Back by Popular DemandBeyoncé Harnesses the Power of Conjuring in “Formation”

Beyoncé performs at Coachella on April 14, 2018 (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Beyoncé attempts to resurrect ghosts in “Formation,” as she did in Lemonade. In “Formation” specifically, she’s conjuring. Art is always creation, but here, perhaps more than anywhere else in her entire catalog, she invokes the role of conjure woman. Janell Hobson explored the various allusions to conjure women in the “Formation” visuals for Ms. magazine, noting that Beyoncé positions herself “at the crossroads between life and death” from the very beginning. She crouches defiantly on the roof of a New Orleans Police Department cruiser in head-to-toe red and white Gucci and combat boots, summoning ghosts from the water flooding the streets. In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman said history was how the secular world attended to (or refused to attend to) the dead; in “Formation,” Beyoncé gathers ghosts to attend to history and the present, standing in for a myriad possible conjure women from various Black spiritual traditions—one of the most famous being Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, herself tied to New Orleans.

Legend holds that both Laveau and her daughter, who shared the same name, were prominent priestesses in Louisiana during the 1800s—the elder known for practicing syncretic Haitian Voodoo while the younger blended elements of her mother’s religion with local Roman Catholicism. The two often get conflated with each other in retellings, making it difficult to assign specific actions to either particular Laveau. Like Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, the Laveau women also exist as important symbols in the public imagination. As powerful, free Black Creole women during slavery, they also challenged the racist social order of the day and share similarities with Beyoncé herself. In Jewell Parker Rhodes’s fictionalized account of the elder Marie Laveau, Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau, she notes, “A story should begin at the beginning. But in this story, the middle is the beginning. Everything spirals outward from the center.”

“Formation” is part of that spiral outward from the new narrative center Beyoncé created in Lemonade, itself occurring at a presumed center of Beyoncé’s career. Beyoncé embodies both Maries and is swept up in the additional spiral, backward and forward, of “Formation.” In later scenes, she appears next to tall white Southern gothic columns on the front porch of a plantation house, with ceremonial attendants at either side. She wears a black, oversize flat top hat pulled low, the brim shadowing her eyes and facial expressions. Thanks to conversations with scholar Kinitra Brooks, Hobson identifies those scenes as additional invocation of the loa Maman Brigitte, “guardian of the souls of the dead who loves to curse and drink rum with hot peppers.” Beyoncé’s movement in these scenes is especially erratic, disjointed, otherworldly, possessed as is characteristic of many Voodoo ceremonies—she performs as the vessel spirits will inhabit, having been summoned from the realm of the dead.

The lyrics that begin “Formation” also exist as ceremonial incantation, monotone but hauntingly doubled in different harmonic registers. The dead returning. Messy Mya’s voice opens the video as ghost, even before what sounds like distorted and bent electronic sitar notes echo, sonically mirroring Beyoncé’s attempt to bend time and history. Born Anthony Barre, Messy Mya was a comedian, rapper, and local YouTube celebrity from New Orleans, known for the biting wit he used to lovingly mock and critique his surroundings. While his queerness was debated on social media, Messy Mya’s aesthetic was certainly larger than life and decidedly queer, in the sense that he defiantly differed from the norm, regardless of any publicly claimed or unclaimed identity. He was murdered on November 14, 2010, and the case remains unsolved. His voice beckons and demands answers, not just to “What happened at the New Wil’ins [New Orleans]?” in the sampled audio but “What happened to me?” Mya’s question even anticipates Beyoncé’s own “What are you doing, my love?” from Lemonade. The track then positions him to answer: “Bitch, I’m back…by popular demand.”

