The Blog

Shake Ya Ass, But Watch Yourself! On Beyonce

Some African American writers are instructing Beyonce that if she is going to have a butt that she should not shake it while preaching a serious message. Really? Well, to them I would say consider this: every time I see that butt I think that had a particular school of bigotry lurched in that particular butt's direction it might well be six feet under having had its full butt shaking potential annihilated. As James Brown once sang, "Shake ya ass, but watch yourself..."

"But when you shake your ass they notice fast and some mistakes were built to last." George Michael (Freedom '90)

Innumerable citizens of the Land of the Free, so called, ask God to bless America frequently. I've long pictured God holding his head in agony on a nightly basis as hundreds of millions of American voices ascend the spheres, breaching the serenity of heaven, reiterating the request. I've also wondered, "Why America and nowhere else?" It seems a tad "über alles," but then what would befall if Obama were to say, "Goodnight and God bless China" instead? I wish an American president would slip up thus, just once, just to see what fun days would ensue on the worldwide web.

God's blessing upon the Land of the Free is perceived by its citizens to be a birthright. The perception makes sense: it is what has been taught. It is born of the kind of propaganda that nations tend to generate in classrooms: I pledge my allegiance; your country first; dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; for queen and for country, and so on. But is the British monarch's God the same as the American one? Having been a citizen of two nations, my impression for many years was that the Queen of England was gracious and that it was my duty to implore God to save her. I also believed that Guyana was A "Land of six peoples united and free" because its national anthem says so, but there are actually a few more "peoples" to Guyana's population profile than that.

A nation's peoples process and interpret that nation's propagandist information. They have no choice unless they live somewhere else and subscribe to a different propagandist programme. Whether stable or psychotic/law-abiding or crooked, deep down, Americans respond to what it means to be a citizen within the borders of their realm. This is why Jeb Bush recently tweeted the word "America" attached to a photograph of a gun with his name incused on it. This is why Donald Trump- fusing Patrick Bateman with Travis Bickle- honks, "Let's make America great again!" It is why Obama has voiced calm faith in the American people by disbelieving in the possibility of a President Trump. It is why Beyonce has stirred lust, purchased freedom, social consciousness and success into a tricksy mixture that has potently hexed the Land of the Free.

I don't mind telling you I have been completely obsessed by the song Formation. It isn't unusual for me to play a record I like several times a day, and presently I can't get enough of the sonic assembly that constitutes this controversial masterstroke. I have watched the video and listened. Watched the video and listened. Initially, I struggled to reconcile the plutocracy in the message to its social conscience, its voluptuous visuals to its politics. The message seemed to lack singularity. It was all over the place. But then several viewings and listens yielded dividends. Those dividends might have been apparent at the outset, to the sharper thinker, but I have never filed myself under that heading.

At first it seemed like a massive wind-up, a deliberate "queering" of African Americana: I use the term "queering' to cite the mid twentieth century renunciation of the late nineteenth century homosexual "condition;" the adjustment from the decriminalizing early twentieth century gay ethos to the radicalized, unapologetic, politicized queer; the post Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" merged with Punk's "This is who we are and if you don't like it you can do one!" After all of the comely melodies and Beyonce's stealthy proximity to the Whitney, America's sweetheart succession, out of nowhere she added a sinister, bolshie, in your face edge. At first, I loved it because Beyonce had suddenly thrown "Eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog" into an almighty steaming southern cauldron and made America inhale and choke on it. But I was wrong. That wasn't quite it.

In fact, the message, infuriating, bewildering and inappropriate as its execution may seem, is quite simple: racism and racist violence destroy American potential. Beyonce is raising herself as an example of what can happen if a citizen is allowed to live, to freely and fully realise their prospects. When she says, "Y'all haters corny with that Illuminati mess" she is saying that she has not joined a mythical secret society a la Dan Brown, rather she has grafted for the vaunted dream on offer in the Land of the Free. When she mentions her father and mother, "My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma," it is an American statement more than it is a race declaration. It is the 2016 equivalent of Patti Smith's 1978 Babelogue battle cry, "In heart I'm an American artist, and I have no guilt!"

