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In formation: how Beyoncé, Rihanna and Missy Elliott are disrupting the establishment

Editorial Staff

Written by Aparita Bhandari

OK ladies, now let’s get in formation.

Since Beyoncé unleashed “Formation,” there’s been a growing chorus of analyses about her pro-black, pro-self-love anthem. To be honest, I’ve been thinking about #blackgirlmagic for longer than that. I’ve been thinking about it since Missy Elliott’s surprise appearance at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, and then again when she released “WTF (Where They From).” I was also thinking about it last summer, when everyone was talking about Rihanna’s provocative video for “B---h Better Have My Money.”

Maybe it’s just the way “Formation” was unleashed upon us – so sudden and all-encompassing. I can’t stop thinking about the Beyoncé-Rihanna-Missy Elliott trinity, and what it all means right now. After all, Rihanna just released her much anticipated eighth album ANTI last month, which was less about churning out chart-topping hits, as expected, than vibing with her artistic abilities. Then there was that sly announcement by Missy Elliott during a Superbowl commercial to watch out for her new single “Pep Rally.”

To borrow from Beyoncé, these three women have been able to “cause all this conversation,” and the message has been heard and shared as a collective roar – they're done playing by the rules of the establishment. Their songs aren’t just ditties to bop along to, but a call-out to dwell on the discomfort they cause.

As a South Asian woman in the diaspora, their songs articulate my own struggles to fit in, here and at home. Growing up in New Delhi, I wished my hair wasn’t curly, I was told to stay out of the sun, and sexual policing was a very real thing. To this day, now living in Toronto, I am occasionally asked if I really wouldn’t prefer straight hair – by family members, by hairdressers, by people in my community and beyond. I see it as a way for my people to deny our own blackness, to align ourselves with a lighter, whiter, heteronormative normal.

So while I am not familiar with the specific references to southern blackness in “Formation,” I can feel the song in my gut – right from the trap music influenced opening twangs and Beyoncé’s low growling vocals, building up to the defiant reclamation of being a “Texas bama.” I had to read up to fully understand the implications of that particular insult, but I knew the subtext deep within my own body.

Given that context, and the conversations alive right now about diversity, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Missy offer a way to challenge the narrative of the establishment. Beyoncé and Rihanna, in particular, have achieved a level of global pop stardom that’s allowed them to subvert the system they are undeniably a part of, while Missy was never really part of that system in the first place.

When Beyoncé and Coldplay released “Hymn For The Weekend” late January with a video set in India, featuring holy men and street kids joyfully throwing colourful powder while Beyoncé was dressed in Bollywood-esque attire, social media exploded with accusations of cultural appropriation. I found myself questioning whose video was that really? Like New York based DJ Thanu Yakupitiyage’s said, “[w]hile Beyonce’s ‘character’ is a troubling depiction, my concern is less with her individual presence in the video than the message it sends about Western and White power over brown and black bodies.”

Then came “Formation,” in which Beyonce is totally in control of her image. You have to look at “Formation” as song, video and performance all-in-one, says Naila Keleta-Mae, assistant professor of drama at the University of Waterloo, where she researches race, gender and performance.

“Beyoncé is absolutely a pop artist, and that’s what makes ‘Formation’ so interesting and compelling,” she says. The audience is witnessing a consummate performer, who has commanded the stage for more than two decades.

“It was so multi-layered and hitting all kinds of notes, with just enough pop to keep everyone else happy," she says. "In the video that came out the day before [her Super Bowl performance], there was a sophistication to the blackness she’s articulating, in the way she says it. There was a social awareness of what’s taking place right now.”

This isn’t entirely new, however. “When Beyoncé was singing ‘Bootylicious,’ she was still talking about her blackness.”

Critics were confused when Rihanna’s album ANTI came out, as Jenna Wortham pointed out in the New York Times, calling the album “uneven, scattered and sloppy.” But as a longtime Rihanna fan, Wortham found her it to be her most daring album. “[The] distinct luxury of a musician who is free in all ways, artistically, thematically and financially.” And as Erin MacLeod points out in an NPR essay, “[it’s] anti-establishment, anti-expectation, but it’s also anti-colonial … It doesn’t have to be (or want to) one thing.”

While critics were trying to dissect an album that isn’t a playlist of pop hits, ANTI reminded me of what I found compelling about “B---h Better Have My Money,” the single she released last summer. The staccato snarl, the impolitic demand to be paid back what was rightfully owed her.

Her music brings up the idea of reparations, says Macleod, a researcher, writer and teacher based in Montreal, pointing to Doreen St. Felix’s analysis of the single.

