Beyoncé Slays Black People

by R.L. Stephens II on February 9, 2016

One evening in September 2015, I sat down to watch the season premier of Doctor Who. What I saw disturbed me. Beginning with the opening scene, Black men were repeatedly killed within moments of appearing on screen. It was the old Black guy dies first trope. I was mad, pausing the show to mutter to myself about racism and decide if I’d continue watching.

That same night, a friend’s brother was murdered in Chicago. He didn’t even make it to 30. I called my friend the day I got the news. I could hear the devastation in his voice, each labored breath almost choking the words out of him as we talked. “Chicago spares no one,” he lamented.

The separation between life and death is at the same time a chasm and a small crack. I had to stop watching a TV show for a few minutes; my friend’s brother had to stop living. The juxtaposition brought into stark relief one notion in particular: there’s a big difference between representation and reality. Unfortunately, as the latest round of internet hysteria following Beyoncé’s new video “Formation” demonstrates, many would-be pundits recognize no such distinction.

A textual analysis of a Beyoncé video tells us almost nothing of the political conditions facing actually existing Black people, regardless of how “Black” one believes its content to be.

“I think parts of this video are as radical a seeding of visionary futures as the lunch counter sit-ins,” one author says. Wait a minute. The lunch counter sit-ins actually happened. They weren’t a music video, and they weren’t a cultural representation. The sit-ins shut down businesses and sometimes even whole towns, upending day-to-day realities in the fight against racial segregation. People got hurt. It’s beyond me how those insurgent events can be favorably compared with a Beyoncé song that says “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” 

Adolph Reed, Jr., in his book Class Notes, explains that these writers deal in “cultural politics.” Their claims are predicated on the premise “that interpreting literary texts is identical with interpreting the wider world.” This falsehood is what allows them to strip actual political events of all context in order to create a false parity with pop culture representations—say, for instance, equating a Beyonce video with the sit-ins.

Reed concludes that this fallacy “empties the idea of political action of all meaning.” Most crucially, he dispels the common assumption that class and identity politics are opposing, mutually exclusive ideologies:

Cultural politics and identity politics are class politics. They are manifesta­tions within the political economy of academic life and the left-liberal public sphere—journals and magazines, philanthropic foundations, the world of “public intellectuals”—of the petit bourgeois, brokerage politics of interest-group pluralism. Postmodern­ist and poststructuralist theorizing lays a radical-sounding patina over this all-too-familiar worldview and practice.

Clearly, culture is politically relevant, just not in the way that practitioners of cultural politics would have us believe.

Kenneth Warren Sr., an English professor, demonstrates that cultural representations do not exist in a historical vacuum. Focusing on late 19th century Black novelists’ depictions of labor relations, Warren argues that these representations—both positive and negative—were “a response to the rise of the Southern Alliance in the 1880s, which was followed by the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s.” Labor insurgency was on the rise, and more than one million Black farmers had formed the Colored Farmer Alliance, leaving Black elites “disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction.” Therefore, according to Warren, “in novel after novel produced by the black political class, writers inserted scenes where unschooled black laborers pleaded for the leadership and guidance of their black genteel betters.” 

In keeping with the tradition of scholars like Professors Reed and Warren, I propose that we examine Beyoncé’s work within its real-world political context. Beyoncé’s cultural signifying does not illuminate political conditions, it obscures them.

One of the key points of emphasis in numerous think pieces is praise for Beyoncé’s use of post-Katrina New Orleans in the “Formation” video. Hurricane Katrina actually happened, and people actually died. It wasn’t merely a natural disaster, it was a political one. The fix had long been in, a neoliberal conspiracy set in motion before Katrina struck and primed to take advantage of the resulting chaos

7,000 teachers, most of whom were Black, lost their jobs immediately after Katrina. They filed and won a lawsuit against the government for their wrongful terminations, but that didn’t save their jobs. The neoliberal shift in New Orleans’ policy gutted not only the Black middle class as a whole, but Black teachers in particular. From 2002-2012, New Orleans has seen the Black teacher population drop by an astronomical 62%, with most of that loss coming after Katrina. At that same time, the number of white teachers has increased 3.3%.

