“Formation,” as the last song on Lemonade and the closing-credits soundtrack for the film seems to serve as summary or epilogue. But as the stand-alone pre-Lemonade video release in February and the title of Beyoncé’s 2016 World Tour, it stands as it’s own major production alongside the Lemonade era. One thread. One ingredient, essential to the whole. And the Formation World Tour is a directive: Get in formation.
Formation, as a word, is both the act or process of forming and the final state of being formed. Multiple states simultaneously. Changing and being changed. The word also references military tactics — troops assembling into shapes. Individuals becoming a collective unit with a purpose. The Formation World Tour is the process by which Beyoncé takes stadiums full of tens of thousands of individuals and seamlessly brings us into formation. And she falls into formation as well. We become a movement. This is Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” brought back to life.
The show opens with the song “Formation” itself. Over the plucked and distorted opening guitar notes, Beyoncé and her dancers march onto stage. They move to the music. They are motivated by the music. It gives their movements life. They come from opposite ends of the stage and amass front and center. Big Freedia’s voice, as voiceover, is the glue of the movement as she lets us know that “I did not come here to play with you ho’s, I came to slay bitch,” among other things. Beyoncé then welcomes us herself, finally demanding, “If you are proud of who you are and where you come from, say ‘I slay,’” almost in the form of a pledge. Though Beyoncé’s dedication of the space of the stadium is rooted in black feminist and queer politics (infused through “Formation” and the whole of Lemonade), she invites us all to slay, regardless of our own identities, if we can agree on that simple tenet and not overstep our bounds of course.
I attended the first night of the Formation World Tour at New York City’s Citi Field. Beyoncé performed for close to two hours and thirty minutes of tightly choreographed up-tempo songs and flawlessly executed ballads, all in front of a monolith light/video screen the likes of which have never been seen in live performance. The focus, of course, was on her own catalog all the way back to Destiny’s Child, but also highlighted the work of other artists important to Beyoncé through interludes and quick mash-ups of cover songs placed within her own originals. A highlight of the evening was also Beyoncé’s gorgeous tribute to Prince on what would have been his 58th birthday — Bey’s own version of “The Beautiful Ones” followed by the entire empty stage turning purple while Prince’s own voice was played over the speakers singing his own “Purple Rain.” A truly transcendent experience.
This is the crux of communicating and connecting across differences. Something black feminist warrior poet Audre Lorde insisted we all do in order to every move forward as a healthy society. And Beyoncé realizes it. She creates the space in which this connection becomes possible. Though much of her work is about relationships, she never fails to foreground individual empowerment in her lyrics and visuals. Which puts the onus back on us to engage in the spaces she creates.
During the intro to “Me, Myself, And I,” she tells the audience that the most important relationship anyone can have is the relationship they have with themselves. All other relationships with others are just a bonus. These wise words call out our own complicity, no matter who we are, in creating the world we’d like to see. As RuPaul iconically calls out on each episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” Flipped and remixed, how can we expect anyone else to change the world if we’re not willing to do work for it ourselves? We all play an important part.
The Formation World Tour is, itself, an act of creation. Looking back at the memory of pain to move forward into something new. The creation of ourselves, anew. The creation of a movement. A good teacher doesn’t feed us information directly; a good teacher sends us on a journey. And Beyoncé is a phenomenal teacher. Her work creates the journey. We have to follow the path.
The last set of the show features Beyoncé and dancers performing “Freedom,” “Survivor,” a mash-up of “Grown Woman/End of Time,” and finally “Halo,” in ankle-deep water. Kicking, dancing, splashing. We are literally baptized, even if we are not close enough to the stage to receive the healing water. The intent is clear. The choice of songs also speaks to us all coming out on the other side different, grown, new. The past into the future — survivors of something, now free. But the water means nothing if we haven’t followed the steps.
And therein lies the beauty of Beyoncé’s artistry. It’s layered and interactive. You can go to the Formation World Tour and have a good time only engaging with the surface level. But if you look deeper, there’s so much more. A Beyoncé performance has the potential to create something in the world that wasn’t there before. A space to heal. A space to connect. A space to be proud. A space to celebrate our differences. A space to slay. A space those in attendance will never forget. A space that enacts a change in the world. And maybe, if we believe, a space that changes the world itself.