Beyoncé as Conjure Woman: Reclaiming the Magic of Black Lives (That) Matter

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The first image we see of Beyoncé, in her newly released video for her song “Formation,” is the pop star atop a New Orleans police car, partly submerged in flood water.  At once invoking the tragedy of post-Katrina devastation and police brutality—both extensions of state violence against black lives—Beyoncé strategically positions her body, clad in a country-style red dress (a power of color, of life and bloodlines), at the crossroads between life and death.

This seeming paradox echoes throughout the video. As a modern-day black soul singer who already remixes hip-hop and R&B, Beyoncé serves up old-style conjure-woman magic by remixing local video footage from New Orleans with her own commercialized take on performing blackness, performing Southernness, performing black womanhood. Tellingly, the video not only remixes the voice of the dead—as heard in the opening audio, featuring the late Messy Mya inquiring, “What happened at New Orleans”—but the sounds of the storm (thunder rolls are audible), just before diverse images of black queer men reclaiming feminine/femme/queen moves through bounce music (along with an audio shoutout from Big Freedia, “queen” of bounce music) set the stage for the “queen” herself.

The next image we see of Beyoncé—right after highlighting a preacher man in a local church—features her decked out in sacred attire (thanks to a conversation with Southern scholar Kinitra Brooks, I was told that she was channeling the Vodou loa Maman Brigitte, guardian of the souls of the dead who loves to curse and drink rum with hot peppers). Here is no clearer example of the pop star’s insistence on blurring the boundaries and inhabiting the crossroads: between the living and the dead, between the feminine and the masculine, between the heteronormative and the queer, between the sacred and the profane.

It is no coincidence that her first line, “Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess,” both doubles as a refutation of the conspiracy theory of her involvement with a secret Satanic society as well as an embrace of an African religion that has long been demonized by church folks. Beyoncé is here to reclaim all the aspects of black life that have been rendered as deviant, as waste, as toxic, as destructive. She will conjure it, remix it and remind us of the inherent value of black lives (and why they matter).

The black conjure woman herself has long been a figure demonized in American culture. But black culture has survived due to her resourcefulness in preserving the cultural memory from the African continent by remixing it with other cultures here in North America through food, healing rituals and practices and chanting—note how the song itself falls somewhere between Beyoncé singing and rapping. Her lyrics are deceptively simple, reduced to local Southern lingo and repetitive phrases. In reclaiming black life, Beyoncé returns to a simplicity of language, in which the simplest phrase—”Slay trick, or get eliminated”—is loaded with exponential meaning.

However, the video presents a catalog of visuals signifying Southern blackness, with echoes of the African Diaspora and the post-industrial world, as well as the historical. Empty swimming pools and parking lots suggest abandonment and an opportunity for rebuilding and resurrection. The pop star also gives her ancestral pedigree, “My daddy Alabama, Mama Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama,” against the backdrop of a parlor where portraits of an African king and queen hang from the walls.

Bedecked in Victorian dresses, the “parlor ladies” that Beyoncé and her group of women embody exist ambiguously between the respectability of “New Negro womanhood” from the era and the less reputable positioning of “Creole” courtesans and concubines that birthed the multiple colors of blackness. Their presence in the video suggests an ancestral backdrop to the more present-day twerking of the red-clad dancers in that same parlor, who already disrupt these respectability politics by donning shoulder pads, pearls that could be easily clutched and booty-hugging bodysuits that emphasize their raunchy sexiness. As the Crunk Feminist Collective would say, Beyoncé is here to embrace “disrespectability politics” in a bid to reclaim black female sexuality for us, by us.

Her battle cry to the “ladies”—”Let’s get in formation”—also doubles as both a call to perfect the dance and a call to militarize, to come together in collective defense of our selves, our families, our neighborhoods, and our communities. As Brittney Cooper observed while appearing on Melissa Harris-Perry this past weekend, Beyoncé engages in a “choreography of freedom.” When our very bodies were enslaved and continue to be criminalized, our mastery of the body and the styling of that body is how we reclaimed our sense of liberation.

