Cam Newton is an elite quarterback. That statement remains true despite the results of Sunday night’s annual bacchanal of U.S. patriotism, the eagle-screeching, Lady Gaga-soaring, skull-smashing Super Bowl championship game, where the Denver Broncos bucked the odds to triumph over Newton’s nearly undefeated Carolina Panthers. But the way he’s been talked about, by fans and various talking heads, is as a selfish boor. The year’s regular-season MVP dared to celebrate his many successes with a dance move—the dab—during a score. It’s arrogant and disrespectful of the game, many would say—a game that likely causes brain damage in its participants, but hey, whatever. The gall of this black quarterback!
On the other side, we had Peyton Manning, still the great white hope despite his Methuselah age, lauded despite his objectively poor play. (The Broncos, it should be said, won the Super Bowl despite, not because, of Manning.) The dichotomy of how the Super Bowl quarterbacks were perceived and portrayed—the bookish, thoughtful Manning versus the cocky, brash Newton—made it clear: the NFL has a race problem.
The NFL, of course, is hardly alone in its race problems. (Race is also hardly its only problem, since concussions and a dictatorial style of administration both continue apace). So when Beyoncé took the stage in front of millions as part of a Super Bowl halftime show ostensibly headlined by Coldplay but, truth be told, was the Beyoncé and Bruno Mars show, that performance wasn’t merely worthy of all the adjectives she typically earns—those beatific, regal, variously screeched exultations. It was also important—as a daring statement of blackness, in a temple of white America typically reserved for mirth and memes, for left sharks and crotch slides.
On Saturday night, she released a new single and music video, “Formation.” It’s cut from the same vital cloth that made her 2013 self-titled album so terrific: sensual, domineering, totally in control, and a celebration of her own joyous Southern blackness. “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros/ I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils,” she growls in the song’s core hook, before two New Orleans icons, the late Messy Mya and bounce artist Big Freedia, talk in conqueror’s tones about their love of cornbread and collard greens. In the video, a police cruiser sinks into a flooded New Orleans; “Stop Shooting Us” is scrawled on walls as a black boy dances in front of a line of police officers, who raise their hands as Ferguson protesters did.
On its own, performing this song during halftime of the Super Bowl—an event that has broken ratings records every year since 2005—would be powerful enough. But she decided to make her statement a radical one. She dressed as Michael Jackson, the first pop star artist to perform solo at the halftime show (and, of course, a black man), complete with Jackson’s famous cross-belt of bullets. Behind her, a cadre of backup dancers were dressed as Black Panthers; before the show, some of them called for justice for Mario Woods, killed by San Francisco police in December. And indeed, her performance came in San Francisco, a city where, exactly 50 years ago, the police slaying of unarmed black teen Matthew Johnson sparked the creation of the Black Panthers in the first place. This performance was peak Beyoncé, having summited the peak, an unapologetic black woman.
Cynics could argue that this is may be a callous corporatization of racial culture, the bundling up of blackness to sell Beyoncé as an artist and to market her world tour. (Indeed, dates were released by Twitter minutes afterward.) You could make the argument that Beyoncé, recently charged with cultural appropriation for her Bindi-dotted appearance in a music video with Coldplay, and whose wealth could make her seem disconnected with her black roots, may not be the perfect figure for this statement.
But Beyonce’s last album was political enough—particularly with its bold proclamations of femininity, and its songs dappled with references to her Houston upbringing in the predominantly black Third Ward—that those criticisms ring hollow. And as Danielle C. Belton writes at The Root, being a famous black woman in the hungry public eye is a political act in itself. “What if I told you that to be black in a public space, with all eyes on you and choosing carefully how to handle that spotlight is a form of politics, a negotiation between the self and the world that all black people must make?” But being explicitly political in your public life is an active decision any person of colour has to make—this writer included—and Beyoncé is proving ever more comfortable and willing to do so. And with the performance’s Black Panther homage, she’s doubling down hard.
“Earned all this money but they never take the country out me,” she sang in “Formation,” and that feels important too: At this Everest of capitalism, she’s stabbing down her flag, and positing her wealth as part of this continuum of proud blackness. She’s a public figure grappling with the politics of her skin colour, and she’s doing so from inside perhaps the truest barometer of popular culture, with all its capitalist tentacles. There is tremendous meaning in hearing that, and seeing her, swathed in representations, in America’s beating cultural heart. Cam Newton almost certainly couldn’t hear her, buried in his playbook in an ultimately vain effort to win the game. But at least millions of others did.
Adrian Lee speaks to CityNews about this column: