Let’s Get in Formation

By Bess Turner

My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana

You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama

Beyoncé is not one to shy away from making a statement. From her surprise self-titled album, featuring the likes of Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie on her hit single “***Flawless,” to her strong voice in the discussion of feminism and gender equality (see: the giant FEMINIST lights she performed in front of at the VMAs in 2014), she is not afraid of putting her opinion out there. And in her habit of dropping surprises, Beyoncé released one of the most-discussed pieces of music in 2016 so far. “Formation” and the music video accompanying it bring a lot to the table, with its discussion of police violence, women’s rights, black female beauty, and perhaps the surprising and polarizing subjects of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.

Does Beyoncé deserve this New Orleans culture that she is claiming? Her video features everything from a Mardi Gras Indian to footage from the bounce documentary “That B.E.A.T.” showing the destruction of the city after Katrina, and even includes voiceovers from the late Messy Mya and New Orleans’ queen of bounce, Big Freedia. Is she stealing from the culture that is so completely New Orleans, using destruction and emotion for her own gain?

Big Freedia has defended Beyoncé’s choices in multiple interviews, but many New Orleanians are shocked at the audacity of the Katrina imagery and other content. Besides the brief controversy in which “That B.E.A.T.” director Abteen Bagheri accused Beyoncé and “Formation” music director Melina Matsoukas of using footage from the documentary without proper permissions, many believe she had no right to use Katrina references in the first place. Lucia Hughes, a sophomore at Tulane and a black New Orleans native, is one of these people.

“The image of her on the cop car especially is controversial to me,” she said. “Because it’s depicting Katrina. But she’s trying to sell things with it. And that’s messing with people’s feelings.”

Lucia had just woken up. Nelson Mandela and Kendrick Lamar posters hung by her bed andwatched her rub the sleep out of her eyes before she slipped her glasses on.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” intones italicized words positioned next to Mandela’s face. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Lucia was still cocooned in her pajamas—an oversized Mardi Gras sweatshirt—and Kendrick looked off into the distance as he crouched by a white wall.

Like so many other New Orleanians, Lucia had mixed feelings about Beyoncé’s latest release. The Hughes family lived in New Orleans for Lucia’s whole life until Katrina hit the city, forcing Lucia and her mother, father, and sister to temporarily relocate close to her grandmother in Centreville, Mississippi. And all of this makes Lucia hesitate, no matter how much empowerment is packed into it or how amazingly catchy it is.

“A lot of the video is fine and good, kind of empowering,” she said with a furrowed brow, “but if you have the lyrics on it it’s kind of surface level. They kind of don’t mesh together.”

Lucia is referring to the apparent lack of mention of New Orleans or Katrina within the lyrics. One example is the omission of credit to song-opener Messy Mya. “What happened at the New Wil’ins?” he spits. “Bitch, I’m back by popular demand.”

The bounce star and YouTube comedian was murdered at the age of 22, shot leaving the baby shower of his unborn son. Those not steeped in the knowledge of New Orleanian bounce culture would probably never recognize his voice, sampled from his video “Booking the Hoes from New Wildin’.” Mya was known for his jokes about and brutal takedowns of the people who lived in his neighborhood and the violence that permeated it. He often flippantly remarked that his own death was imminent. What was Beyoncé’s intention with this? Without context, his voice is anonymous, and now inextricably linked to her work forever.

“I like the samples, but I definitely think she should have given more credit to her references,” Jesmyn Ward said.

Ward is a creative writing professor at Tulane, who won a National Book Award in 2011 for her novel “Salvage the Bones,” which follows a family living on the Gulf Coast in the ten days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

“And if she didn’t want to pay the documentary makers for their footage, she definitely should have shot her own footage. It’s not as if she doesn’t have the funds and power to do so,” she said.

Others have noticed incidents like this as well, including Maris Jones in her article “Dear Beyoncé, Katrina is Not Your Story” on the website Black Girl Dangerous. She cites the explicit content warning at the beginning of the video, questioning why it lacks a trigger warning for those still so emotionally scarred by Hurricane Katrina. Shantrelle Lewis of Slate also took issue with some of the imagery in “Formation.”

“Beyoncé attempts to politicize black tragedy and black death, by using them as props for popular consumption,” Lewis wrote. “That isn’t advocacy.”

Ward disagrees.

“I didn’t watch the ‘Formation’ video and perceive that Beyoncé was claiming Katrina for her own, that she was even positing that she had a Katrina experience,” Ward said. “Instead, I thought that the imagery was simply recalling this event, reminding the public again that this horrible tragedy occurred. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, especially since our news sources cycle news before the public eye so quickly, again and again. That kind of cycle makes it easy for people to forget the victims of tragedy, to forget the people who suffer in the aftermath of such horrible events.”

Ward saw the “Formation” video in a more positive light. While the effects of Katrina can be difficult to watch, it is also important to remember.

“I appreciate Beyoncé’s use of such iconographic imagery that immediately recalls the multiple tragedies that took place during and after Katrina,” she said. “It means that her audience, which is huge, watches a video that reminds them that Katrina happened, and that it resulted in so many deaths. It means that people understand that it was a manmade disaster, and more importantly, an event that showed just how little black lives matter in this country to those in power.”

Ward was living in DeLisle, Mississippi when Katrina hit, and had a vastly different experience of the storm compared to those in the New Orleans area.

“Whereas New Orleanians suffered because of man-made failures in the levee system and incompetent public servants, Mississippians suffered because the storm hit us directly,” she said. “This meant the storm surge swept inland for miles. The water demolished our houses, made grocery stores and apartment complexes and homes disappear by bulldozing them and carrying steel and wood and concrete that made them out to sea. Finally, Katrina’s winds tossed buildings and shipping containers and barges around the landscape like they were children’s toys. Take a look at some pictures of the Gulf Coast after the storm. The coast wasn’t drowned. It was bombed.”

The question is what kind of treatment the work should get. “Formation” has been picked apart by supporters and critics, reviled by some Katrina survivors, and praised by some Black Lives Matter advocates, and enjoyed by Beyoncé fans everywhere. Is there one answer to the question of “Formation?”

Big Freedia, for one, is glad to support her fellow artist.

“What’s a better way to speak on your platform than through your music? Some issues just need to be dealt with—that we’re still dealing with in the world, with police brutality and racism. I’m glad she spoke out on it,” Big Freedia said in an interview with Vulture.

Ward, too, can appreciate the political statement behind the music and film.

“I think she wanted to recall this shocking moment in American history where the American government failed American citizens in a large American city,” Ward said slowly. “This was also a moment where the underlying idea that black lives are worth less was evident in the way New Orleanians were denied aid, and then in the ways that they were portrayed in the news where if they were white, they were foragers, and if they were black, they were looters. And the whole country saw this as it was happening, and the whole country was horrified. I think it was a really important moment that denied America the luxury of denying that systemic racism is real, and that interpersonal racism is real.”

But when Lucia thinks about all the repercussions involved in such a daring release, she just smiles and shrugs.

“I don’t know. My sister always plays it in the car and we get so hyped up,” she said. “Sometimes all that really matters is that it’s a good song.”

Beyoncé is known for being elusive when it comes to interviews, so the only interpretation we have from the Queen herself about the controversial “Formation” lies within her lyrics. Maybe that’s all we’ll ever have.

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

Bess Turner is a Tulane sophomore majoring in English, anthropology and environmental studies.