“I Feel Empowered”: One Woman Speaks on Formation

Beyoncé, in a scene from the video for "Formation

WHEN BEYONCÉ released the video for “Formation,” I wasn’t rushing to download it or watch it — mainly because anything that’s going down as “viral” feels like such a put-on, like the world is passing me by if I don’t stop what I’m doing in order to promote the virus. Well, I finally got “infected” and felt like it was time to see what everyone was talking about, to see what exactly was causing so many people to have such positive responses on one hand, and such negative ones on the other.

After watching it, I felt a little stumped, to be honest. Why was this all such a big deal? What exactly was so controversial about the video’s imagery and reference to Katrina? Hurricane Katrina was an event, and it happened. Why is it so strange to comment on the heightened race relations in our country between Black people and the police? Every day there’s another ongoing story about some police brutality issue. And moreover, why is it such a big deal that Beyoncé likes the way her daughter looks? Her, you know, birthed-to-Beyoncé daughter? Why are people holding anti-Beyoncé rallies at the NFL headquarters? And that’s when I realized I didn’t get it. Sometimes I forget how privileged my life has been, having grown up in a progressive family in New York and then having lived in Los Angeles since I was 18. I don’t know very much about the people and the culture between the two. Our country is so huge, with so many different walks of life moving through it, I forget most people haven’t seen the world through my lens.

I decided it was best to ask someone who could identify with the issues Beyoncé’s performance touched upon way more than I could. For lack of a better term, I went straight to a source. I reached out to one of my friends, Val Harvey of Mohawk Makeup, who is Black and female, who grew up in a small community but has gone on to work in one of the most diverse cities in the world. She’s also an amazingly talented make-up artist with a serious gift for gab.

Why do you think people are so shocked by this video? I don’t feel like it shows anything we haven’t seen before or don’t know to be true.

I don’t think “people” are shocked as much as white right-wing males are shocked. They’ve reacted predictably with impulsive criticism based in ignorance. When a group of people rises up and shines a light on personal injustice, the oppressors are quick to discredit it. The difference is that these days people aren’t as quick to believe them. They cannot control the viral popularity of Beyoncé’s message, and that type of power and influence over the people they have disenfranchised scares them more than anything. It is a direct threat to their privilege, way of life, and the legacy they hope to pass on. I think that any person who is racist really hates themselves, and it really gets under their skin to have their indiscretions and their struggle to hang on to the power it gives them waved in front of their face. They want us to just forget about everything and just move on, but the wrongs and injustice continue. They’ve just been repackaged, and we won’t ignore them.

Do any of the lyrics offend you?

They do not offend me at all. The trajectory of Beyoncé’s career would have continued full-steam ahead if she had stuck to her fun, pop, dance-y roots. But we are witnessing her capture an opportunity to truly right wrongs and change minds, and I think she is brilliant for it. Any way the message is presented is going to unsettle people who are not open to change. This conversation needs to be had. These issues are absolutely dividing the nation, and it counts where you stand on them.

Do you think she’s saying “in formation” or “information”?

The genius of it is that it can be taken both ways. Get “in formation,” in my interpretation, is an encouragement to stand together as we once did and get “information” because knowledge is power in this case. We need to recognize who is pumping knowledge and imagery into the American consciousness, and who creates the want and demand. Who stands to benefit if we can’t get past racism in this country?

Why do you think Beyoncé is making a political statement like this one right now?

If you are Black, there is no escaping the feelings of disappointment for continuing injustice. There’s a fear that if we say nothing, we lose progress. When you tolerate injustice, you are giving the message that you accept it as a given. If you love yourself, there is no way that you can stomach this misbelief without speaking out.

Do you think the video and the song are about Black empowerment, or female empowerment? Or both, even?

I think there is striking imagery that is a constant and nearly-exclusive theme in Beyoncé’s recent videos. She’s not singing about being “bootylicious” in the same way anymore. She is preaching a message of Black love AND self-love for women of all races in her video. Love for yourself gives you power and the peace of mind to be OK with everyone around you. Up until recently in history, people of color accepted the fact that they would certainly be mistreated by police. The police and politicians banked on that to control minorities and to line their pockets with revenue created from the “war on drugs” and from the prison systems. We are all standing “in formation” against this unfair and inhumane treatment. It is no longer acceptable that we are slaughtered in the streets without consequence, that we are assumed to be guilty without a trial. We’re through being the target of prison sentences that are disproportionate to the crimes committed and I am proud that a strong, beautiful black woman like Beyoncé is spearheading this movement.

While I think that Beyoncé’s message is definitely about female empowerment, it’s specifically about Black female empowerment because it is SO necessary in this country. In so many popular rap and R&B songs and music videos by Black male artists. the defamation of a black woman’s character has been precipitated by painting her as a chickenhead, a ho, a b**ch, having a nappy weave, and being worth nothing but a one-night stand. Those are only a few of the images in lyrics that come to mind. The WORLD — myself included — has been singing along to these catchy tunes without registering the extent of the subliminal damage of these dehumanizing lyrics.

The underlying truth that no one is talking about is how there is no other group of people who has historically been dehumanized that itself contributes to the defamation of its own character by demeaning the women who brought it into the world. This is done purely for profit and entertainment. Beyoncé is trying to change this conversation. When I was growing up, on top of dealing with racism and sexism, white-dominated media made me feel self-conscious about the image of Blackness I presented to the world, and this kind of mentality is fostered within our own communities. Beyoncé not only proves that women can do anything men can, but also that Black women are beautiful from their heads to their toes. She is celebrating a deviation from white-washed standards of beauty, which gives us the confidence to make a real difference in our lives.

How does this video make you feel?

Empowered. I’m not a political person, but my consciousness has definitely been raised and I appreciate it. I am fully behind the movement because it will only create a better world for us to live in. I imagine a world, like Dr. King did, where we don’t have to talk about these things anymore, and I wish for its presence to come swiftly. But we all know how long it takes to change minds. Until then, like Beyoncé says in the last verse of “Formation”: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

This is what I love about my friend. She keeps it real, straight to the point, and has the ability to translate her feelings in a way that I, an outsider to this message, can further understand and feel empowered by… even if it’s not for me or by me, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t stick with me. I’m in formation.

Valerie Harvey is an LA-based make-up artist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.