It all started in February. The beginning of Black History Month saw the milestone 50th Super Bowl. In the days leading up to the most-watched telecast of the year, it was rumored that Bruno Mars and Beyonce would both join Halftime headliners Coldplay. Then, the day before the Super Bowl, Beyonce dropped a surprise song online entitled “Formation.” The internet was abuzz with the lyrics and connotations of the song. Many wondered if Queen Bey would dare to perform such a song on arguably the biggest national stage.
After Coldplay performed a song or two, Bruno and his “Hooligans” took to the stage along with Mark Ronson. He finessed his way through his 2015 smash “Uptown Funk” wearing shiny black pants, black sneakers, and a gold chain round his neck. Although produced and performed by two non-black artists, the jam is unabashedly a tribute to funk, soul, and disco — all genres perfected by black musicians. It should also be noted that Bruno’s backup dancers were black and, like Bruno, wore black outfits.
After performing several bars of “Funk,” Beyonce stormed the field with an army of black women behind her. Beyonce wore a black leotard and a black bomber jacket of sorts with two gold sashes crossing diagonally across her chest. Her dancers wore black shorts and crop tops with black berets. She eased her way into the lyrics of “Formation,” sashaying slowly through her dancers. (It would be discussed later that the outfits worn by Beyonce and her dancers were a tribute to the Black Panthers. The dancers were even photographed doing the Black Power fist.)
“I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils….”
Swaying side to side, then twerking at a 90 degree angle (surely working them quads), Beyonce and her black girl squad worked their way through the choreography.
She then joined forces with Bruno for a mashup of their two songs. Chris Martin of Coldplay joined in toward the end of the performance. But as Bruno and Beyonce sang the end of “Funk,” working the camera in their black getups front and center, it was clear that despite a white artist “headlining” the Halftime show, blackness — both literally and figuratively — had taken over.
In the months following, black artists, entertainers, athletes, and citizens would boldly make their presence and discontent known to the nation. These are only a few highlights of the #BlackExcellence that ruled this year.
February 2016: Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance — A week after the Super Bowl, Kendrick Lamar blazed the Grammy stage, with a performance medley of hits from his acclaimed album, To Pimp A Butterfly. He led the nominees that night, up for 11 awards including Album of the Year, and he proved why he is a force to be reckoned with in the music business. He crept up to the microphone shackled at his ankles and wrists with a line of black men behind him similarly bound. They wore prison outfits. Lamar tore into bars that directly called out white supremacy and injustice, making white audiences uncomfortable. Flames and African dancing lit up the stage, and the performance ended with a cut to black, revealing a screen with the African continent bolded in white with “Compton” written in Old English type in the middle. Lamar embodied everything that white America thought of him that night, but the twist was that he embraced it and threw it back in their face. His brilliant performance made it all the more insulting that he lost to Taylor Swift at the end of the night.
February 2016: “Hope” on Black-ish — The end of Black History Month saw an episode of Black-ish that tackled the Black Lives Matter movement head-on. After another fictional instance of police brutality and subsequent acquittal of the cop, the Johnson family discussed the movement and the history of racial injustice in America. There are three generations of black people present, from Boomers to Millennials, and the discussion highlighted both truths and misconceptions about race and activism. Present throughout the episode are examples of everyday experiences of racism as well as more scholarly examples of racial discourse (Ta-Nehisi Coates is name-dropped quite a few times). Bow, the mother to the Johnson kids, struggles with revealing the stark reality of race to her children for fear of corrupting their innocence. Dre, her husband, also forced her to address her own shortcomings as far as understanding the weight of being black in this country and what that means for her children. In the end, the family decides to participate in the movement and celebrate their blackness. The entire episode takes place around the TV of a living room, cementing the importance of the family unit in black society and nuanced discussion of black life that is so often missing from television.