Teach for America was instrumental during the racist neoliberal takeover of New Orleans schools, tripling the number of TFA recruits sent to New Orleans and providing a steady stream of young (often white) teachers to staff the charter schools that took the place of the city’s public schools. Beyoncé’s politics perfectly align with New Orleans’ racist neoliberal nightmare, even as “Formation” represents racialized suffering and resistance in a post-Katrina world. Look no further than her public support for DeRay Mckesson, an alliance which invalidates all think piece claims regarding “the Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work.”

DeRay Mckesson, the celebrity protester who rose to prominence in the wake of the Ferguson riots, is a product of Teach for America. He defends and promotes TFA’s neoliberal political machine any chance he gets. Last year, Teach for America gave him a $10,000 award for his work. With the announcement of his Baltimore mayoral campaign, DeRay is positioning himself to take Teach for America’s neoliberal vision not only to Baltimore’s schools but to every agency in the city.

Beyoncé is a major supporter of DeRay. When speaking at Yale last fall, he boasted that he is one of 10 people in the world that Beyonce follows on Twitter. For a man who thinks “twitter is the revolution,” such a high profile endorsement is serious currency. If local news anchor Vanessa Herring is any indication, DeRay’s association with Beyoncé is already paying dividends in his campaign to be Baltimore’s next mayor.

In his campaign announcement DeRay proudly tosses around neoliberal buzz words like “accountability” and “transparency.” Transparency in particular is, as political theorist Jon Beasley-Murray put it, “neoliberalism’s key value, going hand in hand with governance.” DeRay, once described as a “ruthless administrator” for his firing of teachers, used his campaign announcement to call for “the release of the internal audits of the Baltimore City Public School System.” Notice he’s not calling for increased oversight and regulation of notoriously corrupt charter schools or the racist lending system that destroyed much of Baltimore’s housing stock. Much like TFA-backed education reform uses data to justify school privatization, DeRay’s audits will foreshadow a similar privatizing effect for the entire city:

I also understand that transparency is a core pillar of government integrity. We deserve to know where our city services — from housing and sanitation, to schools and police — are doing well and falling short. To this end, we must invest in a broad range of systems and structures of accountability and transparency, including the release of the internal audits of the Baltimore City Public School System along with annual and timely audits of all city agencies.

“Formation” is all about “slaying.” Who exactly shall Deray, a ruthless administrator with a track record of firing public employees, be slaying as mayor of majority-Black Baltimore? Black people disproportionately work in government. Black government employment is a primary reason Black people are the most unionized ethnic group in this country and one of the only reliable routes to the middle class for Black workers.

Given that context, the Supreme Court’s recent undermining of public sector unions should be understood—at least in part—as a racist attack on Black people. When DeRay calls an article on the privatization of the U.S. postal service an “interesting read,” that’s not merely an opinion. It’s a threat against one of the largest employers of Black workers in the country. And if his electoral career is successful, DeRay will have the power to carry it out. DeRay represents Beyoncé’s neoliberal ideology implemented in the real world, and it is a politics that destroys the poor.

Yeah, Beyoncé and Deray slay, alright. They slay Black people.

16 responses to “Beyoncé Slays Black People”

  1. Thanks for this. I’m a 60 year old white guy, so I don’t pay attention to Beyoncé. After the super bowl, I saw people commenting on her use of the Panthers, so I watched the halftime show on youtube and thought it was bizarrely hollow. Ut led me to the Formation video, which struck me as equally hollow. The part that was hardest for me to parse was the 19th century garb. Was she trying to evoke the black slaveowners of the Old South? I often feel the goal of neoliberal antiracism is not to end oppression but to make oppression proportionate in terms of race and gender so the black bourgeoisie may have all the privileges of the white bourgeoisie. The fact that they talk constantly about privilege rather than oppression reinforces my suspicion.

    • Megan Seabaugh says:

      The 19th century garb was a visual shoutout to New Orleans Creole culture and dress. (There were a lot of visual allusions to Black Southern culture — the Mardi Gras outfits, the black Majorette-inspired dance moves.) I’m white, but I’ve read plenty of pieces that talk about specifically Black cultural aspects of the video that would have gone straight over my head, otherwise.

      That said, I 100% agree that Formation is neoliberal in intent and execution.

      • I got the Mardi Gras references, but the choice of upper-class Creole clothing was confusing. If it’s supposed to be antebellum, that’s slaveowning. I just checked: one of the richest black slaveowners, Antoine Dubuclet of Louisiana, owned 70 slaves in 1860.

