(As presented on Nov. 10, 2016, at MMLA, St. Louis)
There Is No Such Thing As Dystopia When Beyoncé Is In the Room
The premise of this panel is to talk about the female body in dystopia—how it performs, the space it can occupy, how it transforms the space or is transformed by it, the ways it enacts or is acted upon. Female bodies are often sites of questions about power, agency, and negation and I certainly don’t think any of us envisioned how sort of perfectly and terribly prescient this topic would be at this exact moment. The female body. In dystopia. Beyoncé and Hillary on stage. How the female body acts and is acted on.
Which brings us to “Formation” and the way Beyoncé’s body performs its powers upon the visual, physical, and metaphorical spaces of a dystopic and utopic New Orleans, a New Orleans that stands in for the everything else in America. And how it posits multiple black identities: female, male, child, adult, gender queer, the sacred and the profane. And while Joseph Roach writes in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, that “Liminality…can be very hard on the people who are trying to live there (281), it also holds true that these spaces “reaffirm the existence of a community without sealing it off from the rest of the world—past, present, and future” (281).
In its opening scenes, “Formation” recalls the flooding that occurred post Hurricane Katrina, the water and its accompanying destruction, as well as signals to the stasis created by the very nature of flood itself. Flood is no movement. Flood, for a time, stops time. Eliminates time. And this is where Beyoncé’s body enters and exerts its verbal, visual, political, and historical power, transforming what was at least momentarily understood as a dystopian wasteland into a place that has utopian possibility. It allows that this place of liminality has revealed beneath it multiple black futurities, that America itself has always had multiple futurities made visible by this female body and its particular power. (And yet we should note that this video isn’t only about the female body but that female, here, functions as vessel, as conduit for a whole of marginalized black identities within this community.)
There are, often, two narratives about New Orleans in the popular culture: one that is the “Big Easy,” of drinking in the streets, a permissive playground where bodies go to drink heavily while drinking in a romanticized history. And while this narrative isn’t exclusively white, it is not about blackness. AND we have all seen the images pre-Katrina, of people, black bodies, lined up to attempt to leave, to attempt to seek shelter in the Superdome, and, then post, on roofs and in attics, sometimes dead. The images were of homogenization, of the “same” kind of poverty, the “same” discussion of “looting,” of “why didn’t they leave,” of a people and city literally trapped in stasis, in water, unable to move and only represented in a particular way in the public narrative. Poor. Black. Without nuance.
“Formation” gives space the the world behind the veil, the world that is liminal and yet has always existed. It contains various performances of blackness throughout the physical space of New Orleans. This is significant in a city that is know not only for its performativity but its use of space to celebrate, claim, and subvert identity. The complicated histories of New Orleans have often been understood, read, represented, and made to perform as a space that is outside of time, that it is past, present, and future concurrently, that is both the idea of the thing and the thing itself. As Joseph Roach writes in Cities of the Dead: Circum- Atlantic Performance, taking inspiration from de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” walking in the city in of New Orleans “activates the spatial logic of a city built to make certain powers and privileges not only seasonally visible but perpetually reproducible” (14). It is this reproducibility, power, and privilege that “Formation” and Beyoncé taps into. It is in New Orleans that past, present, and future are all elided, to hearken back to Faulkner, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past,” and this is especially true and possible in the New Orleans of “Formation.”
Beyoncé’s multiple identities, both lyrical and physical, within “Formation” engage with this use of space, using not only multiple images of blackness but various historicities, to transform what had been understood as a dystopian state of stasis into a long historical moment, a long dureé of New Orleans, embodied with power—one that has strength and cannot be undone by time or flood or, as alluded to in the video, violence.
Beyonce as character is magic a magic being, an amalgamation of power and vulnerability, and we know this because, as she embodies multiple identities, she collapses time and space. She will NOT have your fuckery surrounding the ideas of blackness in these images. She uses her body throughout the visual of “Formation” to represent multiple past, present, and future histories of blackness as they are present in the American South. AND with her body she creates spaces for conversations about police brutality, gender, sexuality, hair, the powerful variety that a black New Orleans holds, and finally, how her body will literally serve as agent in a drowning/baptism that can allow for rebirth, with death as the medium.
