The Broncos’ defense confused Cam Newton and wrote a storybook ending for Peyton Manning’s career last night, but the most lasting image from Super Bowl 50 is likely to be a woman — dressed in a militaristic twist on Michael Jackson’s own Super Bowl ensemble — marching onto the field flanked by a phalanx of backup dancers outfitted in uniforms inspired by those of the Black Panther Party.
Twenty-four hours prior to the Super Bowl, Beyoncé dropped the video for “Formation” — the most striking political statement of her career.
The song and video manage to create a decadent mix of high and low culture. She rocks Givenchy dresses, but she also keeps hot sauce in her bag (swag). She dances in New Orleans plantation houses, but it also features wig shops. I have money, she seems to be saying, but I haven’t forgotten where I came from.
The line about Red Lobster — which she somehow managed to make sexy — has gone viral, but the most striking effect is created by a series of images towards the end of the video.
The video depicts a black child in a hoodie dancing in front of a line of cops decked out in riot gear. As he finishes dancing, the cops put their hands up in surrender. The next shot pans across graffiti reading “stop shooting us,” which cuts to Beyoncé lying atop a police cruiser becoming submerged in flood waters. The shotgun houses in the background evoke memories of Hurricane Katrina.
For an artist who in the past was accused of not being political, it’s hard to be more political than that.
Coordinated with the release of the video was news that TIDAL — the music streaming service owned by Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z — donated $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter and related causes.
Protest music is nothing new. Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine are recent examples that received a considerable amount of acclaim. But it is difficult to find an analogue to such an overt political statement at an event like the Super Bowl.
The Black Panther imagery is particularly poignant, especially considering the Super Bowl took place in San Francisco. The Black Panthers originated across the Bay from Levi Stadium in Oakland. They began as citizens concerned about police brutality in their community. They would follow the police armed with loaded assault rifles and monitor their interactions with citizens.
It ended up leading to the perverse outcome of California Republicans pushing for stricter gun control laws.
Given that the Party was founded in response to the murder by police of an unarmed black man, it is particularly resonant at a time when such killings are frequently in the news.
Last Thursday, Youngstown State University’s Philosophy and Religious Studies Club held an event discussing the Black Lives Matter movement. Much of the discussion focused on how this message could better reach people and get them to listen, with the implication being that the movement is currently ineffective.
A student suggested the fact that students had gathered together to discuss matters of race is proof the movement is working. These are conversations that were not occurring in America a decade ago. There was a failure to address injustices in black communities as if racism had been left behind in the civil rights era.
In that context, it’s hard not to be impressed by one of the biggest stars in the world, in the most widely-viewed musical performance of the year, singing “OK ladies, let’s get in formation” with an army of Black Panthers behind her.
Unlike Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine before her, who began as protest acts and were barred from events like the Super Bowl, Beyoncé is leveraging her existing fame to inject politics into what is basically a secular commercial holiday.
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