A sonic resurrection in the center of New Orleans, the site of the devastating Hurricane Katrina 11 years prior. Mya’s question is easily alternately heard as “What happened after New Orleans?” (i.e., Katrina). The answer is clearly nothing, as Beyoncé shows the streets still flooded. The ghosts of Katrina’s victims also enter the video through the water and another audio sample at the end of the song. Kimberly Rivers Roberts’s voice reinvokes flood waters rising in a snippet from the 2008 Katrina documentary Trouble the Water. More ghosts quickly assemble between the intro and outro of “Formation.” Queer bounce artist Big Freedia’s voice joins Mya’s and Roberts’s in the sonic landscape, recorded specifically for Beyoncé. As the noted queen of bounce music, Freedia’s presence amps up the queerness at the song’s core exponentially, and intensifies a sense of gender nonconformity. Adding to the already considerably queer elements, “Formation” also incorporates flashes of Abteen Bagheri’s 2014 documentary That B.E.A.T., a short film celebrating New Orleans bounce music, itself a queer subculture.

Following all these references, the ghost of someone like Penny Proud then also falls explicitly into formation. Proud was a 21-one-year-old Black trans woman murdered in 2015 in the Treme district of New Orleans. Police say she was killed during a robbery, but her murder, like Messy Mya’s, remains unsolved. As with so many trans women—especially Black trans women and other trans women of color—police don’t allocate the necessary resources to apprehending those responsible. Black trans women are marginalized in life and further marginalized in death. Though Penny Proud isn’t mentioned or sampled specifically in the song, her ghost, too, rises from the waters, as do those of the other Black trans women and trans women of color murdered in New Orleans (which sadly boasts an alarmingly high number of such reported murders) and elsewhere. What happened after New Orleans? And what is still happening in, and to, New Orleans?

Add to the ghosts of “Formation” all those lost to police brutality and racist violence committed at the hands of the state, intentionally and unintentionally. Beyoncé calls out police brutality and the premature deaths of Black bodies specifically, not only through the use of a submerged police car as her conjuring stage, but also in a memorable scene toward the end of the video. A line of police officers in riot gear stand opposite one young Black boy. Noticeably, the police are white. In fact, the police are the only white faces in the “Formation” video. Of course, it’s not an indictment of every individual white person; it’s a visual indicator that white supremacy and whiteness are synonymous with the state.

The young boy dancing blends the cases of Trayvon Martin (via a hooded sweatshirt), murdered by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida, in 2012, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, murdered by police in Cleveland, Ohio. Both made national headlines and sparked extensive protest. The boy break dances in front of the police line. He dances for his life while police stare him down, weapons at the ready. Through invoking the ghosts of those killed by police and other authorities, Beyoncé is also trying to rewrite the story—to illustrate undeniably that the threat lies with the police and the system, not with any individual Black child, nor, by extension, any adult.

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The camera then cuts to graffiti on a wall that reads, “Stop Shooting Us.” Another incantation, a plea, and one connected to the Mothers of the Movement featured in Lemonade. In exaggerated contradiction to what manifests in the world and news so often, the line of white police officers raise their arms in surrender. While the police’s surrender is something that rarely—if ever—happens in life, it serves as a powerful pop culture salve to raw, real wounds. A moment to breathe and imagine things differently. A moment to honor the ghosts. During the Formation World Tour show in Glasgow, Scotland—the very week both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police for no reason in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively—Beyoncé took a moment of silence to honor them, and many more, by displaying a list of names on the seven-story monolith video screen at center stage, followed by “… and countless others.” Though she doesn’t speak each name as part of “Formation,” they are all present.

All the ghosts Beyoncé has assembled stand in formation, as warning to the audience of the toxicity and violent inequality of the system, and also as warning and threat to the system. After all, to slay is to kill—ideologies, politics, structural inequalities. Voices from the margins, standing in formation, poised to slay the system: a movement the audience can also be part of by recognizing their own place and falling into formation—by proving they, too, have some coordination, through recognizing individual privileges and complicities. Though Beyoncé conjures ghosts surrounded by water, the absence of water in another particular scene is significant. Floodwaters on New Orleans streets are juxtaposed with an empty, subterranean swimming pool, inside which Beyoncé and a group of exclusively Black female dancers fall into formation to slay killer choreography. And the empty swimming pool that Beyoncé reclaims in “Formation” carries with it the specter of intense racial anxiety.

