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How Beyoncé’s "Formation" uses Mardi Gras to critique police brutality

Beyoncé's new song "Formation" is an exclamation that she is a proud black Southern woman; she sends this message by setting the video in New Orleans in homage to her Creole heritage.

People have called this her most political piece yet: Conservative pundits and politicians have been on the attack, while others have stood in solidarity with Bey.

Nonetheless, there is one detail that goes without dispute: "Formation" wouldn't be what it is without one of the city's best-known annual traditions, Mardi Gras.

In the middle of the video (around the 2:33 mark), there's a quick appearance by a young Mardi Gras Indian dancing.

Did you catch a glimpse of the Mardis Gras Indian dancing in the middle of "Formation?"
Did you catch a glimpse of the Mardi Gras Indian dancing in the middle of "Formation"?

Blink and you'll miss this detail. But this image, and the Mardi Gras holiday, is essential to understanding how Beyoncé is flipping the script on conversations around police brutality.

Beyoncé channels Mardi Gras Indians' tradition of "settling scores"

A Mardis Gras Indian marching in New Orleans.
A Mardi Gras Indian marching in New Orleans.
Robyn Beck via Getty Images

Mardi Gras Indians are one of the unique aspects of New Orleans's adaptation of Carnival.

Some credit Chief Becate Batiste of the Creole Wild West tribe as the first to dress up as a Mardi Gras Indian in 1880. Another origin story links Mardi Gras Indians to Native Americans in the region, who helped shield the slaves from capture. As tribute, they dress up in extravagant, colorful garb that resembles traditional indigenous attire.

There are about 30 to 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes today.

During Mardi Gras, there is a tradition that when two Mardi Gras Indians from different tribes pass one another on the street, a kind of dance battle takes place.

It comes out of a ritual of "settling scores" that in the past included real violence. Now it's a more playful battle to protect a tribe's rep.

Bey is doing the same. After the Mardi Gras Indian's cameo, Beyoncé makes her call to action: "Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation."

Here, the music video and the song both become more confrontational. She's at odds with police as we get our first glimpse of an anonymous black kid engaging in a dance battle with a row of police in riot gear.

"Formation" is not a plea that black lives matter — it’s a warning that they do

Beyonce looks like she's up to something.
Beyoncé looks like she's up to something.

With visual tones reminiscent of voodoo, Beyoncé gives voice to a few figures from the afterlife, starting with a sample of the slain Messy Mya, who asks, from the grave, "What happened after New Orleans?"

Later in the video, it's no coincidence that the person dancing in front of police is a black child. Some of the most high-profile cases of police brutality have been focused on young black boys, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

On November 22, 2014, Rice was playing outside with a toy pellet gun outside the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Someone called 911, worried that the gun was an actual firearm (while also warning that it might be a toy gun).

Police responded: After rolling into the park in a police car, officer Timothy Loehmann jumped out of his vehicle and shot Rice within two seconds.

On December 28, 2015, a grand jury ruled that the police shooting was legally justified.

In "Formation," when the child dances, it's as if Rice and 17-year-old Trayvon Martin rise, morphed together in this child’s body.

He dances as a black congregation catches the holy spirit at church. He dances as Beyoncé lies down on the cop car. He dances as other dancers assemble in the parking lot and in the empty recreation center pool.

With these images, Beyoncé gives us a world in which death for the youngest among us is not an option.

The boy ends his dance, arms outstretched, and police respond with their arms up in the defensive "hands up, don’t shoot" position.

This world does not exist (yet), but Beyoncé conjures it with a voodoo-like spiritual will. Here the tables have turned, with police now on the defensive. "Stop shooting us" transforms from a plea into a prophetic warning.

Graffiti that says "Stop Shooting Us" in Beyonce's "Formation" music video.
Graffiti that says "Stop Shooting Us" in Beyonce's "Formation" music video.

Unjust police killings are used to evoke the current Black Lives Matter movement. But one of the tragic details of Hurricane Katrina was that New Orleans police were shooting people on the Danziger Bridge as they tried to leave the city.

However, in Beyoncé's world, the power to decide the fate of black lives resides solely in black hands — in Beyoncé, in the women at the black hair supply store, in the folks cruising out on the streets, in the people marching in the Mardi Gras parade.