Music is known to be the best medium to convey powerful, politically charged messages when all else fails. It is rewarding indeed when your unconscious mind forms a small bridgeway all the way through reality, connecting all experiences and solidifying them on paper. When these experiences have been penned down, you have the liberty of embellishing it with beats and the music of your choice thereby transferring the thumping of your own heartbeat to the song. When the notes converge to form the crests and troughs of a melody, your experience somehow becomes the listener’s. Your fears become known to them, the threats faced by your world become their own and you begin to tell them the story of your heart.
We may not know what the average African-American may be facing on home ground be it cultural appropriation, stereotypy and police brutality. Mere newspaper reports of members of the community being roughed up by the police or shot dead by racist organizations may not impact us all that much; but when Beyonce took to the Superbowl Halftime Show this year with her politically charged anthem ‘Formation’, our eyes were opened to the shock and trauma experienced by the African-American people. The video features an almost submerged police car with Beyonce poised atop it challenging the xenophobic haters to try and extricate the African identity from Afro-Am psyche. She recounts with great pride her ancestry through the lines:
“My daddy Alabama, Mama Lousiana,
You mix that negro with that Creole,
make a Texas Bama”
On the other hand, there is a rather saddening message hidden beneath the folds of pride: the pain of having to prove your loyalty on a daily basis. By calling herself a “Texas Bama” in ‘Formation’ and through the lines “This is how they made me: Houston, Texas, baby!” in ‘Girls’ Beyonce reiterates her American identity. Being a woman of mixed racial ethnicity somehow invites racial tension in a country that still has vestiges of desperation in maintaining a purist white identity. Unlike the postcolonial hybrid, she doesn’t experience a feeling of claustrophobia despite being sandwiched between negro, Creole and American identities. There is a unique blending of all the three identities into one, wholesome package. This confidence arms her to be a spokesperson for the many people of her community who are tortured by a couple of the members of the Police Force.
(Photo credit: @Beyonce on Instagram)
The song is replete with images of Afro-Am identity: settlements both ghettos as well as images of quiet dignity, children with curly hair as well as symbols of fashion, cultural and religious sensibility. This duality is enhanced by her firm determination to bust stereotypes of African American identity and potential through the noteworthy lines
“I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it
I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it
I twirl on them haters, albino alligators.”
Besides this, she asserts the ability of the African-American people to be resilient, hardworking, powerful and focused. Should this kind of a people be subject to such great torture at the hands of the so called defenders of the law? Does the sinking of the New Orleans Police car at the end of the video provide us the sinister answer we are looking for? Perhaps the answer lay in the largely negative reactions Beyonce’s performance received at the Super Bowl Halftime show.
Beyonce lets women have the final laugh in the bargain. She reminds them to realize their power to fight injustice. The Malcolm X Formation becomes the metaphorical starting point for the realization of the powerful feminine principle. The concluding lines of ‘Formation’ exhort women to start what is touted as one of the most uncomfortable conversations of White America: the position of African Americans and the dignity due to them. She tactfully juxtaposes the sexism the women would face if they were to take up any cause for the sake of justice.
“Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, I slay
Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation
You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation
Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper”
A second kind of artistic response that I would invite you to take a look at is the more subtle, artsy yet characteristically humane kind. Anoushka Shankar’s latest album ‘Land of Gold’ is one such response. Although not overtly like Beyonce’s firebrand anthem, the titular song containing Anoushka’s stirring sitar and Alev Lenz’s meditative vocals narrate the tale of the Syrian refugee crisis. While Anoushka takes on the task of depicting the mental battle of the refugees as they flee home, Alev Lenz’s lyrical rendition serve as the reminder of the current identity and settlements that the refugees have to inhabit. This sense of ambivalence further intensifies as the song moves towards its latter half. The strumming quickens, the lyrics are sung with greater forcefulness that still carry a tone of resignation. The sudden change in key brings in a wisp of hope into maelstrom of turbulent emotion. The drop from turbulence to sudden calm somehow reminded me of the action of a tidal wave: the height to which it can rise and the abruptness with which it could crash. Was it somehow symbolic of hos the refugees would find their own lives shattered by terrorism. Anoushka Shankar succeeds in depicting the trauma of being flung from a formerly peaceful life, displaced from the only familiar landscape of home and lastly, losing a sense of belonging. The journey motif is evident throughout the piece in which hope marks the beginning and the end.
The responses of Beyonce and Anoushka although very different in their approach remind us of how humane music can actually be. While Beyonce speaks for her community, Anoushka invites us to participate in the emotional dilemma behind a terrifying exodus. This brings me to ask one question that has always preoccupied all of us artists, “Does Life imitate Art or does Art imitate Life?”
(This is a piece I had written for my group ‘Writers’ Association’. You can check out our e-mags by clicking the link https://writersassociation.wordpress.com/)