The summer before my junior year of high school, I interned at a camp on Xavier University’s campus. During those months spent in New Orleans, I ate Milky Ways two at a time because I wanted thighs like the girl in Nelly, Diddy and Murphy Lee’s “Shake Ya Tailfeather.” I sat in the backseat of my grandfather’s car with my cousins after work, gossiping about the boy I liked. I went swimming on the weekends in a pool that would, two years later, be decimated by Hurricane Katrina. I marathoned the mall with too little cash in my purse to ever buy anything. I compared dance moves with my Southern relatives on my lawn.
The night before I headed home to New York, my cousin invited me to a jamboree that signified the start of the high school football season. As the band began to play, I stepped down beneath the tall bleachers in my cut-up red shirt, my denim skirt and my lipstick-colored Converse and walked into the blare of bounce music. I was familiar with bounce, with the different ways New Orleanians laughed and moved and greeted each other, but this was the first time I’d ever been to a big, Southern football game alone, and I was entranced.
Last week, when Beyoncé took the stage at Coachella, she took me back to that same moment in 2003, to New Orleans and to teenage summers spent in that Louisiana city. The flawlessly synced dance team with their impeccable posture, the marching band and its remixed classic dance music, the Greeks in their colors — they were all there. I immediately recognized the part of my cultural heritage I share with Beyoncé, the “Negro mixed with Creole” — the varied versions of one blackness — that I’m reminded of when “Formation” plays: the school brass bands I watched march at football games and, on Mardi Gras, play jazz music just like hers did.
When my 15-year-old summer ended, I went back to my Manhattan neighborhood and my public school. I spent my summer earnings on sneakers and two-dollar belts. I tried out for cheerleading and then dropped it because, even when I could remember the dance moves, I couldn’t muster the confidence to execute them in public like the dancers, cheerleaders and majorettes I’d seen in New Orleans elegantly framing routines with their arms at halftime or clicking down the pavement at parades.
At home, my father and mother resumed submerging me in black history. That’s why, when I saw Beyoncé’s headdress during her Coachella performance, I knew she was Nefertiti, in all of her glorious Africanness. When I saw her dancers crowned in black and yellow berets and I didn’t just see a Beyhive dance team, I saw the Panthers.
Watching on Saturday, I recognized within myself the same youthful desire for that kind of bold girl power. I recognized dance teams like Southern University’s Dancing Dolls or Grambling State’s Orchesis Dance Company. I recognized what became my college experience, dancing in the aisles during concerts and at step shows with the people of color who attended my university. I recognized the people I knew who pledged or went to HBCUs, just as talented and representative of empowerment as they are familiar and part of hometowns. When I found out that Beyoncé’s band was made up of HBCU alumni and that she’d dedicated $100K to black schools in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Ohio, I wasn’t surprised. Her performance was clearly about one of the same segments of black culture that had influenced me, too.
Beyoncé is notorious for sending messages through her songs. In the past few years, her music has addressed rumors about her marriage, the Illuminati and the celebrities she’s encountered. She’s employed an all-female band, Suga Mama, and recited poetry that seems to affirm her own feminist beliefs. Perhaps this is why I started looking for clues early: I expected her Coachella performance to unfold in the same manner, with an empowering statement hidden in its subtext. So even before I saw her HBCU band on stage, I saw her set open with a scowling solo female drummer, Battle of the Bands-style. I saw her cat-walk up to the stage as an Egyptian drum major. I heard the first musical sequence, sampled from Rebirth Brass Band’s eight-minute hit, “Do Whatcha Wanna,” and I heard notes borrowed from Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” Before I ever saw the big college marching band, I felt Beyoncé’s message:
A queen can be a twisting, dancing drum major who leads a top band at an HBCU. The woman who headlines Coachella is just as full of pride as the one who twirls for her school’s team at the start of a homecoming performance. There is no difference between a globally renowned musician and one of her influences, a Grammy Award-winning Tremé band that does shows at local clubs and on stages with the same exuberance as it plays on street corners in the middle of second lines. Each of these individuals is as important and wonderful and integral to the fabric of black culture as the last.
Beyoncé’s set felt like a nod to the “ordinary” black people I know who walked around beneath the bleachers at football games eating freeze pops or practicing drill-team-style routines, rapping “I’m that queen that’ll make you bounce” until they swept the Crescent City. It felt like she was saluting her neighbors, in distance and in art, whose accessibility is not connected to the quality or the scope of their skill.
This isn’t the first time Beyoncé has pointed to New Orleans’ culture as inspirational: She infused clips of black visionaries like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nina Simone with the same ease as she pulled from Messy Mya — the clever YouTube sensation who was murdered in 2010 in the 7th Ward — who can be heard on “Formation” saying, “I’m back by popular demand.” He was killed in a city that still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation, even if it celebrated him.
There used to be a prayer for protection against gun violence stuck to the refrigerator in our house in New Orleans. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s porch, when he was alive, and examining the bullet holes in its beams. My grandmother told us, with equal doses of irony and fear, “That’s just where he likes to sit.”
I think that by pulling from performance pieces by local famous rappers and the classic songs of local musicians, by mixing their voices with hers and tying them to an elaborate show of black pride on a national stage, all while New Orleans is being painted over in the facade of gentrification, Beyoncé is saying something important. She is acknowledging the everyday black communities who are rarely recognized for growing incredible artists. She is pointing to communities of people who know what it’s like to be erased — from their homes, from history, from the narrative. My impractical dream is now that the country knows who these people are, it will stop rubbing them away.
At 15, I never thought of my life as atypical. I spent my summers in the South at backyard cookouts and sports games with my cousins. I spent the three other seasons walking the halls of my New York City public school, pronouncing “dog,” “water” and “7th Ward” in the very ways I’d be teased for during my next summer vacation. I never thought those experiences were remarkable, but when Beyoncé sashayed onto the stage at Coachella, dressed as the queen of an all-black marching band, when she blared Messy Mya’s voice into the audience, honored HBCUs, Greek life and New Orleans brass bands, I saw flickers of the people and places that have made up my community, on a stage for millions, simultaneously ordinary and magical, influencing the music and setting the trends that the rest of the world will follow. I guess that’s the meaning of Black Magic: being altogether regular yet completely and utterly legendary at the same time.
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella.