Yes, Beyoncé’s “Formation” is a Civil Rights anthem

Vincent Anthony
10 Min Read

Beyoncé has created an anthem; a pro-black, pro-women, pro-LGBT, anti-establishment, anti-hater anthem. Naturally, her haters have responded with… well, hate. Naysayers criticize the song for being basic, the lyrics for being silly, and the song for being ratchet. They seem to believe that just because the song makes you want to twerk and isn’t serious in tone or eloquent in vocabulary, that somehow it is invalidated as a Civil Rights anthem.

Wrong. That belief or expectation of what “should” be or how something “should” sound is exactly what Beyoncé has been quietly revolting against since the surprise drop of Self-Titled in 2013. The industry dictates a pattern of how to release an album and a single; Beyoncé turned that upside down. Top 40 radio dictates what a hit single sounds like and how it should be attained; Beyoncé turned that upside down. Condescending, elitist music fans dictate what a socially conscious, Civil Rights anthem “should” sound like and consist of… and, once again, Beyoncé turned that upside down, with “Formation.”

There are many levels to “Formation,” and like with the visual album, its first listening was intended to be a first viewing for a reason. The song and video go hand-in-hand.

So, let’s break it down, shall we?

The track begins with Yoncé reading her haters, calling them “corny with that Illuminati mess.” The Illuminati conspiracy theory has been a frequent go-to for haters of the Carters, attributing their success to a mythical secret society that controls the music industry. Beyoncé offers this simple line to clear it up that her success is 100% her own. She goes on to boast about fashion, her man (“I’m possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces”), and her ethnic heritage. She proudly reminds us that her “daddy Alabama, Mama Louisiana” which, when “you mix that Negro with that Creole makes a Texas bamma.”

She continues her pro-Black message, while further addressing her haters, asserting “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros, I like my negro nose, with Jackson 5 nostrils.” For years, people have criticized Beyoncé for being with Jay-Z, often making fun of his nose and likening him to Joe Camel (which he has addressed in his own music). Similarly, the worst kind of haters have made fun of Beyoncé’s decision not to style her daughter’s hair, opting instead for a natural look for Blue Ivy. The video shows her daughter, proudly sporting her natural afro alongside two other young girls, also rocking natural hair. With these two simple lines, Beyoncé renders the haters’ opinions irrelevant – she asserts that, if that’s how she likes it, then that’s how it’s going to be. Finally, she addresses any criticisms that fame has changed her, letting us know that despite her immense wealth, she’s still country… with one, infinitely quotable line: “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.”

The video version of the song includes monologues from New Orleans sensations Messy Mya (“I’m back by popular demand!“) and Big Freedia, who proclaims “I did not come to play with you hoes, I came to slay, bitch. I like cornbreads and collard greens, bitch. Oh yes, you best to believe it.” Big Freedia compliments Beyoncé’s previous, loving affirmation of Black culture with the cornbread and collard green quote, but also adds another dimension to the song: love for the gays. It’s no secret that phrases like “slay” and “trick” are a product of Black gay culture, and Beyoncé adopts the term “slay” in “Formation” – it’s repeated throughout, as a way to positively affirm the things she speaks on. Essentially, it serves as a IDGAF suffix, effectively meaning “Yes, I like who I am, bitch, I slay.” Werq, King.

The song’s title comes from the refrain in which she repeats, “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, ’cause I slay.” The message here is simple: if women work together, in unison, they slay. “Prove to me you got some coordination,” she demands, perhaps speaking not only to the ladies here, but to all minority groups, effectively reminding us of the notion that there is strength in numbers, in unity. (Though, she very well could just be speaking to the ladies, after all, on 2006’s “Upgrade U” she said, “I could do for you what Martin did for the people, ran by the man but the women keep the tempo.”) She closes the refrain with, “Slay trick, or you get eliminated,” which may on the surface sound like just another line to “yassss” to, but perhaps a deeper meaning lies beneath: you have to love yourself, and believe that you “slay,” or the dominant groups will eliminate you.

Following this, Beyoncé delivers perhaps the most provocative line of the song: “when he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster.” Certainly, it’s a surprise to hear such a line from Beyoncé, and it’s definitely funny… but, there’s more to this, too. Notice where the power lies in this statement: she is the one taking him to Red Lobster. She’s footing the bill, not the other way around. Stereotypes dictate that men are expected to pay for dinner, that men take women out to dinner, that women should perform sex to please a man, with his pleasure in mind… but with this one, seemingly basic line, Beyoncé flipped that notion on its head, too. The lines to follow continue on the same line of thought; she says she’ll drop him off at the mall to go shopping in her chopper, “if he hit it right.” She even says that she could “get [his] song played on the radio,” which is another role reversal. You often hear women being criticized for “fucking for tracks,” or “sleeping their way to the top” but Beyoncé is saying that she has just as much power in that department as any man would. In fact, she could make him a Black Bill Gates, she says… until she realizes, fuck that, she is “a Black Bill Gates in-the-making.”

The “Formation” refrain about slaying repeats again, and the video shows some more powerful imagery. There is an image of young, Black child dancing in a hoodie in front of a line of police. At the end of his (or her?) performance, he opens his arms in the air, and the police put their hands up. It is a not so subtle nod to Trayvon Martin (hoodie), Mike Brown (hands up) and probably Tamir Rice (the age) as well. To close the video, there is a shot of a wall, spray painted with the message “STOP SHOOTING US” followed by Beyoncé laying on top of a New Orleans police car, sinking beneath into a flooded New Orleans street. Why New Orleans? Well, aside from Yoncé being Creole, New Orleans and the Hurricane Katrina tragedy are representative of the race-based inequalities in America. The message? Formation and coordination can sink the establishment, can stop elimination.

Alongside these powerful images, she closes the song with an equally powerful and provocative statement: “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation, always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” She knew such intense imagery would spark conversation. She knows she has the power and the platform to spark dialogue, ignite the masses, and provoke thought. However, she didn’t relinquish her responsibility to also make us move on the dance floor with “Formation.” The song can make you think, twerk, and hopefully inspire action. Still, Yoncé encourages her listeners to be like her; to be gracious in response to negativity… nothing upsets haters “albino alligators” more than success in spite of the odds, in spite of their oppression.

So get in formation. And slay.

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Vincent is the founder of the magazine and has had a strong passion for popular music since, well, 1997! If it's not obvious, his favorite artists include Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, P!nk, and many more. Vincent lives in New York, where he is a high school English teacher, and currently he is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.