Beyonce's 2016: Feminism, Black Lives Matter and a star's evolution

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Wardrobe malfunctions not withstanding, it is difficult to disrupt a Super Bowl halftime show, the world's biggest and most meticulously crafted extravaganza. Unless you're Beyonce.

In February, amid sanitized performances by Bruno Mars and Coldplay, Beyonce and her all-female, all-black band and dancers marched on the Levi's Stadium football field, and began to sing a newly released song called "Formation."


"My daddy Alabama, mama Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama / I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils," Beyonce sang, staring directly into the camera as 115.5 million viewers watched around the world.

This appeared to be the same woman who performed just a few years earlier at the same event, but with those lyrics and that unwavering delivery, she announced the arrival of a new Beyonce — one willing to confidently express her feminism and black pride to a polarized country.


This was Beyonce, at 34 and fully woke.

By seamlessly blending her recent art and politics via "Formation" and April's "Lemonade" visual album, Beyonce has entered a new era of her career. And it arguably is the most interesting yet because — for once — listeners feel like they're getting the real Beyonce and not just an immaculately manicured brand.

"Before, it was almost like she was kind of a robot," said Tamara Young, a 29-year-old Station North resident attending Friday night's Beyonce concert at M&T Bank Stadium. "Now it's like, 'Oh wow, she's human.' Especially as a black woman myself, it's like she's gone through things I've gone through in relationships, in life."

The journey to this Beyonce has been long and filled with success.

After her initial success as the leader of the R&B group Destiny's Child, Beyonce released a string of solo albums that established her as top-tier pop star able to popularize ballads, high-energy dance songs, kiss-off anthems and female empowerment tracks. Ubiquitous smashes like "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and "Irreplaceable" proved her staying power, but they were also vague enough to feel nearly anonymous. As Beyonce's popularity grew, we felt no closer to knowing what was really in the notoriously private singer's head.

A breakthrough came in 2013, when Beyonce directed and released the HBO documentary, "Life is but a Dream." While the singer completely controlled what made the final cut and what did not, it felt like an 88-minute glance into Beyonce's life as a daughter, a wife and a mother. She opened up about a miscarriage, motherhood and firing her father, Mathew Knowles, as her longtime manager.

"Just getting a more intimate look into her life made her a little more relatable," Young said.

Later that year, she released her fifth album, a self-titled effort that presented its star as self-aware and willing to uplift women with beautiful-in-my-own-skin singles like "Pretty Hurts" and "***Flawless."


But this year signaled a deliberate and unmistakable shift in Beyonce's oeuvre and demeanor, first with "Formation" in February and then her surprise-released sixth album, "Lemonade." While the former is a single focused on black pride and the latter explores infidelity and broke trust over a dozen songs, both releases depict an artist comfortable with expressing herself fully, and perhaps most notably, one not concerned with how others might interpret it.

In that sense, maybe Beyonce expected the backlash of "Formation," which seemed inevitable given the country's current climate of polarized politics and heated debates over police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an author and associate professor of communication and African and African-American studies at Loyola University Maryland, said the striking images of black women, including the mothers of slain young black men Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, in the visuals for "Formation" and "Lemonade" firmly aligned Beyonce with the Black Lives Matter cause.

"It's the old feeling of the Black Panther. It's the afro. It's the black, powerful women who were in the video. These were not thin, light-skinned [women with] long hair — what we consider to be beautiful and standard here," Whitehead said. "This was straight-up sisters who looked strong and danced in a very particular way."

Such a brazen declaration of self-love and pride was quickly met with backlash, which neither Young or Whitehead found surprising.

A Miami police union urged cops nationwide not to attend Beyonce's "Formation" tour, while a Nashville police union asked its members to forgo voluntarily working the concert. On Fox News, Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, said Beyonce used the "outrageous" Super Bowl performance "as a platform to attack police officers."


To Whitehead and others who were moved by the Super Bowl show, Beyonce was taking a stand against police brutality. (The singer confirmed this in a rare interview with Elle magazine, saying, "I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe. But let's be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice." Beyonce's publicist did not respond to the Baltimore Sun's requests for an interview.)

"We have the right just like any other group of people to stand up and say, 'Our lives matter, our voices matter,'" said Whitehead, who this spring released the book "RaceBrave," which reflects her experiences raising two African-American sons in Baltimore. "And the artists who matter to us seem to be getting in line with that."

"Lemonade" garnered headlines for lyrics many interpreted to be accusations of Beyonce's husband, Jay Z, cheating. But the visual album (it debuted as a 65-minute movie on HBO) is filled with images and messages of female empowerment. Beyonce sublimely expresses anger with a baseball bat through car windows one moment, and then sings, "Keep your money, I got my own / Get a bigger smile on my face being alone" before Jack White's guitar wails.

On a recent tour, Beyonce stood on stage in front of towering text that read, "FEMINIST," and "Lemonade" feels like a natural extension of that image. Throughout the album, you don't feel sorry for Beyonce, but rather the man who cheated — for not recognizing what he had and what he jeopardized. The film and album eventually end with forgiveness, but the choice feels wholly hers.

While "Lemonade" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart — thanks in part to its 115 million exclusive plays on Tidal, the music-streaming service she and Jay Z partially own — it has not spawned any major hits on the level of "Single Ladies."

That hasn't stopped Baltimore hip-hop and R&B radio station 92Q from playing "Formation" and even album cuts like "Hold Up" and "Sorry," said the station's on-air personality and program director Vernon Kelson. While "Lemonade" has yet to produce a major crossover hit, Kelson said fans, many of which have called into the station with Beyonce requests leading up to the show, seem more dedicated than ever to the singer.


"Everyone knows the tickets are a little pricey, but then you still have people who are, in some way, putting bills on hold or trying to get some extra money to go see Beyonce," Kelson said.

It's the result of being one of the biggest artists in the world. But even though Whitehead recognizes Beyonce as "our superstar of the moment," she and others remain skeptical of Beyonce's newfound activism.

Joy Postell, a Baltimore-based singer/songwriter who prefers Beyonce's early solo albums to "Lemonade," appreciates that "Formation" makes people uncomfortable because it's a healthy function of art.

But even though Knowles is a credited writer on every song on "Lemonade," Postell questions how significant a role she played in shaping an album with more than 60 credited writers. She and her friends have wondered if this is merely Beyonce using Black Lives Matter as a convenient marketing tool.

"The message is cool. It's nice to hear that there's black empowerment on the radio," Postell said. "But with 'Formation' and 'Lemonade,' I don't know if it's genuine, to be blatantly honest."

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Whitehead, too, questions Beyonce's commitment to these causes. She hopes this is Beyonce finally taking a stand for women and black people, but can't help but ask: Is this savvy and timely marketing executed perfectly?


Only time will reveal the answer, she said.

"I'm skeptical of artists who become very political very quickly," Whitehead said. "If something else comes along and the culture begins to shift, will Beyonce — the polished performer from "I'm a single lady" to "If I were a man" to "Formation" — shift with the tide again?"

Young, however, believes Beyonce has simply grown up, and her music reflects the evolution.

"I feel like I've grown with her a little bit," Young said. "She is human, and she feels things that I feel in my everyday life and things I talk about with my girlfriends, so it is appreciated. It's met with pushback, but I think it's more appreciated than anything else."