When Beyonce recklessly rocks her Givenchy dress and intimates to the listener, "When he f*** me good I take his ass to Red Lobster. If he hit it right I might take him on a flight on my chopper..." She is merely saying that she is human, a woman who likes to look good, a woman who enjoys performing spousal duties- two American values if ever I heard them. When she claims that she could "Get your song played on the radio station" or "you might just be a black Bill Gates in the making," she is regurgitating the promises from nationalist propaganda long entrenched in the collective American Dream psyche. It is to this compelling reading of the enshrined dream that she adds her sucker punch.

When you watch the video she sinks, recumbent atop a police car, into the flood. With that simple action she is transmitting what could have become of her if racism had greater reach, alerting her audience to what occurs with the reach that racism already has. She is saying that good fortune has allowed her to become an exemplar of the American Dream. She is acknowledging miracles: her father and her husband are alive and un-incarcerated. In America their survival and freedom has never been a given. I can't agree with those who think that the message is apolitical, and self-aggrandising. I hear a call to arms here, "OK ladies now let's get in formation:" a bid to stand strong, a phalanx of female might in the face of very apparent hostility that fells their men, their husbands, their brothers and their boys.

Another criticism that has arisen in response to Formation is the hackneyed old sleight that is routinely levelled at too many successful female musicians who are unashamed of their bodies: she is not talented- she is a great entrepreneur i.e. if she were any good she wouldn't have to get her kit off. This nonsense just makes me want to swear. OK. Maybe Madonna's timbre is disagreeable to some, but don't try to tell me that Borderline, Like a Prayer, Live to Tell or The Power of Goodbye are just good entrepreneurship, bereft of credible musicianship. Likewise, Beyonce is an entirely credible musician, a supreme rhythmic technician. She has long recognised this and made a killing with it.

The Destiny's Child hits like Bills Bills Bills, Lose My Breath and Independent Woman, alongside solo hits like Crazy in Love, Single Ladies and Drunk in Love are acquitted with innovative melodic/rhythmic invention. You might not like the woman or the message, but when it comes to musicianship one should know one's music and recognise truly outstanding skill before attempting critique! If in doubt try singing the second verse of Independent Woman to the same melodic/rhythmic standard. I won't argue with my friend who the other night said, "She only uses one nostril." Even he admitted that the nostril has impressed him twice, and he isn't easily impressed. More valid was his point about the juxtaposition of Beyonce with Jennifer Hudson in Dream Girls (2006). Beyonce did rather pale in comparison.

Pale comparisons aside, the singer is getting it from all sides of late. It goes with the territory. The police in Tampa, Florida are refusing to police her stadium show: ah yes, lovely Tampa where the police infamously hindered African American voters from getting to the polling booths during the presidential election in 2000- allegedly; Florida, where vigilante desperado, George Zimmerman, DID NOT murder Trayvon Martin. The NYPD is being more "reasoned:" they will not boycott the concert if the singer explains why her Super Bowl turn included women in Black Panther-esque outfits.

Meanwhile, Conservative glove puppets- like Power 105.1 FM, The Breakfast Club's Donkey of the Day, Tomi Lahren who has voiced the questionable concern that Beyonce is advancing a radical agenda against "white domination-" are distracting Americans from the simplicity of Beyonce's Formation message, making it ugly, screaming terrorism, pleading for the salvation of Beyonce's newly "blackened" soul. While some African American writers are instructing Beyonce that if she is going to have a butt that she should not shake it while preaching a serious message. Really? Well, to them I would say consider this: every time I see that butt I think that had a particular school of bigotry lurched in that particular butt's direction it might well be six feet under having had its full butt shaking potential annihilated.

As James Brown once sang, "Shake ya ass, but watch yourself..."