Where I Stand with Beyoncé’s Formation | Khalil Ismail

Before I state my piece, let me be clear where I’m coming from.
I was asked to write an article by a woman about how I felt after a personal reflection I made on facebook in response to my personal inclination to watch and enjoy Beyonces formation without a real feeling of guilt. I was initially uncomfortable with the idea but was encouraged by another woman very near and dear to me to write what I felt. I encourage you to read this article (Everywhere in the world men are failing women )first to get a bigger idea on how I feel about male responsibility, just in case you misinterpret this as a critique on women in general. Instead it is a reminder to men to be careful in a world where we easily justify ignoring the lower your gaze rule when engaging in media. Myself included.
As a lyricist and producer myself, I appreciate raw talent, and there’s no doubt that Beyoncé has been gifted with it. I’ve been in this industry for eight years, and during this time, I’ve had my work featured on nationally syndicated television. I’ve had my songs licensed to the NBA and Discovery Channel. I have performed worldwide, both as the featured headliner and as a performer alongside celebrated artists like Mos Def (Yasiin Bey).So when I say that I recognize and appreciate the talent of Beyoncé, I’m not just speaking from a place of arbitrary opinion. I know raw talent when I see it, and I won’t allow my personal and spiritual sensitivities to lead me to dishonesty such that I deny the obvious abilities of someone simply because they do not share my values.So what I have to say reflects me and my soul alone, as well as anyone who sees in my words something that reflects their own.

Initial Thoughts on Formation

I can’t stand with “Formation.”

I actually think there are far more of us who will end up losing our soul due to undisciplined sexual impulse than maybe anything else in this world after pride and shirk. For that reason I can’t stand with “Formation.”

Think you’re immune? I know I’m not.

I actually liked the video, which is even more why I can’t stand with it.
I convinced myself that the “conscious” messages justified the constant and blatant sexual imagery which allowed me to watch the whole thing. But I know better and I know God knows I know better. I tried to act like I didn’t notice what she was wearing and how suggestive she was moving because I’m all mature and stuff but I was lying to myself.

I’m a man and I sure as hell noticed.

Truth mixed with falsehood often comes in pretty packages, its poison tastes sweet, its venom destroying us in ways we can’t feel until it’s to late.3

In some ways, it’s more deadly than pure evil because of its deceptive nature.

So the least I can do is acknowledge it for what it is and ask my Lord for guidance in hopes that HE forgives me and purges the falsehood from me.

I can’t stand with “Formation.” Not because I’m a saint but because I’m a sinner who’s scared of losing the ability to discern good from evil.

Scared of that road to the Fire paved with good intentions.

African-American Trauma, Sexuality and Resilience

The above statement was a short reflection I made about myself on my Facebook page in reaction to the new video by Beyoncé called “Formation,” released hours before her 2016 Super Bowl performance. During the Super Bowl, Beyoncé performed this song as an apparent tribute to the Black Panthers of fifty years ago. Since the video’s release, social networks have exploded with commentary on the video and performance, and to be quite honest the whole ordeal incited in me a protective instinct for Beyoncé and African-American females in general.

In addition to being a producer and songwriter, I’ve dedicated much of my time to volunteer work in predominately African-American communities. In this line of work, it’s difficult to not notice the lingering effects of our traumatic history, as discussed by Dr. Joy Degruy in her explanations of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Since slavery and before, the African and African-American female body has been exploited, tossed around, pimped, prostituted, and dehumanized more than any other in human history. The remnants of that treatment remain all over the world, and women with melanin in their skin catch it the hardest. Our women were raped by their white slave masters, often right in front of their own husbands. Then they were torn apart from their families. Our women were separated from their children and often beaten to death in the fields.  To ensure their deference to this brutal treatment, black men and women were psychologically manipulated into pacifying themselves through a white-centric, false version of Christianity, which continues to dominate modern African-American communities.

