By: Emily Jenab
When Beyoncé dropped her recent single “Formation,” she received notable praise for her integration of black pride into mainstream music. However, she also received criticism from natives of New Orleans, who were appalled at watching their trauma from Hurricane Katrina unfold in a 5-minute video. There are stories, histories, narratives, that cannot be told in minutes – pain that cannot be adequately addressed in a short video.
This raises questions about ethics and morals when it comes to capitalizing on the use of other’s stories of pain for success, similar to those raised in a previous post on the ethics of storytelling in Humans of New York.
As Maris Jones of BGD points out, “it is not enough to put flooded houses on screen nor to drown yourself in the water. It is not enough to show a young boy in a hoodie able to make stoic police officers put their hands up in surrender by the force of his dancing and unadulterated existence as a child.”
The imagery of the video is striking: we are shown empty parking lots, churches, wig shops, and, finally, Beyoncé’s body, atop a cop car, obscured by flooded waters. However, most of the imagery comes from a documentary, That B.E.A.T, whose filmmaker and director state that no one involved was contacted for the use of such footage. This is tied to the issue of stealing someone else’s narrative.
I will note here, that I am speaking from a point of relative privilege. I am a woman of color, but I am not black. I cannot understand, perhaps, the significance of pro-black imagery in the media, and what Beyoncé’s video may mean to many people.
However, I also have a deep connection with New Orleans. I am not a native of Louisiana, but I have seen its culture, its deep-rooted history, and its unique strength through my many visits. I have heard firsthand accounts about the devastation endured; about the remnants of such a catastrophe.
When I played the song for my partner, a native of a New Orleans-adjacent city, he recognized, immediately, the voices of Messy Mya and Big Freedia, two Louisiana artists. He mentioned to me that Messy Mya had actually been shot and killed, a fact that Beyoncé did not touch upon in her video.
As Shantrelle Lewis notes, in her piece for Slate, “In focusing on black New Orleanian lives, it would have been easy for Beyoncé to dedicate ‘Formation’ to Messy Mya and other victims of gun violence. She provided no context for his life or death.”
There is something that feels misguided about all of this. Gun violence in New Orleans is a serious issue. New Orleans has not been remembered, I would argue, with regards to the vast devastation from Katrina. But the devastation is there. (Louisiana, consequently, is the state with the highest gun death rate.)
Our cultural hegemony does not allot for a good deal of remembrance: we oftentimes forget the missteps of our government and the grave results. I speak to my friends in New Orleans, and the consensus is the same: violence is a fear – tangibly so. There is a desire to get out; to make it out. Gun violence is an aftermath of Katrina that has not been dealt with effectively. Should Beyoncé have focused on this instead?
So, that is to say, the culture of New Orleans is not something we can put on like a cloak. Katrina is not our memory. Some philosophers, like Kant, argue that intent is what establishes rightful action. Was it Beyoncé’s intent to spread awareness about New Orleans? Or was it, as Lewis contends, to sell out a world tour? But raising awareness is not enough – perhaps it has never been enough. We also need palpable change. If one is presenting a video on Katrina, this must also come with explanations on what must still be done. Imagery is not enough.
Further, some point out that Beyoncé remained silent on BLM until it became profitable enough to speak on it; they point out that she released a “Formation” line that coincided with the release of the shocking video. Does this interrupt the narrative of activism, and expose that the video was aligned with pure economics? Does that change how we must analyze its value?
Capitalizing on suffering comes with an ethical responsibility; it has to. We have to understand the pain and danger of overtaking someone’s story.
What is the moral value of watching Beyoncé submerge herself in water? Is it a tribute to the fear and pain of those who lost loved ones in this very way? Or is it a rehashing over their pain? What purpose does it serve?
I consulted my partner on this, asking him how he contends with images of the traumas of Katrina; he said, poignantly, that Katrina has burned holes in Louisiana; that Katrina has made New Orleans different: less safe.
Though I cannot speak on Katrina rooted in personal experience, the use of its imagery reminds me of my distaste surrounding the treatment of the Green movement in Iran being coopted into a way to achieve monetary gain. As I watched in discomfort – a side of my family being faced with civil unrest and fear, tasting their pain in my mouth – I also watched companies like American Apparel sell t-shirts about the cause.
I imagine this is how some natives feel about the Katrina imagery in “Formation.” There is a frustration in watching something traumatic being used for consumption. What good is “awareness” if it comes at the expense of other people? What good is Beyoncé’s video if it is causing a reliving of trauma for the same people that are supposed to be being helped?
Should Beyoncé be praised for a video that hurts an already marginalized community? Should she receive profits off the stories of a horrific event that has traumatized generations?
We must be careful of speaking for others, and of using someone else’s suffering without regard to the effects of doing so. Beyoncé is immensely powerful: could she have represented New Orleans in a different way? Or consulted people affected by Katrina, who may not have wanted their stories told in this way, or their trauma reflected back at them? Is there an appropriation of suffering that is unethical?
The solution must lie in continuously asking for feedback. If Beyoncé is criticized for using Messy Mya without context, perhaps an post hoc addendum can be added – even just a caption, or a story. Perhaps, as Lewis mentions, she can dedicate the entire song to her. Perhaps she can issue an apology, an acknowledgment of the swirl of emotions left in the video’s wake.
If Katrina victims are unhappy with the way their narrative is being presented, perhaps the video should be taken down. It’s simple: we must be conscious of the immorality of recreating suffering – of presenting trauma without much afterthought for whom it may affect. If it is unethical to share someone’s suffering and even profit from it, we must be mindful of the harm being done, and of how to fix our missteps.
Emily Jenab is currently completing her M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.