The image of the witch runs deep in feminist and female-centred art. In today’s current climate, a potent and fascinating shift is happening in the use of this witch imagery in pop music. It’s a shift that was typified by Beyoncé’s surprise release of the music video for her song Formation released in February 2016. There are heavy spiritual overtones to several of her personas in the video, becoming less typical of Christianity and instead being interpreted as a conjuring of Black spirituality, Santeria or Houdou. The song’s theme is of reawakening, combining religious, ethnic and cultural practices with spiritual regeneration. In some scenes, Beyoncé appears in a visionary light from beneath the brim of her black hat, similar to the fashionable ‘witch’ aesthetic as seen in modern media: American Horror Story: Coven.
In other shots, she moves with mystical elegance atop a New Orleans police car that’s sitting in the middle of a flooded body of water. On her blog Red Clay Scholar, Dr. Regina Bradley describes these roles as Beyoncé embodying “conjuring women.” She asks whether the scene of Beyoncé on top of the police car could be intending to summon Mami Wata, the water deity who could be either a healer or lure travellers to their watery grave.
Yet the commentary, paired with Beyoncé and the car’s ‘drowning,’ doubly connotes how the modern world fetishizes black death and the feminine power of water and rebirth. “Conjuring blackness is physical, conceptual, and spiritual,” writes Dr. Bradley. “All three are necessary to make protest and resurrection possible.”
The sense of magic isn’t just presented through Beyoncé, but through the entire black southern culture that she so identifies with, the one that is targeted and oppressed so significantly. The dancing boy contains magic so tangible he gets the police officers to put their hands up, reversing the traditional narrative seen in allusions to the murder of Trayvon Martin – who would’ve celebrated his 21st birthday on February 5th –Dr. Nettrice Gaskins offers a reading of the boy as Ghede Nibo, the spirit of a young man violently murdered and in death serves as a leader of the dead.
There’s possibly no more outspoken pop witch than rapper Azealia Banks. On Twitter last year, Banks declared herself a witch, prompting backlash that Sady Doyle summed up in a Guardian article “It was the strangest thing: simply by calling herself a witch in public, Banks had managed to evoke real fear,” writes Doyle. “Rightwingers treated her as if she were actually planning to blight crops and hex her enemies, all the while claiming that they didn’t believe in witchcraft.” Much like Beyoncé, Banks overtly links the role of spirituality with her Black heritage by surrounding herself with owls and occult symbols in between fighting riot police. There’s a connection between protest and mysticism in this video: The witch draws on a power that exists beyond real-world weapons and uniforms. It suggests magic as a potent way of challenging existing power structures.
Magic is thus a form inhabited by the oppressed and the misunderstood, taking the form of racial minorities, children and women, and demonstrating the supernatural beauty and vitality of their culture.
The current with aesthetic has significantly evolved from the introverted, ethereal fashion of artists like Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks from the late 70s. It now resides more as a symbol of protest, particularly occupied by black artists- singers such as Lorde and Florence Welch inhabit the traditional form of mystical ambiguity, perhaps as the symbol of the witch is a privilege to white women and not a protest. Today’s witchy music videos are incandescent with anger—they engage with the world and are recognized as a threat to the status quo.
Part of the power of these pop music witches is to disrupt expectations. The supernatural is unsettling, it upends assumptions of normal behaviour. It alludes to Regan licking her tutor’s ankle in The Exorcist and Gloria from Orange is the New Black taking down a powerful enemy with eggs, spices, and dog hair. That unsettling quality is what British artist FKA twigs’ sexuality-laced music videos are all about. FKA twigs is a master of surreal imagery and shape-shifting. Her 2015 video “Glass & Patron” opens in a forest heavy with a stillness associated with The Blair Witch Project before cutting to a white van parked ominously amid the trees. This narrative feels like it isn’t going to end well—what story of a woman left in the back of a van in the woods does? But Twigs takes command of the narrative with dizzying speed and force. In the video, her long-nailed fingers spider suggestively down her belly. Then suddenly, frighteningly, she pulls a many-colored scarf out of her body, and dancers envelope her through the fabric: dreamy, tender, suspended in space.
In the video for her song “Video Girl,” FKA twigs splits into two selves as she watches the execution of a man convicted of racial violence. One of her selves weeps behind the glass, while the other self straddles him, turning into a taunting contortionist as he lies dying. Here, she is both powerful and tearful in the face of the world. This is seen again in Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’; Dr. Kinitra Brooks reads her womanhood in the video as a manifestation of ManMan Brigitte, a vulgar female spirit that loves hot pepper and embodies both sex and death. It’s that raw power combined with nuance of understanding—radically, exultantly individual—that is the hallmark of the modern witch: an indomitable spirituality that defies the violence of the human world.