As racism has become more civilized and strategic, what has not yet occurred on any significant level is honest healing and reparation. The effects of our families being ripped from each other, combined with our own ignorance regarding our history and lineage, permeates and traumatizes black lives till today.

Our vulnerabilities from the past have allowed the media to infiltrate us with imagery and language that suggest that flaunting our sexuality is a form of dignity. This message is in direct contrast to the self-respect that submission to God instills in both men and women. However, the assault upon the African-American female body remains so pervasive that, in the name of cultural study, the media has no problem displaying completely naked African women on regular television, but they continue to blur out the bodies of other people or give the show an “R” rating for sexuality and nudity.

Yet amazingly, despite these traumatic experiences, African-American women have been so resilient in turning their pain into power. African-American women are the most educated group of people in America with regards to formal education and enjoy a full percentage point over Asian women. They are some of our nation’s top entrepreneurs, engineers, artists, and religious scholars. And the list goes on.

I Claim No Blanket Negativity About Beyoncé

If you noticed, in my initial Facebook post reflections, I purposely avoided using Beyoncé’s name and instead focused on how the video content affected me personally. As an artist myself (who also happens to be Muslim), I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of the blanket dismissal that people throw at artists, especially in the name of religion. I know how it feels to have your very faith and connection to God denied simply because someone follows the fiqh opinion that music is generally prohibited. And I don’t wish that unjust experience on anyone.

Thus, I don’t claim any blanket negativity about Beyoncé as a person. I’ve never met her, I don’t know what’s in her heart, and I don’t know what God has decreed for her life. I also know that I haven’t even attempted to invite her to my faith, so it’s unfair for me to hold her to my own standard.

“Racial Baiting” and Beyoncé’s Phenomenal Talent

As her black history homage during the Super Bowl attests to, from a worldly standpoint, Beyoncé is a phenomenal artist. Her legacy of overcoming tragic and seemingly impossible odds to finally becoming an international sensation as both a performer and activist deserves praiseworthy mention and mad respect. So I salute her for that. And not only as a fellow artist, but also as a fellow African-American.

Now that Beyoncé is taking a step towards openly acknowledging the social ills suffered by her people, it is not surprising that droves of white people (many who were former fans) are now opposing her. Even the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, couldn’t keep quiet about the ire he felt at Beyoncé’s “racial baiting” at the Super Bowl. Boycotts and protests are being called with such fervor that one would think Beyoncé had become a black Donald Trump of sorts. One media outlet called the racial undertones of her performance “inappropriate.”

I don’t stand with these people. Their hypocrisy and vitriol, though predictable given their well-established systems of racism and white privilege, is too unreal to even properly express in words. The same companies who daily put millions into advertising sexuality and nakedness for alcohol companies, sports magazines, and even our children’s education are labeling “inappropriate” a historical reference in a performance based on a historical theme.

In other words, their complaint is that as a black woman, Beyoncé should only be allowed to be inappropriate in the way that her “slave masters” have deemed appropriate.

Public Sexuality As Dignity and the Cycle of Abuse

The problem with abuse is that the longer we are subjected to it, the more likely we are to take the baton ourselves and continue the cycle in our own lives. Both during and after slavery, white people recognized our God-given gifts in both intellect and physical strength and beauty, and they chose to suppress the former and exploit the latter. They codified laws to criminalize even the smallest signs of literacy and social progress or strength, and they pumped numerous financial and social resources into turning the bodies of both black men and women into commodities for their personal amusement and carnal enjoyment. Even the outrage that Beyoncé’s “Formation” video and Super Bowl performance incited in predominately white circles reflects remnants of this racist codification.

However, it is undeniable that today, we as African-Americans are having a difficult time breaking free from this self-degrading cycle ourselves. This battle is complex, as theshayateen are fighting us on many fronts. Thus, it is easy to celebrate victory on one front (i.e. Beyoncé’s public homage to black history) while ignoring the obvious assault to our dignity and self-respect on another (i.e. the use of the black female body as a sexual commodity).