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Is there anything more awe-inspiring than witnessing the young boy at video’s end dancing effortlessly and with such power and freedom before a line of police in riot gear? Over at the Renegade Futurist blog, this dance is interpreted as a ghost dance, a resurrected Trayvon Martin in his hoodie (the video was released the day after the slain teen’s birthday), perhaps also doubling as young Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot dead by police in Cleveland in 2014.

These are the souls of the dead that Beyoncé seeks to guard. And she conjures their spirits alongside the living—both proclaiming the beauty of blackness in her love of her briefly glimpsed daughter Blue Ivy’s “Afro” (while “twirling on those haters” who criticized her natural hair) and her husband’s wide nose “with Jackson 5 nostrils.” However, in typical contradictory fashion, Beyoncé also affirms black women in their embrace of artifice, showcasing black women in a weave shop wearing dyed wigs while she herself sports blonde braids and weaves in different shots. In so many ways, the pop star invokes India.Arie’s “I’m not my hair’ while also invoking hair as a literal extension of self-refashioning and reclaiming of beauty politics while subverting white beauty standards in the service of black aesthetics.

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Most importantly, Beyoncé flips the gender scripts, rewriting the masculinist narrative in which hip-hop artists—her husband, Jay Z, included—often measure their power through the money they spend on women or through presentations of women’s bodies as decorative pieces in music videos. Here, black masculinity is completely decorative—they appear as set pieces frozen in “black macho” postures behind the animated power of her Maman Brigitte persona—or reduced to trophy spouse whose sexual prowess is rewarded with dinner at Red Lobster, a ride in her chopper or a shopping spree. While we may fault this gendered performance as still functioning within a patriarchal narrative, the male domination that is still a reality in our society invites us to read these gender-role reversals as acts of resistance.

In many ways, we see a rich and famous black pop star staking a claim in black life, reminding her fanbase that she has not abandoned her roots even as she fully embraces capitalist consumption as her measure of power. That while she rocks her Givenchy dress, she still carries “a hot sauce in my bag.” While many may criticize her for capitalizing on the current political moment or even for attempting to commercialize the most marginalized aspects of Southern black life, we cannot ignore how her particular position in culture allows her to reevaluate the margins and bring those cultural elements to the center.

That her “Formation” choreography made an appearance during the halftime show at the Super Bowl—replete with 30 black women backup dancers clad in Black-Panther style leather and berets while Beyoncé herself channeled the King of Pop, sporting a jacket similar to the one he wore during his Superbowl performance—demonstrates that the pop star is seriously grappling with the power and clout she now has to raise up the power and magic of black life.

Still, it would be a mistake to view “Formation” as somehow more authentic than her performance as a Bollywood star in the recent video for Coldplay’s India-set “Hymn for the Weekend.” Accusations of cultural appropriation tend to be superficial since they do not capture the nuances, complexities and messiness of how art encounters, collapses and syncretizes the cultural differences that confront a multiracial world. Not to mention how, in “Formation,” Beyoncé suggests that blackness is itself performative, as represented by Mardi Gras costumes on display. There are layers to masking and unmasking.

However, in a year that has witnessed #OscarsSoWhite, in which actors, screenwriters and filmmakers of color are often ignored or whose stories are whitewashed, the question of who has access to larger cultural platforms matters.  The local artists featured in Beyoncé’s new video could not reach the Super Bowl audience without her intervention. And in a world that continues to decry women’s power or black power, being able to boldly claim “I slay” is a radical form of resistance. Even more radical is her willingness to move towards an old black-club-women tradition of “lifting as we climb”: “Now we gon’ slay.”

Beyoncé may have traveled the world and tried on different costumes of appropriation, but here in this moment, she has come back “home” to conjure up some magic in reclaiming all black souls and all black lives.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of Big Freedia as Big Freedonia. The scholar Kinitra Brooks’ name was also misspelled. The text has been updated.

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Screenshots via “Formation” video

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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.