The video and the song open with a twanging noise that sounds almost out of time and place—its source is not immediately identifiable, as well as audio of another unnamed voice that says, “What happened at the New Wilins? Bitch I’m back. I’m more popular than ever.” It is that of Messy Mya, a gender queer comedian and personality who was gunned down, who’s murdered was never solved. However, in the world of “Formation,” Messy Mya is ever present. The first time we see Beyoncé she is straddling a police car that is half submerged in floodwaters. While it is unclear that this is meant to represent a moment that is specifically post-Katrina, it is clear that this space, this dystopia, this New Orleans which has been a sight of a very public struggle for black identity, etc., is the site where Beyoncé’s body can do the most work. Where it needs to do the most work. Whereby her body opening literal and metaphorical space for conversation is not only the most useful but is also something that contributes to her power as well. This is dystopia with transformation writ into itself, just simply not yet seen. But Beyoncé has the ability to show, to recognize. Her power is that of vision and of transubstantiation.
Beyoncé’s first appearance in the video is from afar, the camera approaching her, as she slowly crouches down upon a police car that’s submerged in floodwaters. Her body is authoritative, claiming space in its ranging movements—in the next scene in which she appears she is reclining, comfortable, directly addressing the camera, rebuking the listeners, derisive in tone, for their ridiculous assumptions about her. Haters are corny, she is reckless as she is possessive—all claims she dismisses with an impassive face and physical positioning of her body to display control not only of herself but of the world.
She is also wearing a red and white dress—Mami Wata, a group of African water spirits, was often portrayed wearing these same colors, “Red symbolizing the color of blood, violence and death, and white symbolizing spirituality, beauty and the female body.” And as Olupona, Jacob writes in African Spirituality(1. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000. (Wicker 198-222)) "Mami Wata devotees evaluate and transform external forces to shape their own interior lives and lives of those around them.” We also read in an article by Henry John Drewal in "Mami Wata Shrines: Exotica and the Construction of Self "that Mami Wati and her devoties also take “exotic objects, interpret them according to indigenous precepts, invest them with new meanings, and then re-present them in inventive ways to serve their own aesthetic, devotional, and social needs.” We hear Beyoncé engaging in this transformation in her opening lines: “I wear Roc necklaces because I’m possessive, possessive in this context meaning jealous?” “Nah. I wear this because this shit’s mine,” she seems to say. “I’m reckless in this Givenchy dress?” The reference to the see-through beautifully embellished dress she wore to the Met Gala ball that presented her body as gold and filigreed statuary? “Nah, she says, again. I ain’t reckless. I OWN this world. THIS WORLD IS TRANSFORMED BY ME and or is made in all of my/our images.”
In these opening scenes we also see her in what appears to be a throw back to the photographs of E.J. Bellocq. Bellocq was a photographer of the women of Storyville, which was a district in New Orleans just outside of the French Quarter where prostitution was de-facto legalized from 1897-1917. While much isn’t known about the photographs or the photographer except that, based upon identifying background materials in the photographs themselves that they were taken in 1910, what IS know about the women of the district was that many of them were “big” characters, owning, at least for a time, significant amounts of property and financial wealth. While the narratives that surround prostitution are difficult—how does one have agency within a system that is designed to marginalize—it is true that we know at least some of these women were, for a time and until New Orleans politics and statues changed their legal status regarding own race and the ownership of property, significant financial beings in their own right. AND they were women who had complicated racial identities, in that they were mixed race but prized for their lightness by the white men who were their customers. But a reading of the E.J. Bellocq photographs show, often, women who were claiming their identities—most of the pictures do not appear to be posed/staged--revealing their physical worlds and thereby their interior ones to be much more than the narrative simply ascribed to them by history.
HERE CONSIDER SHOWING A PHOTO OF BEYONCE AS PLACAGE AND THAT ONE E.J. BELLOCQ PIC. Just as a cue in.
After these dismissals, the video moves into an affirmative proclamation of identity through visual and verbal references. “My daddy Alabama, my mama louisiana, you put that creole with that negro get that texas bama” she sings as the frame switches between her and her dancers dancing and a painting of a beautiful dark woman and another painting of what seems to be a family/portrait of African royalty. She continues on with “I like my baby’s hair with baby hair and afros, I like my Negro with his Jackson Five nostrils, got all this money but they can’t take the country out me, got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” She is refuting the public commentary on her child’s hair, is embracing that traditionally African features of her husband, and again affirms herself country black interiority with her carrying of hot sauce.