April 2016: Lemonade — There weren’t many other topics in 2016 that resulted in as many thinkpieces as Beyonce’s Lemonade. Broadcast on HBO as a two-night only event, Lemonade was simply art, from start to finish. Featuring poetry from black poet Warsan Shire, the film was a beautiful and at times seething story of love, betrayal, and reconciliation in relationships. Although it was (wrongly) debated throughout the year, Lemonade is an ode to the black woman: our power, our significance, and our struggles. From quotes by Malcolm X about how black women are the least protected people in the nation to jabs at Beckys with good hair, Beyonce’s work was a magnificent piece of art meant to inspire black women to not apologize for who and what they are.
What’s more, Lemonade was also a tribute to Beyonce’s own roots as a Southern black woman, with imagery and references to specific regional blackness. There were also callbacks to genres black people had a hand in inventing like country and rock. And if it wasn’t apparent enough that Lemonoade was about blackness, remember the appearances of the mothers of black boys and men taken by police violence like Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin.
August 2016: The Rio Olympics — Black women did awesome things at the Olympics this year, with young Simone Biles leading the women’s gymnastics team to gold and scoring three gold and one bronze medal for herself. Gabby Douglas also scored more gold as part of Team USA to add to her collection of London Olympics gold medals, despite catching an irrational amount of flak for not holding her hand over heart for the national anthem. Simone Manuel also shocked the world when she won a gold medal in swimming — the first black woman to win an individual medal in the Olympic sport’s history. It burned racists across the country to know that not only did black people represent our country in large numbers at the Olympics, but many of our biggest victories came on the heels of black athletes.
August 2016: Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest — Toward the end of August, it was reported that San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem preceding a football game. And as expected, chaotic debate among fans ensued. He began his protest at the end of a very heated summer of demonstrations following police killings of black people, and explained that he would continue his protest as long as the U.S. was a country that actively and covertly discriminated against people of color. He’s done countless interviews about his reasoning for the protest and has backed up his words with action for the black community. He also inspired the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick, a Twitter trend by military veterans in response to critics who claimed that kneeling for the anthem was disrespectful to the men and women in camo. His actions inspired similar protests across the nation and other athletes and entertainers to use their fame to spread awareness about everyday injustices.
September 2016: Donald Glover’s Atlanta — This year saw an explosion of black creators in the mainstream. Donald Glover joined the ranks of Issa Rae and Michaela Coel in creating, producing, and starring in his own show, Atlanta, on FX. The show portrayed an image of low-income blackness that had a certain authenticity; it wasn’t heavy-handed with its treatment of class issues. It was funny and heartbreaking to watch the series’ characters — particularly Glover’s character, Earn — navigate their socioeconomic status as they try to make something of their lives. The class of the black characters was a starting point of the show, and while it is subtly addressed throughout, you never pitied their poorness in the way that so many shows authored by white people seem to. It was apparent with each episode’s hustle that the stories contained within the series were written by black people. Atlanta was an example of black power behind the camera.
September/October 2016: Solange’s A Seat at the Table — In the final quarter of 2016, people were buzzing about Solange’s new album A Seat at the Table. The LP was even blacker than her sister’s album released earlier in the year and significantly more angry in theme. While many people mistook Lemonade as a battle cry for all women, it was more clear with Solange’s work that the music was intended for black people, especially black women. Table is even complete with a song entitled “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Solange’s third studio effort was an explicit commentary on the racial divide in this country, and did not invite white people to try to understand it. It was poetry for black folks who already had their foot on the gas in combating racist power structures. Just read this conversation with Solange and her mother, Tina Lawson, as proof of this fact.
After a year of black success, excellence, and resistance, the results of the presidential election on November 8, although paralyzing as the votes rolled in, were not surprising in hindsight. This year saw visible signs of racial progress for black people, and in response to that, white people showed up in droves to elect Donald Trump. “Whitelash” is in full effect.
And while Trump and his cabinet may attempt to strip the neediest in this country of their rights and humanity through psychological manipulation, they cannot take away the year that was.
2016. We did that.