Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Beyonce in Formation'

Omise'eke Tinsley's 'Beyonce in Formation.'
Omise'eke Tinsley's 'Beyonce in Formation.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"The night Beyoncé stood up in front of a brightly lit sign that declared her a FEMINIST at the 2014 VMAs was transformational," writes Omise'eke Tinsley, "for millions of black women. You could say Beyoncé’s feminist self-declaration broke the internet — or you could say the internet was temporarily fixed. Because for twenty years before that performance, the words most often associated with feminist were militant, radical, man-hating. But for two days after, the word most associated with feminism online was Beyoncé."

When Beyoncé dropped her landmark 2016 album Lemonade, Tinsley was teaching a course at the University of Texas called "Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism." Tinsley recognized that "Lemonade changed everything," offering "a vision of unapologetically black, unapologetically feminist lives situated in the historical, artistic, and political landscape of the U.S. south."

It's a rich visual album, and even an entire book — Tinsley's new Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism — only scratches the surface of its many dimensions. Tinsley celebrates Beyoncé’s art, not uncritically but recognizing that work like Lemonade "offers public space that visualizes possibilities for performing race, gender, sexuality, and region black femme-ly, in ways other representations currently don't."

That "femme" is significant. One of Beyoncé’s trademarks is a traditionally feminine style — dresses, long hair, lipstick, high heels — that's also defiantly feminist. That's earned her critiques from the likes of Annie Lennox, who famously said she didn't want to be a "dancing doll" and disparaged Beyoncé’s "feminism lite." Icon in her own right that Lennox is, she came from an earlier era, and femme-phobic conceptions of feminism exclude women like Tinsley, a self-described "radical black lesbian feminist" who celebrates her femme style. In other words, dressing like Beyoncé instead of Annie Lennox doesn't make a person any less feminist.

In a series of chapters generally inspired by some of the most significant songs on Lemonade, Tinsley mixes stories and reflections from her own life with analyses of the songs and accompanying videos. You'll come away from each chapter with a new appreciation of what Beyoncé has meant to women, particularly black women, across the country.

An early chapter on the song "Don't Hurt Yourself" points out that the song, a Jack White collaboration, samples Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." That song was written in 1929 by Memphis Minnie, an African-American blueswoman whose prowess as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist is still underappreciated. As Tinsley points out, white blues musicians like Eric Clapton will sing the praises of black bluesmen until the cows come home, but female blues greats (some of the greatest among them having been openly queer) are still waiting for their garlands.

So, in one fell swoop, Beyoncé redresses her cheating lover and reclaims a legacy of burning blues that came from black women as well as men before reaching a massive white audience through groups like Led Zeppelin and the White Stripes.

Then there's "Daddy Lessons," the song Beyoncé performed with the Dixie Chicks at the 2016 CMAs. There, writes Tinsley, "she and her musicians were some of the only black people at a ceremony celebrating an art form whose origins, as is well documented, were nowhere near entirely white." When "Daddy Lessons" was released as a video, it was accompanied by a prelude showing girls, mothers, and fathers. The "Daddy Lessons," Tinsley suggests, involve girls and women appreciating their mothers' lives and circumstances so as to help achieve healthier and stronger relationships with their own male partners, sons...and fathers.

Tinsley writes about the sex-positive but frank world of "6 Inch"; the way "Sorry" depicts "fierce femmes" alongside the proudly athletic Serena Williams; and how the spoken-word "Apathy" may be a meditation on both marriage and miscarriage.

Then, she concludes with a discussion of the towering "Formation." This isn't the kind of analysis that breaks down the video frame by frame, or digs into every single lyric. That kind of thing is available online, and it's valuable, but Tinsley has an eye toward the liberating presence of Big Freedia on the track. "I did not come to play with you," declares the Queen of Bounce. "I came to slay."

In the context of Lemonade, the water that at first threatened to drown Beyoncé now becomes, in Tinsley's reading, an empowering metaphor for black womanness. Tinsley, whose husband is trans, sees Freedia's presence in the song as absolutely crucial.

"Formation"’s movement from black women drowning to black women slaying is enabled by Freedia's intervention: her lines are what make the chorus possible, and her declaration of black feminist slayage is what opens space for Beyoncé and her dancers to become an ocean in the parking lot.

Tinsley and her daughter now have an annual tradition where they travel to Madewood, the plantation where the Lemonade visual album was filmed. The trip, Tinsley writes, is "an act of reverence for ourselves: for our black womanness, our Louisiananess, our sorry not sorry-ness, our baby hair Afro yellow bone-ness, our black mama-daughter love, our black femme magic. This is the Beyoncé feminism I want to pass on to my daughter: when life serves you Lemonade, celebrate yourself."

Beyoncé in Formation will be published on Nov. 6, 2018. Preorders are available here.

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