(Updated 22 Feb 2016)
Okay. So Beyoncé detonates a video the day before the Super Bowl: Formation. Ka-blam. Why do I care? I recruit technology executives for a living. And at the senior executive level: diversity matters. So when the Queen B weighs in with her vision, I pay attention. I bear witness to the viral effects that reach across the media landscape. For the many reasons detailed below, I believe her message will help shatter the glass ceiling.
She is Beyoncé: she will be heard.
While it may not be obvious, the ripple effects of media messaging in general are felt at the senior executive level. That’s what study after study demonstrates. Having spent the first half of my career in television news, I’ve witnessed the power of the mass media first hand. As Red & Black notes:
Super Bowl 50 was the third most-watched program in U.S. history, a number that proves that the Super Bowl is not just about the sport, but the spectacle. And no one delivers more of a spectacle than Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z run a $1 billion entertainment empire. When you are talking that much money, you have influence. When you entertain in the public eye, your every move can change the world.”
I have updated this post to attempt to answer concerns raised by a reader:
So confused. I honestly see zero correlation between a pop star and her choreographer, and the day-to-day realities of being an executive of color and glass ceilings in the a business environment. #worstcomparisonever”
While the hashtag stung, the criticism seemed valid and called for further explanation:
Throughout history, artists have been outsiders. While they have entertained royal courts and today’s version of royal courts — multinational corporations — they remain on the outside looking in. Beyoncé does not hold the power to affect change directly. She neither legislates nor writes regulations to change the diversity status quo. So the reader makes a good point. But as an artist, Beyoncé does hold the power to change how we feel, and in turn, how we think.
Having spent the past couple of decades married to a man who has performed with the most renowned rock stars in the world: I know pop icons hold the power to move people in ways that politicians do not. Music bypasses the thinking brain and goes straight to the the heart. Music enters the body through the hypothalamus, a portion of the emotional brain layer that receives stimuli related to emotions, sensations, and feelings. That’s what makes the seemingly innocuous creative commentary by pop diva Beyoncé relevant.
Artists are not literal beings. They speak in metaphor. And when Beyoncé speaks, people listen. Formation has set off a chain reaction of diversity consciousness-raising that extends from the Formation debut to a New York Times review to an SNL sendup The Day Beyonce Turned Black to a freakin’ brilliant Formation dance routine created by choreographer WilldaBeast Adams. Reaction continues to this day. For the most part, that’s a good thing.
My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana. You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama. I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros.
I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils. Earned all this money but they never take the country out me. I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag “
The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica weighs in with his review:
In “Formation,” she returns to that city [New Orleans]; this time, she’s in scenes that suggest a fantastical post-Katrina hellscape, but radically rewritten. She straddles a New Orleans police cruiser, which eventually gets submerged (with her atop it). And at the end of the clip, a line of riot-gear-clad police officers surrender, hands raised, to a dancing black child in a hoodie, and the camera then pans over a graffito: Stop Shooting Us.
This is high-level, visually striking, Black Lives Matter-era allegory. The halftime show is usually a locus of entertainment, but Beyoncé has just rewritten it — overridden it, to be honest — as a moment of political ascent.”
Given the power of Beyoncé video, SNL pushed the diversity message further. If we need to learn to talk about racism — to talk it out — what better classroom than Saturday Night Live? Comedy, by definition, calls out racism for all its absurdities and contradictions. It is ripe for the pickin’.
And today’s lesson brings us back to . . .Maya Rudolph. The daughter of soul producer Richard Rudolph and singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton who was African-American. Rudolph rose to prominence as a cast member on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. On SNL, Maya not only does Beyoncé. She is Beyoncé.
Ultimately, Beyoncé’s message is embodied in Willdabeast Adams’ choreography that her Formation inspired. The dance routine, filmed and edited by Tim Milgram, was uploaded to YouTube just days ago. It already has
4,912,206 7,260,813 (updated) views. The dancers slay it.
Beyoncé’s ripples wash across the media landscape. Her mashed up racial imagery — Black Panthers, #blacklivesmatter, Katrina — speaks to oppression born of slavery, segregation, police brutality and racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and the poverty cycle. Beyoncé went there because she can.
Spike Lee also went there — #oscarssowhite — in his boycott of the Oscars over lack of nominee diversity. A New York Times article covering the boycott referenced a study that showed how television lowers the self esteem of children with the exception of white boys. “Television was linked to lower self-esteem among black and white girls and black boys; white boys, however, reportedly felt better.” A Los Angeles Times investigation found academy members — the people whose votes decide who wins the Oscars — skew heavily older, male and white. In fact, 94% were white. As a result of Spike Lee boycott — joined by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith — The Academy is changing its rules on which members will be eligible to vote. The jury is still out on whether those changes will have an effect when voting has nothing to do with what movies get made, who gets cast to play starring roles, or who gets hired for other vitally important roles behind the scenes.
Again, what does this have to do with the day-to-day realities of being an executive of color and glass ceilings in the a business environment?
I consider myself and executive feminist and diversity advocate. I do a lot of work helping companies boost diversity at the senior executive level. Still, somehow I failed to notice women are insanely under-represented in crowd shots in films, as detailed in a McKinsey video interview with actor Geena Davis. How could I have missed something so obvious. MS. Davis leads an organization that studies gender bias. She teaches us that we all carry unconscious bias. We can’t help it. So this isn’t about blame. The solution lies in becoming more aware of the biases within and outside ourselves. To that end, Formation is part of the solution.
Formation has sparked myriad conversations about racial parity. Despite what you think of the artist or her commentary, Beyoncé’s video cannot help but be heard in the C-Suite. She may not lead a Fortune 100 company, but she comes in at #29 on the Forbes 2015 Celebrity 100 . That’s Forbes, mind you, a magazine all about business. While Beyoncé does not hire senior executives to a traditional boardroom or C-suite, when she does hire she features an all female band because role models matter.
She holds the power to spark conversation, if not controversy. And in this long-tail world of ours, that’s saying something. Her super-stardom signal breaks through through all the “white noise” out there. She is featured in myriad TV advertising campaigns — representing highly regarded consumer products that range from Pepsi to Samsung to L’Oréal. In other words, Beyoncé has coin and she makes coin for some of the most successful companies in the world. You and I know that’s the kind of power CEOs everywhere recognize. That is why, inevitably,Beyoncé will be heard. It is why what she says has influence at the highest corporate levels.
Beyoncé gets that. She told us so:
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”