        • Lee says:

          Martin, the use of “Creole” vs “Negro” in itself should raise eyebrows for most that are aware of the history of colorism and class within the diaspora. It is well-documented.

          I don’t purport to know if Beyonce is aware of this. But I do know that I find it odd to say that this is somehow “unapologetically Black” when it a) perpetuates the fallacy of race, b) asserts that her being “Creole” is somehow different than being “Black/ Negro”.

          Beyonce ALREADY has a song called “Creole” that touches on the same themes and they have raised eyebrows before.

          There is a well-documented history regarding colorism and classism that would cause most with even the most basic knowledge to give pass to this identity. One need only Google the phrase “Creole and colorism” to gain some context.

          I’m frankly speechless regarding how many older than 30 have not been asking her about this. But then again, she doesn’t write these songs anyway. So I don’t know what to make of her awareness.

          • GSTally says:

            Here’s another bombshell for your intersectionality analysis: Beyonce is Creole.

          • Any idea if she’s descended from Creole slaveowners? I don’t mean to imply that should be held against her if so–children aren’t responsible for the sins of the parents, etc.–but I’ve become a bit fascinated with the US’s black slaveowners, as my comments here undoubtedly make obvious. And I keep meaning to learn a little more about the history of the black bourgeoisie.

          • Anonymous says:

            re creole: it is a natural linguistic process, and it is not even recognized by anthropologists as always referring specifically to African Americans with French heritages in the States. the original definition of the word *creole* had more to do with linguistic theory than racial identity, and it is very problematic indeed that the symantics have evolved in that way over our nation’s history. I personally believe that this fact in itself is what Bey is playing on, sardonically.

  2. Jeff says:

    Dear Mr. Stephens:

    Despite lots of school, I was unable to comprehend what you wrote. It was over my head, but I’m genuinely interested to understand your message. In a few sentences, with simplistic wording, would you please re-explain how Beyoncé is slaying African Americans? In a world with trolls and sarcastic internet commenters, please understand I’m not one of them. Indeed, I want to understand this. Thank you.

  3. Mosi says:

    coming from a black man born and raised in the place they call new orleans…

    two days ago, i replied to a question from a beyhive(anator) directed to me after i challenged the verse “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay”

    Me: “white boys/bill gates are the standard for black men/women??”

    “considering the “layered art” why does she have to mention a white man, a devil capitalist at that?”

    “bill gates foundation been creating melanated zombies outta our children with these charter school organizations and their mind control standardized curriculum. gates funneled tens of millions to charter schools in New Orleans to facilitate the recolonization of black New Orleans and to support these hipster fairies experimenting on (teaching) black children while learning to twerk in the classroom and shit.”

    Beyhive(anator):
    “Gates gave y’all all that money for education & that’s how y’all chose to flip it?
    When most hear Bill Gates, they think very rich, not his personality. Black Bill Gates means Black & very rich.”

    Me:
    whatever most hear of bill gates, it’s mostly confusion because capitalism’s primary role (in addition to exploiting labor) is to make/keep us dumbed down. we rely on 30 sec. news segment (capitalist/corporate news), yahoo headlines, or dumb ass talking head artists.

    1) bill gates did not give “us” any money. since 2005, bill gates has contributed $700 million to charter school organizations nationally. white charter organizations operating in New Orleans since hurricane Katrina have received a lion share of this money.

    2) one might ask, “damn why these black folks in new orleans got all these white charter organizations and white twerking fairies running their schools??”

    answer: the state of louisiana staged a second coup against the black citizenry with regards to public education (the first was brown v. board). they seized control over the majority of public schools in new orleans while most of us were receiving news about the death of our loved ones as we were being treated like refugees in the other 49 states the month after Katrina.

    3) one might ask, “how did the state achieve this?” state legislature (led by a woman who looks like bey’s cousin) conspired against black folk by passing a bill that changed the designation of what is deemed a failing school from a school performance score of 60 and below (out of 112) to 70 and below.

    Therefore, dozens of schools that were not so-called “failing schools” the days before hurricane katrina were “deemed” so practically overnight. – although these schools stood flooded shuttered and empty in the wake of the hurricane everyone had evacuated. the bill is called act 35.

    the school performance score is largely based on these b/s standardized tests and “hidden curriculum” our children are subjected to because we allow outsiders (as a consequence of brown v. board and other attacks) to dictate our curriculum, not to mention we “integrated” into another people’s cultural and socio-political institution. As Amos Wilson says, an institution designed for them and by them, to meet their needs, their aims, their time system, their history, their propaganda and ultimately to maintain their exploitation over one another and domination of other peoples. that’s whole nother’ conversation but most certainly relevant to this one.

    to be clear, most students that do well on these tests do so at the expense of their ability to think, organize and act critically to solve the problems of their people going forward in life. upon demonstrating mastery of alienating education created by aliens the best one can do in life is to serve aliens while also living a low-level existence fueled by materialism, and syncopated rhythms made from investment of blood money (corporate amerikkka) designed to keep up dumb deaf and blind in the bey hive.

    4) what did state takeover mean? it meant that the operation of schools is managed by a repressive organization – the state (in Baton Rouge). most of the persons in positions of control in this arrangement are not elected by the black citizens of new orleans. they’re appointed by the governor. before the state seized control, the majority of the schools were operated by the local school board – a so-called democratically elected board voted determined by the local citizens.

    so, not did the federal government facilitate our dire circumstances through inaction, until well after a parade of dead bodies floating in the streets was seen on national television, the federal government allowed the state of Louisiana to sever the contract and fire all of the 7,500 public school teachers, including my mother, a month after Katrina. termination letters from the state were sent to the flooded homes of these teachers although most were vacant.

    5) one might ask, “why did they fire all of the black teachers?”

    it’s simple. this is the same plan that’s been in place since these parasites came into contact with us. they seized control of the schools to prevent the recreation of any form of black community and/or to further facilitate chaos, genocide and confusion. we call it Man-trina. the state of Louisiana received $1.2 billion dollars to rebuild New Orleans public schools. of course, the state of louisiana (which amounts to a gang protected by armed thugs) couldn’t have this black school board or potentially all black school board (because black folks would have made sure the school board remained majority black after Katrina just like we made sure our mayor was black and in addition to electing the first black district attorney) controlling 1.2 billion dollars!

    sheeit, if we had control of $1.2 billion for building new schools for black children, black folks would be migrating back to black down here for an independence movement instead of touring and enriching white corporations as y’all do when you come to see Bey at essence of ugliness fest and or mawdi gras.

    instead, the state seized the schools, black teachers were fired while evacuated (although the state received millions in insurance money and fema money to pay teachers in the months following the storm) in other states.

    btw a black civil court judge awarded the black teachers a multi-million dollar settlement for the illegal firing but her judgment was reversed by the louisiana supreme klan kourt. keep in mind we’ve had two so-called black attorney generals (now Loretta Lynch) who’ve done nothing about this. in fact, obama supports charter schools.

    so, by firing all the black teachers (the largest black professional workforce in new orleans), and handing 100% of the schools taken over by the state to charter organizations (private corporations) another potential black “reconstruction” opportunity was thwarted.

    charter schools organizations are like the “nation states” in afrika given power by imperialists parasites after the Berlin conference. Some have black figure heads (they’re usually bey lovin black women – I’ve met them. some are aka)…all elephants in the circus whether they know it or not. they all operate on the basis of profit by any means necessary. they operate with the intention to perpetuate genocide through miseducation, school to prison pipeline, right brain underdevelopment and overcrowded classrooms…the thinking styles, spiritual practices, language, conceptual thought, healing, and political education that’s necessary to stop underdevelopment, our self annihilation and genocide, at the hands of parasites, has been temporarily muted. however, students at the center, resurrection after exoneration and star institute for conscious organization represent the ‘counter-mainstream-current’.

    we also have white 22/23 year old accounting majors from yale teaching our children that slavery was bad because the “slaves” weren’t paid.

    as sun ra said, “as long as you show up, you’re saying to them, give me what have to offer”

    Honoring Kwame Ture’s legacy, our is to make the unconscious conscious of their unconscious behavior in an effort to cultivate collective consciousness. Unfortunately, we fail to demonstrate collective consciousness with regards to a beyonce video because most black folks have been miseducated ph.d’s and all

    At this point, I don’t give a damn about white folks, they’re gonna be who they are and it’s very obvious their time on the planet is coming to an end. they’ll eliminate themselves. we’ll be eliminated too if we “don’t choose wisely from the dying (among us) and if we take with us what/whom is already dead” – Cedric Robinson (Black Marxism).

    we need a mau mau – literal, spiritual

    I ain’t got time to be trying to decode mofo’s intentions. we have simple solutions for that when the time comes.

