Don’t you love it when a video needs liner notes?
The first thing I immediately thought when I saw Beyonce’s “Formation” was that some folks ruts – “roots” – would show. You know, ruts: biases, fears of lineage, missing genealogies, shit like that. And folks don’t like their ruts or their slip showing. Beyoncé showed er’body’s slip, parasol, skeeta bite scars, and conjuring grandmamma essence in this video. And it was scary. Downright gothic. That is, of course, unless you’re southern – by affiliation or blood and maybe hot sauce preference – and your ruts are ALWAYS showing because there was no reason to hide them in the first place.
Look here: I done said this time and time again that Beyonce’s ass is southern and country. I’m still working through her calling herself a Texas Bama. I guess it’s not too far off – when I hear Bama in Georgia it literally means someone from Alabama. But in the DMV Bama is a diss. I digress.
“Formation” is Texas style fatback and biscuits with country gravy, a dizzying spell that pulls from multiple places and modes of the black southern experience. Beyoncé took a familiar cultural marker of black southernness – trauma – and flipped that bih into a working ideology to engage what it means to be southern and black now.
A few thoughts:
1. Beyoncé said “I’ma make me a world.” She conjured New Orleans’ past, present, and future, calling upon the memories and sounds of New Orleans pre- and post Hurricane Katrina. Because rule number 1 in the south is that the past is always present and the past and present is always future. Still shots of preaching reverends, half-drowned buildings, the weave shop, and plantation houses against a sparse synthesizer that sounds like a tweaked electronic banjo from the Bayou sonically position Beyoncé squarely in the middle of a messy Black South. Katrina is not just a historical event. It is a springboard for re-rendering southern trauma and its association with blackness. Trauma is the spring board of southern blackness. But its foundation is resilience and creativity. Beyoncé’s New Orleans – because there are multiple New Orleans and this one is undeniably hers and her sister Solange’s rendering/conjuring – doubly signifies resurrection and the city of the dead. She utilizes the southern belief that death is a medium instead of a destination. Cue Messy Mya, a social media celebrity who for many was recognized as the voice of New Orleans. Mya was murdered in 2010 but clearly and triumphantly declares “bitch I’m back…by popular demand.” Mya’s voice from beyond the grave adds spectral and speculative realness to Beyonce’s parallel statement of returning to pop music – and the south – with something new. Messy Mya sonically ‘haunts’ the track and like a brief séance, delivers a message to the living. He sets the stage for Beyonce to engage the literal and figurative reckoning of New Orleans as life after death.
2. Beyonce foraged through Black Spirituality, chile. Santería, Houdou, and other non-Christian aspects of spiritual (re)awakening took center stage in this video. And I ain’t mad. Alternative view points of how black folks survive and thrive should include Black Jesus’ kinfolk. Especially in the South.
Beyoncé took on a few conjuring woman roles in this video. The two that stood out most for me were her roles as the woman in black and sitting on top of the half-submerged NOPD police car. Beyonce ain’t nobody’s church mourner with that fierce black lip while shooting birds. She’s standing outside an abandoned plantation nodding her head on the front porch. Do you know the significance of black folks and the front porch? It’s a communal space and a space of reclamation. Who is Bey trying to reclaim? What wrongs is she trying to absolve and with which memories is she trying to make do some work?
Is it possible that Beyoncé, in her red and white dress, was summoning Mami Wata, the water deity who could be both a healer or lure travelers to their watery grave? I’m particularly fascinated by the end of the video, where Beyonce lies on top of the car as it drowns and the voice of Kimberly Rivers Roberts saying “Look at that water boy! Oooh lawd!” One possible intention here is a visual reminder of the many unknown souls that drowned and possibly took their place by Mami Wata’s side during Katrina. Yet the commentary, paired with Beyonce and the car’s ‘drowning,’ doubly signifies upon how we fetishize black death and the feminine power of water and rebirth.
And what about the dancing little boy in a black hoodie whose magic can’t be denied by an all-white police line? The one whose magic is so palpable he gets them to put their hands up? Undeniably a signifier 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.
Conjuring blackness is physical, conceptual, and spiritual. All three are necessary to make protest and resurrection possible.
3. Bey is the southern black woman pleasure principle. Black women’s pleasure is a top priority, even taking her man to Red Lobster for a job well done (have you had the cheddar bay biscuits? So good they are always said in plural). Dr. Kinitra Brooks reads Beyonce’s womanhood in the video as a manifestation of ManMan Brigitte, a vulgar female spirit that loves hot pepper and embodies both sex and death.
Additionally, pleasure in “Formation” is not just sexual. There is an organic trajectory of southern black woman pleasure politics. Red Lobster is just a stop on the ride. The joy of being a black woman “in parlour” with her girls while young black girls play dress up in white dress up and the joy of a good twerk also signify pleasure politics. I want to stress the joy of black girls BEING BLACK GIRLS and not little women. Blue Ivy’s adorable smirks and posturing hold on tight to the possibility of black girl innocence. They matter, ya’ll.
Still, my sister-friend the trilliant Dr. Zandria Robinson says it best:
Formation, then, is a metaphor, a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance. It is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins–woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant–before an overt action. For the black southern majorettes, across gender formulations, formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement. To be successful, there must be coordination, the kind that choreographers and movement leaders do, the kind that black women organizers do in neighborhoods and organizations. To slay the violence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy, we must start, Beyoncé argues, with the proper formation. The proper formation is, she contends, made possible by the participation and leadership of a blackness on the margins.
What type of south is Beyonce trying to get us to see and hear? Are we still in the Beyhive or down in the fire ant pit? I’d put money on the latter, and a lot of folks ain’t comfortable with that. It’s cool. “Formation” ain’t for everybody. Sometimes you need paper plates instead of fine china and Frank’s or Louisiana Hot Sauce in your bag. Swag.