by Maris Jones
Katrina is not your story.
Yesterday, a friend of mine watched your new music video “Formation.” He—a card carrying member of the BeyHive—was so excited that the video was set in New Orleans, that he shot me a text: “Watch now! My queen is killing it in your hometown!!!”
So, of course, I clicked. What kind of Beyoncé fan would I be if I didn’t?
You started out the video with a parental advisory for explicit language. And I was like, “Whatever, I’m grown.” Two seconds later, I had to pause the video. I was not grown, I was thirteen again. I had just lost my brother, my home, and my city. I was re-living my trauma.
Beyoncé, what you really needed at the beginning of “Formation” was a trigger warning for all of your fans who survived Hurricane Katrina. None of us were ready to see you crouched down on an NOPD squad car in the middle of a flooded New Orleans, with the voice of deceased New Orleans bounce rapper, Messy Mya narrating the eerie scene.
With that opening image, I was reminded of my “Post-Katrina Stress Disorder,” a condition akin to PTSD that many of us who lived through Katrina (and the aftermath) experience when it’s brought up nonchalantly in conversation. Of course, I told my friend this. He immediately texted me back: “Oh sorry I didn’t mean to trigger, I was just hype about Blue Ivy. You subtly just taught me a lesson in being more sensitive. I was so excited Bey was in your home I didn’t actually think about the way in which it was being portrayed.”
Bey, I hear you trying to unapologetically assert your Southern Blackness when you sing, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma.” I’m here for it. I can support that, even though you do not acknowledge the complicated, and often divisive, nature of colorism inherent in Creole identity politics. But, showing Hurricane Katrina inspired images and inserting yourself into the storm narrative is just as insensitive as using Katrina’s aftermath as a conversation starter when you meet a New Orleanian. Our trauma is not an accessory to put on when you decide to openly claim your Louisiana heritage.
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Dear Beyoncé, I have to be real with you: Katrina is not your story. You were not there. You were not watching the murky waters submerge your city. That trauma is not yours to appropriate or perform.
Queen B, I see you using your superstar platform to visually promote a specifically Southern, pro-Black aesthetic. I hear you loving your baby’s natural hair and your husband’s wide nose. I, too, love the perfect pairing that is collard greens and cornbread. Regal Mardi Gras Indians and fire high school marching bands were a part of my childhood. And, yeah, I know good and well why you have hot sauce in your purse; I hope it’s Tabasco.
I see you calling out militarization of the police in Black communities. I see you and your dancers employing the militant Black-nationalist look of the Black Panther Party at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. I see you, paying tribute to Michael Jackson’s Super Bowl XXVII performance through your outfit. Let’s not forget to mention the influence of Janet Jackson in your “Rhythm Nation”-esque choreography. So, I can also see how you might be embracing Hurricane Katrina imagery as the backdrop for your video in an effort to remind those who worship at the Church of Beyoncé of the historical and continual disregard for Black life in the United States of ‘Murrikkkah. You might not be saying it out loud like 2005 Kanye West, but I see you trying to show it: That you are proudly Black and that indeed Black Lives Matter.
And Hurricane Katrina is representative of the generalized marginalization and dehumanization experienced by African-Americans nationwide. That is a story we can share – from police brutality to issues of environmental justice – that is water we can wade in together. With your international recognition and bourgeois status you are in a position to advocate for our communities – from New Orleans to Ferguson, from Flint to Baltimore.
But, Beyoncé, I wish that there was a correlation between the visuals you depict in “Formation” and the lyrics of the song. I wish that in resurrecting these images of Black pain that you had said something about them. It is not enough to put flooded houses on screen nor to drown yourself in the water. It is not enough to show a young boy in a hoodie able to make stoic police officers put their hands up in surrender by the force of his dancing and unadulterated existence as a child. As powerful and pro-Black as this song and accompanying video are, no matter how much catchy Carefree Black Girl Magic is flowing from it, “Formation” is not the protest song or BLM movement anthem some people want to claim it is. No one would identify the song as such just by listening to it.
In all honesty, you’ve let the Internet interpreters do all the hard work for you. It seems like déjà vu of “Flawless” and the discussion surrounding your status as a feminist. It’s one thing to borrow and build upon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful words. It’s another to take a story of suffering that is not yours and copy and paste it into your music video. You’ve constructed a market for self-affirming feminist music based on another feminist, but using New Orleans Katrina-scape as a backdrop for your pro-Black anthem is not encouraging—it’s inconsiderate. In the end, it feels forced, calculated and falls flat.
This could have all been different, Beyoncé. The disconnect between what is being said in “Formation” and what is being shown cannot be ignored. You inspire while you slay, but know that all of the glorious Blackness in this video is really just a film reel for a sound bite espousing Western capitalist ideology with lines like, “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me.” Even in showing me how down with the struggle you might be, you are still dredging up images of Black suffering without forewarning an audience that continues to be marginalized in both their city and country or following through by critically engaging with those images. Your anthem doesn’t match your outfit. You might get me to turn up at a party, but you’ll only find me in formation when your words and actions line up.
Maris Jones is a Blacktivist scholar and creator from New Orleans. Affectionately known by her friends as “The Future Dr. Jones,” Maris is constantly engaged in the process of decolonizing her mind. Most days you can find her speaking out against structural inequality–nothing infuriates her more than institutionalized racism.
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