    Harriet carried a shotgun. She made it plain for Malcolm.

    “until the people organize everything is upside down…..HEAD FOR DOWN, YANSH* FOR UP” – Fela Kuti

    Communication Disorganize
    ….PATA PATA*
    Education Disorganize…*
    Agriculture Disorganize…*
    Electric Disorganize…*
    Everything is Upside Down…*
    Everything is Upside Down…*
    …Disorganize
    …Disorganize
    Everything Upside Down
    Everything Upside Down
    …Disorganize
    …Disorganize
    Everything Upside Down
    Everything Upside Down

    • R.L. Stephens II says:

      I don’t know if by “fairies” you mean gay people, but if so, you should know that we here at Orchestrated Pulse are 100% down with the fairies. It’s a strict political line. If you violate, we just may have some fairies cast a spell on you.

      R.L.

      • I wondered about that too. Since the subject’s the Panthers, here’s Huey Newton on gay liberation and women’s liberation: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/newtonq.html

      • Lee says:

        Hear, hear!

      • R.L. Stephens: Why do so many people look up to DeRay as an icon of virtue and freedom when he seems to be a typical TFA interloper, now intent on furthering the TFA privatization mission in Baltimore? TFA is a corrupt travesty, along with the rest of the charter schools primarily backed and funded by supposedly liberal progressive Democrats. Obama is a big fan of Common Core and charter school privatization. His secretaries of education are too. It doesn’t make any sense to me given that he is a Democrat.

        My viewpoint is significantly different and probably more conservative than yours. I *do* believe in the value and virtue of true public education, and of qualified, credentialed school teachers. The neoliberal narrative is very disturbing because it places a monetary value on everything. That is immoral and ultimately harmful to society.

        I don’t watch the Super Bowl, but I had heard about Beyonce’s halftime show. What was the point of all of it, if she is just another figurehead or pawn like DeRay? I don’t understand how he came to have such prominence in the public eye (as a “ruthless administrator”), but now I am repeating myself.

  4. Mitch Carpentet says:

    Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but that doesn’t mean the people in power aren’t trying to seal us off from our history and started pumping the air out.

    The cultural oxygen in most areas seems pretty thin, and so we are left gulping for air -only to be left to breathe in these vacuous breathes of air that Beyonce gives us.

    We have to keep finding the areas they’ve tried to seal off and ripping them wide open.

    And we need to use our bodies, our full selves, to apply direct pressure to create ways to guard and safekeeping those openings to our history.

    • Actually for beyonce new song formation. Is not react white people she reacted for police white officer and she is right because white police officer is they are so racist that’s why she song formation so white people don’t get angry beyonce is she love for every body and I’m agree with that I’m not black man I’m Italian mix Eritrean east Africa n and I love white people more than black people I hate black I will never ever out with black people

  5. Thanks for engaging my work – I spoke of the visionary fiction of Formation. I think in retrospect I would have given more context if I’d known the piece would go so far beyond people who know my work. I’ve done a good amount of study and training around direct action, mostly with a group called The Ruckus Society (www.ruckus.org) which trains people in non violent direct action and civil disobedience. I definitely understand that the sit-ins happened…that’s why the piece is called visionary fiction. But the impact of the sit-ins was increased by documentation that made sure the visual was seen around the world. Black Lives Matter and other movements have been doing incredible actions and many of those are also documented to further inspire. Beyonce and Melina Matsoukas didn’t just conjure these ideas, they were inspired by real life actions, which I think just builds a visibility that movements want and need. The young man dancing with a distinctly different result than we see right now in real life produced an emotional, deeply personal longing in me for that to be possible. I don’t think artists have to be 100% pure radicals to uplift and share a radical message. A lot of people are engaging this work who don’t seem to enjoy her work at all, that intrigues me. And I love Beyonce as an artist who is learning in public, even though I work against capitalism daily. I think we are a complex people, and occasionally pop music triggers that complexity up to the surface. Again – thanks for engaging the conversation.