights an ongoing issue around the protests that reasserts that the issue for antagonists isn’t the method, but the message itself.

Songs, kneels, marches, hashtags and statements have been seen as attacks themselves worthy of boycott, but as police union after police union stands up to endorse Donald Trump, many of us will be increasingly wondering what role the police intend to have.

Tonight there will likely be thousands of hands up as legions of fans kneel before their favorite pop star.

Six months back, Sgt. Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association in New York City said, “I can guarantee that if Beyonce needs help anywhere, police would respond,” itself a statement dripping in condescension and hypocrisy around the role of the police force.

While they’ll be there tonight nonetheless, we won’t need them.

Tre Johnson writes at Dearth of a Nation.