Since the day I first stepped foot on the campus of Howard University in 1996, I’ve repped the city from whence I came. I do so even more now, because I would hate for anyone to ever forget what happened during that hellish August morning in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall and a system collapsed. I’m periodically shrouded in a sense of sudden grief because I shall never forget.
Last Saturday, I watched Beyoncé’s “Formation” along with everybody else. That night, I shared on Facebook Dr. Zandria F. Robinson’s eloquent piece “We Slay, Part I,” which places the Queen of Slay within an oppositional narrative of Southern blackness. In the moment, I thought that Robinson’s essay was helping me make sense of something that felt awful, problematic, foul. I was caught up in a national moment of seemingly audacious black pride.
In “Formation,” which invokes both Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé attempts to politicize black tragedy and black death by using them as props for popular consumption. That isn’t advocacy. While some people are gagging at the idea of Beyoncé atop a New Orleans Police Department squad car or sitting in a 19th-century living room in plaçage attire, I’m reliving trauma. I’m thinking about how the system failed us. I’m thinking about how the central government and the head of state left us to die. I could speak about the incompetence of some local leaders, the breakdown in communication of authorities, the lawlessness of police officers and troops. I could speak about the vicious racist vigilantes who hunted evacuees down like dogs for trying to secure safe ground for themselves and their families. But I don’t.
While some are made giddy by the metaphor of Beyoncé’s body being subsumed by the water, I am remembering images of bloated bodies of grandmothers and grandfathers, cousins, uncles, great aunts, and nieces that drifted through the floodwaters like discarded pieces of scrap wood. These were all images that ran across my television screen on repeat in the weeks and months after the levees broke. These were the horrifying tales relayed to me by survivors of the storm.
I am also reminded of my grandmother, Gladys Calvin, Ibaye, and her sarcasm, Sunday morning phone calls, and the pancakes that I miss so much. She was one of the tens of thousands whose lives were sacrificed indirectly as a result of medical complications, suicide, heartbreak, post-traumatic stress disorder, or murder that took place in the months and years following the storm. She was a dialysis patient who wasn’t able to receive treatment for weeks, denied by hospital after hospital. The post-Katrina effect did rapidly deteriorate her body, which necessitated the amputation of both of her legs, and in the end took her away from us before we were ready to say goodbye.
“What happened at the New Wildins? ... Bitch I’m back, by popular demand.” The words of the late bounce rapper and comedian Messy Mya braggadociously introduce Beyoncé’s anthem. A marginalized queer black man, Messy Mya in all of his wildest imagination, ribbing, and capping would not have believed that the world’s biggest pop star would use his voice in a video—without, however, acknowledging his humanity in life and in death. Messy Mya, a household NOLA name, was shot and killed at age 22. The city has had the highest or one of the highest murder rates in the country since I was a child. In focusing on black New Orleanian lives, it would have been easy for Beyoncé to dedicate “Formation” to Messy Mya and other victims of gun violence. She provided no context for his life or death. Those not in the know could mistake his sassiness with that of the Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia, whose voice is heard a little later in the song. This is not gumbo. These are black lives.
What does it mean to speak for a marginalized community who has not asked for your pronouncements? From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem as if Beyoncé, by returning to the devastation of Katrina, is centering New Orleans, but she is not. She’s rather exacerbating a trauma.
And Beyoncé has been co-opting New Orleans culture for years. Instead of inviting one of the original Kings of Bounce, DJ Jubilee, to perform the dances that he choreographed and created for “Get Me Bodied”—whose syncopated beat and lyrical formations were taken directly from his 1993 local New Orleans classic “Do the Jubilee All”—she presented this genre of music and dance as if it had been created in her own studio or Houston backyard.
But all great artists imitate others. In some spaces, that’s called plagiarism. In others, appropriation. Can black people appropriate one another? I’ve never thought I’d come to this conclusion, but yes, we can—especially when you’re one of the most influential and powerful black women in the world. Especially when you take the cultural productions of a marginalized community and present them as your own. Especially when you capitalize off of their deaths. This is not giving people voice. It is stealing.
I’m not saying that no one can read “Formation” as a black girl Southern anthem. Blackness is not monolithic, and neither is U.S. black American Southernness. But for an artist to become relevant and political, must she perform against a backdrop of black tragedy?
Anyone who has spent significant amounts of time in the Crescent City and other areas of the Global Black South knows that New Orleans is a global city by heritage, history, and might; art historian Robert Farris Thompson has oftentimes referred to it as the uppermost region of the Caribbean. So New Orleans indeed has more in common with Santiago de Cuba, Curaçao, and Port-au-Prince than any other American city save for Charleston, South Carolina. No single artist can assume the uncontested right to speak on New Orleans’ behalf. If all that protest songs and videos require these days is a little twerking, faux-Voodoo images, and nappy hair, this new revolutionary moment that we’ve found ourselves is in bad shape. I don’t have high expectations for a pop superstar, but I do have some for many of the brilliant black activists and scholars who have exalted and defended her in this moment. I’m not so sure that Beyoncé is here for natural-hair women, Black Lives Matter, or New Orleans. However, I’m superclear that she’s here for herself. Her family. Her money. Her power.
Those beautiful nappy-haired Afros worn by the Black Panther–esque backup dancers are props just like the floodwaters, the submerged New Orleanian backdrop, and the police car that keeps Beyoncé afloat throughout most of the video. Those darker-complexioned little girls who stand beside Beyoncé’s child, the voice of a queer and deceased black man, and a Katrina survivor were all vehicles to use for selling out her next world tour.
Are we in need of mainstream blackness so badly that we’ll mistake its exploitation for validation? It’s as if we’re still waiting for some indomitable Black Savior to come and rescue us. The question also raises itself in our collective defense of R. Kelly and Bill Cosby: Where do our ethics lie? Beyoncé would have had better philosophical and moral success with “Formation” had she not disturbed the graves of those we’ve lost, so that in the words of the black feminist Barbara Smith, we wouldn’t have to bury our dead twice.