Musician Dave Randall looks at the furore surrounding Beyonce's performance at the Super Bowl
Not since the 1968 Olympics has such a media furore been provoked by the raising of defiant black fists at a sporting event. This time it wasn't medal winning athletes on podiums but one of the world's biggest pop stars and her slickly choreographed dancers.
The NFL Super Bowl 50 performance, in front of a TV audience of over 110 million people, referenced the Black Lives Matter campaign, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, hurricane Katrina and featured a dancer holding a 'Justice 4 Mario Woods' sign (Woods was shot dead by San Francisco police in December). In a recent article about Carnival, I argued that we need to bring the politics back to partying. Surely that's what Beyonce just did in spectacular fashion? Well yes, kind of...
Let's start with the least important question; her motives. Either Beyonce is tactically out-manoeuvring Lady Gaga and Rihanna in the fight for chart positions (the revolution will be monetised), or she's sincere – or both. I won't waste time speculating which it is. What we do know is her suggested political solution to the problems faced. The last line of Formation, the new song performed on Sunday, states: “Always stay gracious, the best revenge is your paper”.
In the video Beyonce (immaculately styled in Gucci / Channel / Zimmerman / Fendi / Alessandra Rich / Fallon etc etc) rubs a forefinger and thumb together in the universal sign for cash to clarify what she means by 'paper'. 'Beat the bastards by getting rich' is a convenient conclusion for one of the world's highest earning artists. By her logic, the wealthier she – as an African American woman – becomes, the more she is part of the solution. Other African American artists disagree, arguing that the USA needs less inequality brought about by a redistribution of wealth. For hip-hop artist Killer Mike, hope is not found on the bottom line of his own bank balance, but the bottom up movement for Bernie Sander's Presidential campaign and the economic policies it promotes. When introducing Sanders at a rally in Atlanta Georgia, Mike said:
“I am here as a proponent of a political revolution that says healthcare is a right of every citizen. I'm here because working class and poor people deserve a chance at economic freedom, and yes, if you work 40 hours a week you should NOT be in poverty... I truly believe that senator Bernie Sanders is the right man to lead this country... because he, unlike any other candidate, said [he wants to] end this illegal war on drugs that disproportionately targets minorities and poor... He says education should be free for every citizen of this country...”
Mike is a longterm activist and has become a spokesperson for the new and unprecedented movement for racial, social and economic justice in the USA. It has propelled (self described socialist) Sanders into pole position in some key states, in the race for leadership of the Democratic party, with support flooding in from workers around the country and across the racial divide. It has also created a climate in which Beyonce's team have calculated it expedient (for one reason or another) to get political – and not just the 'I Have A Dream, now realised in Obama' stuff that we've seen from Beyonce before.
For all the haute couture, the Formation video does make explicit references to the ongoing state terrorism being meted out by police departments in poor neighbourhoods across the USA. This is groundbreaking – but don't get too excited trying to anticipate Beyonce's next move. After all, Bono once sang about 'Bloody Sunday' only to go on to become... well... Bono. What is exciting is the potential for the broadening and deepening of that movement.
Of course there are many obstacles. One of them is the entrenched pro-business agenda and affiliations of the Democrats. American workers, even if united, will always be defeated if they expect meaningful change to be delivered by simply electing that party, whoever the leader. Attempts to paper-over class divisions by wealthy black capitalists such as Beyonce may also help to divide and dissipate the movement.
But for now it seems that people power is a growing force. Beyonce's choices and Sanders' popularity are reflections of that. For the movement to remain effective, it will need to confront questions about the nature of the state, the limits of reformism and the importance of having an organised and militant working class. Those conversations become more possible with every advance made by Sanders and every mention of Black Lives Matter in the mainstream media. Beyonce did bring politics to the party. But she only did so because of the growing number of ordinary Americans who are no longer willing to have their needs ignored and communities terrorised. It is their courage and determination that is starting to reshape America's cultural and political landscape.