It should be noted that scholar Dr. Yaba Blay in her article “On 'Jackson Five Nostrils,' Creole vs. 'Negro' and Beefing Over Beyoncé's 'Formation'” discusses the very real issues raised in “Formation,” namely the references to Creole, the images that refer to placage and/or Storyville, and the position of Blue Ivy, her daughter, between two girls who are darker in complexion. There has also been discussion about her use of the word “bamma” as it has been used historically in a disparaging way to refer to African Americans who had moved north and were now considered to be “country.” While these are very real concerns that I don’t necessarily feel qualified to speak on to a great degree, I would suggest that a reading of the video and its multiple visions of blackness, its insistence on a multiplicity of representation, the sheer variety of color and sexuality present, to say nothing of the variety of hair that is show, nods toward an inclusive version of blackness that, in the world of “Formation,” does not privilege color but privileges blackness as identity. And yet the history of New Orleans, and America, is one that complicates color in problematic ways. But to quote Roxane Gay, “I trust Beyoncé’s feminism”; the character in the video seems to be claiming/creating space for a story of black life and black history that is inclusive and encompassing.
In the rest of the video, what we see is Beyoncé, in a variety of costumes, in formation solo and with others, slaying. Beyoncé is shown in a black dress, a giant black hat covering/circling her face, silver jewelry on her neck, hands, and fingers. She is adorned and powerful, flanked by black men in suits. They stand on the front of a porch of what appears to be a white plantation home and they are not inviting entrance. They are claiming ownership of the space AND also, based upon their positioning, are NOT inviting the audience in. THIS IS OURS, the image seems to say. THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. She raises her middle fingers, eyes still covered but mouth painted perfectly and speaking, “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, ‘cause I slay.” She further asserts her power: “I just might get your song played on the radio station. You just might be the next black Bill Gates in the making.” For a moment it sounds as though she is elevating a man above her and I, as a listener, had a pause. And yet she continues, “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making” and that moment revisits her on the police car but when this line is delivered she stands atop the car, arms raised, proclaiming her power to the world.
She is also shown dancing in a maroon leotard in a book-lined hallway. She is shown dancing in denim in a parking lot, big hair, with a line of dancers who are similarly dressed. She is shown in what looks to be almost a church or some interior space, flowers and masked men and women around her. She has a crown of flowers and looks like a magical creature. The camera looks up at her as she stares back into it—she is otherworldly. She is shown with long blond braids in an El Camino, hanging out the window, slow motion, her face and hair taking up the whole of the frame. She is present in a drawing room with other women, all dressed in white. They have hair in braids, are a variety of colors, and are vaguely disdainful of the camera and it’s implied eye upon them. (This moment again seems to hearken back to Storyville and/or the system of placage that was present in the city for a number of years.)
One of the very interesting moments I see in the video is the women all dancing in a drained empty pool. Swimming pools have been historically segregated spaces and now, here is Beyoncé and her crew claiming ownership of a pool, dancing in a choreographed way that hearkens back to a traditionally white image of swimming musicals of the 50s, musicals that were filmed at the same time black people were not allowed access to such spaces. And here it is even further transformed in that they have even removed the water in a place that is located in flood. She has, again, rewritten the space and made it liminal. Time has been collapsed.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t address the magical dancing boy who, by the power of his dance, is able to transform the police standing in front of him, a line in their own “formation,” to put their hands up TO HIM as we read the caption “Stop Shooting Us.” The young boy, by the magic of his dance, by the magic of his power, by the power vested in him by Beyoncé, is able to transform the formation of police into a benevolent force. THEY MUST SURRENDER TO HIM.
The challenges of writing about a video like “Formation” are many. Aside from the lyrical content, Formation is a video that is image heavy, and the images themselves are not easy—they are laden with history and imbued with meaning, and so it is difficult to choose what to talk about in a shorter piece like this. There are layers of unpacking to be done, and there is certainly additional work I would like to do with this piece: the images of New Orleans—of churches, of Mardi Gras, of the layers implicity in identity involved in the masking and the history of the use of physical spaces in New Orleans. Of what it means to have a second line in a Jazz Funeral. However, for today, we will have to satisfy ourselves in thinking on how “Formation” and Beyoncé, in formation, begins to claim and create space, to reveal space that has always existed but was rendered invisible to the rest of the world.