Watching Beyoncé From New Orleans
The low rumble of Beyoncé built like thunder, starting on the first Thursday of February, as the #BEYONCEISCOMING hashtag began trending on Twitter. Rumor spread that not only was the reigning Queen of Pop about to unleash a Super Bowl performance that would render headliner Coldplay a sideshow, but the Internet had gotten wind that there was new music afoot, too.
Beyoncé's digital drop famously stopped the world the last time around, a little over two years ago, and by now, for music fans all over, just the threat of new Beyoncé music is enough to throw a wrench in one's day. In New Orleans, though, she looms even a little bit larger. Here she exists as a specter whose presence you might already be living with. Ever since she shot the "Deja Vu" video at a bar in Carrollton and a plantation in St. James Parish the summer of 2006, Beyoncé sightings have increased in New Orleans to the point where today they are both rampant and unverifiable. Solange is the visible Knowles sister, the one who lives here fulltime, and she was especially about it this Mardi Gras. She lead the Krewe of Muses parade, drunkenly accepted the key to the city from the mayor and lost her wedding ring throwing beads from her float before appearing at the Zulu Ball and hosting her own Lil Kim themed party. She is constantly and colorfully present.
Beyoncé is more elusive. Her immense celebrity should make moving freely an impossibility and give her invitation to fancier forays than our chaotic goodtiming. So rumored glimpses, whether it's because of her secured privacy or our own (self-)doubt, inevitably become "why you lyin'?" moments. That's Bey and Jay Z's new house, I'm telling you. Someone's cousin once danced with her at DJ Soul Sister's Sunday night party, either this year or last. If she's in town she "always" ends her nights with a hot sausage poboy at Gene's. Sure.
So when "Formation" struck, its decidedly New Orleans aesthetic — images of Mardi Gras Indians and lace-drenched ladies in Creole cottages, the voices of bounce artists Messy Mya and Big Freedia, stunning performance footage atop a sinking NOPD car — seemed a confirmation of all that time, indeed, spent with us. The world looked to Beyoncé with rapt attention and in a halted moment she served everybody the sights and sounds of black New Orleans. All this, just as we readied to celebrate the final, most intense weekend of Mardi Gras.
For her first single from what we expect will be her next album, Beyoncé glorified the black New Orleans culture that is both hyper familiar to me, having grown up in the city, and dramatically invisible in the national media. We are represented by 12 Years a Slave and Annie, the Popeyes Chicken Queen, and whatever the words "Bourbon Street" or "voodoo queen" conjure up, but rarely by movie characters with the sturdy grace of the little old Creole ladies who every Sunday attend Corpus Christi Catholic Church in the Seventh Ward or the brash confidence of the second liners who've been buckjumping since the 1800s. Beyoncé saw us and declared us good.
Her representation has been lauded for being "unapologetically black," an embrace of all the things that pop culture either whitewashes for profit or disregards entirely. So it's either incredibly savvy or completely ironic that Beyoncé chose New Orleans as the backdrop for the assertive blackness of "Formation." There is perhaps no city in America where being black has historically been defined, by law and by social custom, in so many different ways. Blackness here has been measured in drops and fractions, measured against paper bags and disguised with French and Spanish terminology, divided into backatown and Uptown neighborhoods and left to drown as a community. Blackness, here more than anywhere, is complicated, and Beyoncé's experience of it may be unapologetic, but New Orleanians at Mardi Gras time didn't exactly agree that it was theirs.
From Friday until Fat Tuesday, the biggest, brightest parades rolled day and night throughout the city. In between the dozens of papier mâché floats depicting Roman and Egyptian gods and Greek muses, mostly black high school bands, cheerleaders, dance teams, flag and baton twirlers marched in tight formation, executing songs and routines that had been polished to dazzle weeks before. The weekend parades, particularly the superkrewes that parade at night, count as prime time; inclusion in them is an honorific reserved for the schools that really get down, whose basslines and high-stepping is never not on point. Except this year, when, mid-eight-count, someone from the crowd yelled "You came to slay!" a sparkling majorette broke her gameface and threw a laugh of recognition in that direction, just this once.
Post-Katrina, those band numbers had dwindled, along with school enrollments, because of displacement and dysfunction. Some schools shut down, some merged with rivals, some charters opened. Six months after the storm, a sadder, smaller Mardi Gras rolled, and in the years since high school bands have swelled again. How strong, how deep is your band — this is a point of pride and argument. Small bands who spread themselves wide over the pavement have weak sound and do less elaborate arrangements. 10 years later, bands' formations don't just fill up a single car lane in the streets where they parade, they stretch once again from curb to curb blaring heart-poundingly soulful versions of The Weeknd's "The Hills."
Beyoncé's "Formation" video featured the four drum majors from Edna Karr High School, one of the city's most popular marching bands, via a clip from the documentaryThat B.E.A.T."We were wowed," Karr's principal, Harold Clay, told Nola.com. "I always have to take into account the exposure and what it entails for the kids, but to have a world renowned superstar wanting and really investigating what band she really wants in a video — a lot of people didn't make the cut."
