A look back at Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance: Why was it so important?

By Rachel McLoughlin / February 13, 2021
beyonce super bowl

Last weekend marked 5 years since Beyoncé’s captivating appearance as a special guest at the 2016 NFL Super Bowl halftime show, with the performance of her latest single, “Formation,” grabbing headlines and provoking both controversy and praise in the U.S. and beyond. The controversy widely came due to her “politically charged” message, which drew attention to some of the major issues plaguing Black Americans, such as police brutality and media representation.  

“Formation” was the lead single from Beyoncé’s sixth studio album, Lemonade, and comes with a powerful sentiment of Black pride and owning who she is as a Black woman. With reference to embracing her child’s natural Black features – “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” – and tracing back to her roots – “earned all this money but they never take the country out me” – proudly declaring she’ll never forget where she came from, the lyrics are unflinchingly confident and full of pride for her authentic self, providing unabashed female representation for her Black listeners.

In turn, the “Formation” music video, released just one day before the Super Bowl halftime show, exhibits many different depictions of issues facing Black Americans today. These range from a young Black boy dancing in front of police officers who are dressed in riot gear, with the boy holding his hands up as if to say “don’t shoot”, a wall graffitied with the words “stop shooting us”, and Beyoncé herself shown atop a flooded New Orleans Police Department squad car, representing the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – a city which had one of the highest Black populations in the United States in 2010 – which left thousands of citizens without food, water or housing. 

Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance further concentrated on these issues, paying tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. Her dancers donned berets reminiscent of the uniform of the Black Panthers, one of the most prominent civil rights groups of the late 1960s, with Beyoncé and her backing dancers raising a fist into the air (the Black Panthers’ famous salute) at one point during the performance, again paying tribute. Homage was also paid to late civil rights activist Malcolm X, with Beyoncé and her dancers forming a large “X” shape during the performance. 

The song, music video, and subsequent Super Bowl performance brought with it a divisive moment in Beyoncé’s career – up until this point, she had become a universal celebrity icon with a widespread presence in the mainstream music scene, and had largely not spoken or performed publicly regarding her race or racial issues. After the performance there was no denying it – Beyoncé was “unapologetically Black” and wanted to demonstrate this with pride to the mainstream, while instilling this same pride within her Black listeners. 

However, with Beyoncé’s music now beginning to show elements of her Blackness and issues surrounding Black representation, the mainstream narrative slightly shifted. Much of the backlash to the performance of “Formation” involved certain right-wing organisations and figures, including that of American Family Association’s governmental affairs director Sandy Rios, who criticised the NFL for allowing the performance to take place, claiming that it honoured murder and anti-American terrorism in its stoking of “black hatred towards whites”.

The ostracisation Beyoncé experienced for her apparent anti-white sentiment shows a comprehensive gap in basic cultural understanding from many groups in America, and the discomfort often shown when any prominent public figure goes “against the grain”; in this case, going against the grain simply meant Beyoncé celebrating her culture during Black History Month and demanding justice for those unlawfully killed. Marquita Gammage examines this in the Journal of Black Studies, “despite her stature in popular culture, the industry confines Beyoncé to a unidimensional existence, such that any appearance of Black advocacy renders public backlash”. 

Beyoncé’s “unidimensional existence” largely owes to her everpresence in mainstream pop culture over the years, and Zeba Blay raised the point in the Huffington Post that Beyoncé had been playing the “long game” by biding her time to gain a much wider reach to speak about such issues: “her white fans, lured in by the gospel of the ‘Independent Woman’ are [now]  being forced to engage with her blackness and black issues in a real way. It’s kind of genius”.

Late-night television comedy show Saturday Night Live aired a sketch in the weeks after the song’s release, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”, which poked fun at white people’s reaction to the performance. In the sketch, Beyoncé’s white listeners were shown listening to “Formation” and making the discovery that Beyoncé was Black – “it was the day white people lost their Beyoncé”. The skit shows these white listeners incredulous that this song is something they can’t relate to, panicking that “maybe this song isn’t for us …” “But usually everything is!” 

The sketch epitomised the mindset behind the backlash – predominantly coming from white people – insofar as these people’s widespread outrage and even confusion seemed to lie with the fact that the aim of the song was solely to empower Black women and Black-centred issues. As Allison P. Davis wrote in The Cut, “everyone needs to be okay with the fact that some moments in pop culture mean more to one group of people than to others. ‘Formation’, with its rare message of unabashed black female pride, is one of those moments”.

As well as accusations of stirring up anti-white sentiment, a large part of the outrage was over the supposed anti-police message of the music video and Super Bowl performance. Prominent conservative figures such as Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor, spoke out against the performance; “I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive”.

And while it is generally common practice for members of the police force in the U.S. to volunteer to work as security at concerts, police unions called on its members to boycott Beyoncé’s tour. Frederick Frazier of the Dallas Police Association in Texas voiced his support to CNN of the boycott of “anyone who tarnishes the image of law enforcement”. 

The National Sheriffs’ Association even went so far as to link Beyoncé’s performance to a number of fatal shootings which occured in the week after the Super Bowl, despite the fact that these deaths all took place during efforts to question or arrest already wanted suspects. The mere support and empowerment for the Black Lives Matter movement shown on national television was enough to stoke widespread outrage of Beyoncé’s “anti-police agenda”. 

Beyoncé completely refuted claims of any such agenda, stating in an interview with Elle magazine: “anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken. I have so much admiration and respect for officers […] but let’s be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things”.

Her comments further reinforced the fact that this backlash, intentionally or not, completely ignored the point of the performance; to celebrate Black power while paying homage to those who were and today still are victims of anti-Black violence at the hands of the police. In the same interview, Beyoncé fired back at her critics – “if celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me”.

Every aspect of the song, performance, and music video was released with the intention of an undeniable call for justice, and the song’s release intentionally coincided with what would have been the 21st birthday of Trayvon Martin, a young Black man who was unarmed when he was shot dead by policeman George Zimmerman, who described Martin to despatchers as looking like he was “up to no good” moments before fatally shooting him. Martin was seventeen years old at the time of his death. 

This narrative that performances and cultural celebrations such as Beyoncé’s are anti-white fails to recognise the long standing battle minorities face in attempting to make their voices heard in a society that has prioritised white voices for centuries. The implication that Beyoncé’s motives were anything other than to strive for the visibility of Black Americans demonstrates a larger problem in the discourse surrounding cultural identity as a whole. 

The message of the song and performance was one of justice and pride, and cries of “Why does everything have to be about race?” or “Not everything has to be political” only serves to demean and silence Black voices, who have suffered at the hands of white oppressors for hundreds of years and deserve to make their experiences heard and represented.

Beyoncé’s unabashed Black pride blatantly present in her performance was significant for the Black Lives Matter movement in particular in that it publicised it on a global stage. Particularly in an increasingly digital world, figures like Beyoncé taking a stand sends a message to the mainstream that the narrative needs to change, and even the backlash to the performance showcases just how significant public displays of cultural pride truly are.

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Rachel McLoughlin

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