London-based spoken word artist James Massiah tells Wonderland exactly what he thinks about Beyoncé’s “Formation”.

Black turtle neck by ASTRID ANDERSEN, black wool jacket by HERMES and black military beret STYLIST’S OWN

Black turtle neck by ASTRID ANDERSEN, black wool jacket by HERMES and black military beret STYLIST’S OWN

I am a fan of Beyoncé; though I’m not sure I always have been. I certainly wasn’t in my days as a conservative Seventh-day Adventist Christian, and it took me a while to warm to her following my fall from grace. I was still very much caught up in the “girls wear pink, boys wear blue (and don’t listen to Beyoncé)” state of mind as an 18-year-old, just starting to find my way along a new path through the forest of gender and sexuality.

Once I’d made my departure from conventional religion, I became deeply obsessed with the occult and the androgynous Baphomet figure through whom all things were not only possible but also permissible. It was in a YouTube conspiracy theory-cum-Panorama documentary film I watched, which featured an image of Baphomet superimposed onto Beyoncé (“ya’ll haters are corny with that Illuminati mess”), that I discovered and inadvertently fell in love with the synthetic electro-funk of “Sweet Dreams”, and considered that if Beyoncé could pack that much esoteric, subversive spirituality into a pop track, then maybe she’s more gifted than I had previously given her credit for and worthy of a second look.

During this time, I was in my first year of university, generally having my ideas challenged and being forced to reconsider my preconceptions on almost everything, not least the aforementioned discourses through the work I encountered in modules such as “Postcolonial Literature” and “The Women’s Movement”.

As a woman who is adept at moving, Beyoncé has booty-shaken, hair-whipped and costume-changed her way through different eras and trends in popular music which, in the modern West, is almost wholly composed of genres whose birth and growth have been steeped in the oppression and resultant expression of black people from the Americas and further afield in the shapes of hip-hop (“Drunk In Love”), R&B (“Blow”), dancehall (“Baby Boy”) and afrobeat (“Grown Woman”). Most recently, Beyonce has latched on to the issue of black oppression quite explicitly, through both the lyrics and visual media for her latest and perhaps most controversial hit “Formation”, which features references to post-Katrina New Orleans, the Jim Crow era, afrocentric beauty and some shots at the police.

Now I’ve mentioned popular music, and I’d like to say that this is by no means an accidental usage of the word, for our darling Beyoncé is ultimately a popstar. Yes, she is an icon, a voice, and a symbol of power and success, and all other kinds for men and women across the spectrums of race and gender and all the rest, but I have been very careful not to buy into the idea of her as a new radical political figure. As an incredible cynic and recently jaded Lefty, I have been disappointed in the past by my heroes because I began to see them as more than they really were. So when it becomes apparent that even within “Formation” there are questions to be asked about colourism, elitism, materialism, the shiny new face of Black Liberation begins to grow somewhat pale.

So what next? Where do we go from here? Well, I’ll try to tell you from my perspective as an egoist and moral nihilist. Simply put, Mike Will Made It is one of my favourite producers of recent times, but not because of his political, moral or religious views, rather because of what his art does to me on a visceral level. Equally Beyoncé, an incredible vocalist who has performed a number of tunes that I hum to myself, sing out loud and proudly play at parties not because she has suddenly become an advocate for what some might consider to be an important social issue, but because of what she makes me feel. “Formation” made me feel something and that is to her credit as a vocalist and performer as well as to Mr Made It’s credit as the track’s producer, not forgetting the talents of the video director, the choreographers, and everyone else involved in.

So yes Beyoncé, do your thing, I love “Formation” — I’m just aware that any “real” change is going to require a little more than a black beret, rolling hi-hats and a Gucci playsuit. I’m a naturalist and a stoic, and I believe that the way things are is quite simply just the way things are, and if anyone wants to change things in the real world they’ll have to impose themselves upon that reality in order to do so. Protests and pop songs are evidence of steps in consciousness towards that change, but perhaps it will require a more organised and perhaps militant response from oppressed groups wanting a bigger piece of the pie.

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