As Muslims of all backgrounds and ethnicities join necessary movements that declare #BlackLivesMatter, we cannot ignore obvious messages of falsehood and indecency simply because our emotions make us inclined to root for the underdog.

Chances are, had the “Formation” video been performed by a Pakistani or Arab female entertainer gyrating her buttocks in our faces, we wouldn’t find as many Muslims eager to share it, regardless of its “conscious” message. This in itself is an obvious indication that the subliminal messages regarding the soulless, sexualized black female have devalued her even in the hearts and minds of well-meaning believers dedicated to supporting good causes.

This also is a sign of Muslims’ contribution to their own cycle of abuse as an oppressed minority.

The Conflict in My Soul

Lastly, my conflict in response to “Formation” lies mainly in my concern for the human soul, starting with myself. As emotionally supportive as I feel for any African-American, especially for a black woman who has overcome such impossible odds, I as a Muslim am commanded to a higher standard. And this standard traverses all races, nations, and circumstances. As such, regardless of my personal or emotional connection to a certain message or cause, my priority must be to the higher spiritual and dignified life that God asked me to adhere to.

And while I fail time and time again in this vein, I see a major danger where we start openly ignoring the standards that Allah has set for us such that we are now eagerly congratulating and disseminating major violations to our moral and spiritual code. I also can’t help but wonder if we’ve become so desensitized to black women being exploited sexually that we don’t see an issue when it is their bodies and dignities being sacrificed for “the cause.”

No doubt, sexuality is a beautiful gift from Allah. As such, it should be praised and enjoyed in all of the contexts that our Lord has granted us in marriage. However, sexuality is not for public consumption, for the male or female. As a Muslim, I would be doing my soul an injustice to deny this obvious fact just because the public sexuality comes in the package of a good cause. As a father, I would be remiss to teach my daughters the dignified codes of Islamic modesty, then turn around and shamelessly gawk at naked women and disseminate their sexually exploitive videos in the name of activism.

As an artist, I even dedicated part of my album “The Hoping” to speaking about the scars women face when being sexually exploited by their own men. And in my album “Soul Redemption,” I wrote the song Super Heroine (Mary) for the sole purpose of inspiring women to see their true beauty and dignity as reflected in upholding the spiritual legacy of Mary, the mother of Jesus (peace be upon them), who didn’t require the approval of a man to validate her worth.

How then can I stand with “Formation” while I know it goes against the heart of what I stand for in both my spiritual and professional life?

Final Note: Black Women Deserve Respect Too

Black women are as much a part of our world communities as white, Indian, Pakistani, and Arab women; and Allah does not allow us to disrespect or degrade any of them, let alone celebrate their degradation. In fact, in the Qur’an, Allah has charged us with protecting and caring for all women, and I believe that this is even more so the case for those women who have become so internally traumatized that they invite the degradation and sexual exploitation on themselves.

As such, I gently encourage all of us, male and female, to strive for something higher when we’re faced with assaults on our souls all around us. And I too rigorously examine my own self as I own up to the flaws in my efforts to protect the dignity of my sisters in humanity, as well as my own dignity in what I watch and disseminate.

If I’m truly about the love for my people and my faith, then I have to find ways to uphold a standard that protects the dignity of our women while supporting and championing their remarkable legacies, intelligence, and contributions to society at the same time.

This is where I stand with Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and where I stand with our own formation of a better spiritual and practical life for all of us on earth.

 

 

Originally posted for muslimmatters.org

Khalil Ismail is an award-winning lyricist and artist. Khalil’s work has been featured on the  Discovery Channel , the National Basketball Association, and more…. He recently released “The Hoping” and the nasheed album “Soul Redemption”. He is also the founder of Finding Peace Project, a community outreach organization. He is active in interfaith work in Baltimore, Maryland, and is currently working to bolster the programming for the American Islamic Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C. To find out more about him, visit khalilismail.com