“I know this idea doesn’t have much traction in the United States, but it’s a very real debate in the Caribbean, and especially Barbados, where Rihanna is from,” she says. (This idea is also alive in South Asia, including repeated demands that the Kohinoor diamond be returned to the subcontinent.)

That stars like Rihanna spend so much money on producing their songs should indicate how much attention they give to their lyrics, she adds. “When you listen to a song with lines like ‘Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?’ and ‘F--- ya white horse and ya carriage,’ how can you not see that as a postcolonial narrative?”

People don’t understand the deep cultural reservoir of music and imagery that Rihanna draws upon, adds Rinaldo Walcott, associate professor and chair in the department of sociology and equity studies at OISE/University of Toronto.

“Some people were tweeting the other day that parts of 'Work' are gibberish,” says Walcott, also a Barbadian native. “But they don’t know about the cultural practice of the Tuk Band; it’s like the Mummers in Newfoundland. During Christmas time they come around house to house and engage in a language of gibberish.”

Although Rihanna draws from a marginal culture that’s from outside the U.S., she is often lumped together with Beyoncé “and rolled into a lighter shade of whiteness and seen as global megastar,” he says. “They are not considered like other blacks, so when all of sudden you see a presentation of blackness [at the Super Bowl] you get people like [Toronto] councillor Jim Karygiannis or [former New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani get riled up.”

It’s easy to be dismissive of such remarks, but they serve as a reminder, yet again, of the complete disconnect between people in power and the word on the street, as well as the power structure these artists are working against.

That brings us to Missy Elliott, who never really belonged to any formulaic ideas of what a pop diva should look or sound like, even though she’s credited as the originator of a template for artists ranging from Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks to MIA. As a result, Walcott and Keleta-Mae point out, she’s often left out of the conversation altogether despite her creative genius.

“In terms of black communities who are deep into pop culture, Missy is a legend,” says Walcott. “But she does not resonate in the same way – she’s not skinny, there’s that possibility of non-heterosexuality. … You cannot market Missy easily to a 15-year-old white boy and his fantasies.”

Which is exactly what makes her presence so personal, political and powerful.

Although Missy, and by extension Beyoncé and Rihanna, operates from the margins, she refuses to be marginalized, says Zandria Robinson, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology at Rhodes College, Tennessee.

“Missy uses her body to take up a lot of space, and black women are not often allowed to take up space,” says Robinson, who also wrote about “Formation” and Beyonce’s articulation of southern blackness on her blog New South Negress.

Similarly, Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” was also a transgression, specifically in how it called upon a poetic of black radical feminism, says Andrea Davis, assistant professor and chair at the department of humanities at York University.

“It inserts black women as political voices in their society. We have an opinion, we know what’s going on, we feel and we understand things. But as black women we also have intersectionalities connecting us with black men,” she says. “The black nationalist movement is overwhelmingly seen as centring on the black man as a leader, but a lot of ground work was done by women in churches, by school teachers and women who marched until their shoes fell off. … The [‘Formation’] video really repositioned black women in the narrative in the same way, making it profound and genuine.

“If we think of these three women together and think of the contribution they have made to a highly gendered space – which grew out that black nationalist narrative – you have to remark on how successful they are,” she says. “Even the form of their videos, with disruptive sequences. That in itself disrupts the idea of music as consumption. It becomes a resistance against an industry that has really done violence in any number of ways against black people through stereotypes.”

While these three artists all represent a radical black feminism, they do so by travelling different pathways, says Robinson.

“Missy’s radical black feminism has always pushed back against femininity, her use of bigness is so smart and radical because you don’t have to be a dainty Southern belle to be black. You’re already on the margins, so why not amplify it and make it really loud,” she says. “Rihanna is doing a similar thing through capital. … If you’re going to get your money, you have to do something radical. Black women’s money supports a whole community.”

But most of all, it marks an important moment in the way in which black women’s voice are coming together with a range of other voices via social media. “As strange as it sounds, there’s an impetus to listen to women now,” says Robinson. “Women have always been doing work – or as Rihanna says, ‘Work, work, work, work, work’ – but today through the nature of the internet, there’s an element of organizing, of more people’s voices being heard. This is the third, maybe fourth wave of black feminism saying, you will not do to us what you did back then.”

After all, there’s something innately threatening about the black woman, about her voice, her presence, says Davis. “When a black woman comes to the front of her room, you never know what will come out of her mouth. Is she there to talk or sing? Who will she indict today?”

Now please excuse me as I go take my place in formation.

Follow Aparita Bhandari on Twitter: @Aparita