The integration of public swimming pools routinely sparked riots, violence, and racist reactions from whites hell-bent against it. A postwar rise in suburban private swimming pools as a (white) American ideal should also be seen as a direct response to the push to integrate public pools. The proliferation of membership-based, whites-only clubs and organizations boasting swimming pools was an attempt to keep segregation in swimming alive and kicking in the private sector, against the demands of public integration. Unashamed racist reactions and contempt persisted in public too. Urban legend holds a Las Vegas pool was drained in the 1950s before white patrons would continue swimming after film legend Dorothy Dandridge simply dipped her toe in the water. In 1964 a Florida motel manager poured acid into a whites-only swimming pool when Black people took to the water as part of a swim-in protest planned in part by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The aftermath was caught in now-infamous photos by Horace Cort.

Becton’s assault and arrest were caught on film as she repeatedly screamed for someone to call her mother while pinned down. The video went viral, drawing national attention and derision. Becton and her family sued for damages, ultimately accepting a settlement from the city. Beyoncé’s empty swimming pool in “Formation” joins the police car’s roof and plantation front porch as stage and cauldron, mixing and blending ghosts from the past, lives in the present, and possibilities for the future. Ongoing conjuring.

In “Formation,” Beyoncé gathers ghosts to attend to history and the present, standing in for a myriad possible conjure women from various Black spiritual traditions.

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Finally, Beyoncé’s conjuring is referenced linguistically through the song’s title. The suffix “-ation” denotes an “action or process of doing something.” In all the above instances, Beyoncé performs the action of giving form: to ghosts, to history, to ideas, and to politics. She brings the marginalized to the center, even beyond, across, and around the boundaries of death. Harkening back to the origins of intersectionality, she recalibrates the specific intersections of Black women’s and queer folks’ oppression as necessarily more informative than the single-issue politics that only gradually, and painstakingly slowly, include those always already closer to what is stereotypically normative to begin with. She gives form to a new version of politics with an army of ghosts that also symbolically remains invisible, because invisible bodies are impossible to bring into view by the system’s design. It’s only through wielding an intersectional lens and mapping the margins that the army of ghosts, later given further form in Lemonade, becomes possible.

“Formation” opens with a parental advisory warning of explicit content typed in retro computer font. But it’s ironically disingenuous. Nothing in the lyrics or visuals requires it. Beyoncé does say “fuck” in the infamous Red Lobster line, which repeats twice, but the same can happen in a PG-13 movie. Countering the very assumptions of the warning, the lyrics and images in the video unapologetically and necessarily celebrate Black women, girls, and queer folks unlike anything heretofore seen in mainstream pop culture. And Black girls, young queer people, those typically positioned in the margins, desperately need the specific affirmations Beyoncé offers. The presence of the advisory further exposes a system attempting to label the empowerment of those never meant to be empowered within that system as the real threat necessitating the warning. Beyoncé’s reminding viewers to stay cautious and alert, not for explicit language, but for the forces always at work that seek to render invisible those whom “Formation” attempts to strengthen and resurrect. Subverted, the warning becomes a ghost, and the ghosts of “Formation” become real.

Beyoncé stands defiantly at the threshold of life and death, transforming margins into center. She drowns in those floodwaters, becomes a ghost while splayed against that police car, in order to firmly link the erasure of Black women to the state, state violence, discrimination, oppression—all the things Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality aims to make visible. Ultimately, Beyoncé herself speaks back as a ghost in “Formation,” cleverly cautioning the audience not to heed or trust the system’s own antiquated and unjust warnings.

Excerpt used with permission from Ain’t I a Diva? (Feminist Press 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Kevin Allred.


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by Kevin Allred
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Kevin Allred is a writer, speaker, and educator based in Brooklyn. His work has been featured at NBC News, INTO, HuffPost, Salon, and more. He created the course “Politicizing Beyoncé” in 2010 at Rutgers University and his book Ain’t I a Diva?: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy will be released 6/11/19 from the Feminist Press.