Footage from That B.E.A.T.is the only part of "Formation" that was shot in New Orleans, with the rest filmed in California. That here-but-not-here trickery has given credence to criticism that Beyoncé has once again swagger jacked a New Orleans culture she does not truly belong to. "First it was 'Get Me Bodied' and taking from Jubilee [Beyoncé's 2006 song has an extended dance callout section at its end which owes a debt to local bounce artist DJ Jubilee's "Get It Ready" and "Do the Jubilee"], now she's got Messy Mya and Freedia on there and trying to steal from sissy bounce," one Lundi Gras revealer argued near the line to buy soft shell crab poboys. Another man, folding up his lawn chair at the riverfront festival, had his own ax to grind: "Maybe she can tell us why it took so long to send help [during Katrina]."
A huge part of Beyoncé's rise to pop superstardom has been her extraordinary use of videos, which are as iconic for their culture-defining dance moves ("Single Ladies") as for their timing. Beyoncé synthesizes visual cues and themes from all over the place (and history) to create for a medium that has to both promote and embody her music. Such is her confidence in their effect, she has stopped giving traditional interviews, and her art, in this case punctuated by her flipping both middle fingers while standing between the columns of an ivied mansion, is her sole response to its critics.
The double-fisted salute may be necessary for a global star who makes no bones about grounding her art in her black American experience, an intersection where Afros and Givenchy dresses and "Jackson 5 nostrils" are all touchstones of glamour. It might also have been a proactive dismissal of protests she surely knew her nod to the Black Lives Matter movement would induce. But to be unapologetic for, and quiet in conversation of, her "Formation" video is to also leave open to interpretation the image of her sinking into floodwaters on the hood of an NOPD cop car, a scene shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles. Was she making reference to heinous policing tactics in the aftermath of Katrina, offering that what happened to all those black bodies then could well have happened to Beyoncé too? Was she sinking or was she submerging herself?
"I did initially think it [the flood metaphor] was awkward, but I gave it a pass because of the cop car. I assumed it had more to do with a stance on Black Lives Matter than Katrina," says New Orleans-born filmmaker and video director Chike Ozah. "I always like anything that is going to keep New Orleans in the conversation."
"I stopped the video halfway through," says New Orleans native Shantrelle Lewis. "Not for any one particular reason, but because it was too much." Lewis, a curator and filmmaker, lost both her great-grandmother and grandmother in 2005 due to Katrina-related circumstances. "This is only one of millions of stories of other people who are triggered by those very visceral images of those flood waters. I was flabbergasted."
"Then everybody started to claim what the imagery meant, they're trying to bring in vodou and African sacred traditions into it, she's representing the south, or it's just this unapologetically black anthem," she says. "I'm like, 'What about New Orleans, though?' There are so many things that are wrong with this video that, if you're from New Orleans, you cannot deny, starting with the colorism that is vivid in the video."
Given longstanding tensions between light-skinned New Orleans blacks who identify as Creole and the black populace who roll their eyes at that qualifier, the lyric "you mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bama" rings differently in attuned ears than it does elsewhere. Combined with scenes of Bey in colonial era wardrobe and the fact that 10 years ago she scrapped a B'Day b-side called "Creole," which called women to the dance floor by skin tone, "Formation" lands Beyoncé squarely in the middle of a centuries-old sensitivity to the term. For many, the word Creole automatically calls to mind a separatist history dating back to the 1700s system of plaçage, a social distinction given to the free black consorts of colonialists, and will always serve as a reminder of our city's purposeful embrace of one type of blackness over another. Was she acknowledging that part of our black history or fetishizing it?
Beyoncé's New Orleans as depicted in "Formation" and the New Orleans that Mardi Gras stirs to life overlap and refute each other and mix in a way that IRL New Orleanians can hate and love all at once and be just fine with the contradiction. Last Sunday, as the Krewe of Thoth rolled along the live oak-lined streets of Uptown, parade goers staked out spots that would allow for a quick withdrawal to watch Super Bowl 50 before a return to the streets for the Bacchus mega-parade. There was urgency in all kinds of New Orleanians, since local-born football scion Peyton Manning was taking on Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers and Beyoncé's impending performance had everyone wondering whether her new spectacle would include us, too. Southern University's band didn't march in Endymion on Saturday, is it because they were going to join her? Would Beyoncé bring out Big Freedia? Would she do something totally new and maybe perform the other song whose video she maybe shot in the Superdome?
Leaving Thoth with my two brothers and two sisters, we jammed into Milan Lounge, a dive bar 15 blocks from the private high school Manning attended and seven blocks from the bar where Big Freedia would be performing postgame, as she had just deflatingly announced on Instagram. The almost entirely white crowd there smoked Pall Mall Slims outside and poured shots inside, while our all-black crew of five spent the first half watching the Panthers fall behind Manning's Broncos. As Saints fans, we're constitutionally incapable of rooting for NFC South rivals, but the coded analysis of Cam Newton's leadership ("too arrogant"), dancing ("not sportsmanlike") and intelligence ("he can't read a defense, that's why he runs") in the lead up to kick off was too racist to leave us ambivalent. Every time Newton rolled out from the pocket, one guy standing at the bar's elbow yelled "KILL HIM" in a guttural cry that made everyone near him hoot and each of our party wonder exactly how long we'd stave off a fight if we tried to stand up for Cam. We looked at each other, nodded, and tacitly agreed that we were here until Beyoncé and not a minute longer.
As the game went to halftime the bartender switched off the TV sound so he could blast Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." "Tradition," he said, when I frantically elbowed my way to the bar. "We'll turn it back off when the song ends." Coldplay ceded the stage to the premminent pop star of our time — a black woman clad in Black Panther tribute, hurling New Orleans references at a nationwide audience — and in one corner of our city she was muted, as per tradition.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.