Beyoncé is back. “Formation,” her new single (and tour), is a serious statement. The track is laced with political and social commentaries. Bey is making an incredibly bold point. Bringing the deepening racial divides in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the public’s attention, whilst also marking her support for the Black Lives Matter charity and campaign. Tidal (her husband, Jay Z’s, company) donated $1.5 million to the organisation, the day before “Formation” was released. This brilliant article by Jessica Bolaños Vanegas describes the enormous amount of layers to the song in more detail and better than I could ever hope to.
This all happened two days before Super Bowl 50. The halftime show was billed as Coldplay’s but it was never about them. In fact, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars’ dance off stole the show and left Chris Martin floundering in the background looking unbelievably white and uncool. No one is talking about the Londoners in the aftermath, all that is being discussed is that what Beyoncé was trying to say. Her, all her dancers and Bruno’s counterparts were clad in Black Panthers’ uniforms. A revolutionary socialist and black rights political party that was active during the 60s, 70s and early 80s. The reaction from the far right, Donald Trumpites was comical. Rush Limbaugh called it "representative of the cultural decay and social rot that is befalling our country." Absolutely ridiculous I know, but it shows Beyoncé is really ruffling some feathers.
There was even a protest outside the NFL head office called The Anti-Beyoncé Protest Rally. “Do you agree that it was a slap in the face to law enforcement?” read the call to arms from the far right protesters, “Do you agree that the Black Panthers was/is a hate group which should not be glorified? Come and let’s stand together. Let’s tell the NFL we don’t want hate speech & racism at the Super Bowl ever again!” The fact this bunch of idiots felt compelled to do this emphasises the sad state of affairs in the US right now, but more importantly underlines the need for this song. There are issues that needed to be given mainstream attention and it’s incredible to see Beyoncé putting her neck on the line for what she believes in.
It is this bravery that makes any good piece of protest music. Up until very recently, any form of protest had been lacking from popular music. In the last year though, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly has lamented against police brutality in one of the best albums of 2015 (and one that should win a Grammy today). Up until then though, anyone speaking up had been rendered to the sideline of public consciousness.
In the last 3 years, Run The Jewels (aka Killer Mike and El-P) have released two brilliant records shouting out against the same issues, but have failed to break into popular culture in the same way. Their message was pretty strong. They enlisted Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F***)” which featured on last years RTJ2:
The video is a bold and clear statement and one which both their records continued. Having Zack on board was a massive boost for the rappers. He and his band were possibly the last protest act to get the publicity needed for the message to get across. They haven’t had any new music out since 2000, and there had a been a big gap in mainstream music since then.
Over in the UK, we have Enter Shikari. A unique blend of electronic, hardcore punk and trance sounds, but with a heavy, in your face, political rhetoric. For all of their 4 albums, they’ve spewed angry lyrics at you at a rate of knots. It’s infectious, and their latest defence of the NHS in “Anaesthetist,” was a message the UK needed. Sadly though, due to their underlying hardcore roots, they were never going to have an impact on popular culture and spend the majority of their time preaching to the choir. Struggles they shared with Run The Jewels.
The point I’m trying to make here is that protest music is massively important. It’s music that makes you get up and want to fight against injustice. Utilising the wonderful power music has over our emotions. Society needs people to speak up and give their views otherwise free speech is just a cute idea. But, for it to be effective, it needs to reach the majority of society, and Beyoncé is doing just that. All hail Queen Bey.
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