Though she hails from Houston, Beyoncé clearly found inspiration in New Orleans culture while writing her record-breaking statement album “Lemonade.”
From the second-line brass horns kicking off “Daddy Lessons” to images of Mardi Gras Indians and the city drowning in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in the video for hit single “Formation,” the Crescent City’s imprint can be found throughout the record.
Also notable is the voice heard in the opening sample of “Formation.” In a unique, Creole-inflected croak come the words, “What happened at the New Wildins?” and “B—-, I’m back. By popular demand.” Also in the song is the same voice stating, “I like that.”
That distinctive voice belonged to the late Anthony Barré, better known in New Orleans as social media star/comedian/bounce rapper Messy Mya.
Barré’s family has now claimed Beyoncé didn’t have permission to sample his voice.
The sample comes from a YouTube video by Messy Mya titled “Booking the Hoes From New Wildin,” which has been viewed more than 2 million times, and another titled “A 27-Piece Huh?” You can view them here and here, but be warned they contain coarse language.
According to the New Orleans Advocate, Barré’s sister Angel has filed a lawsuit against Beyoncé seeking more than $20 million in back royalties and other damages. The estate allegedly reached out to Beyoncé several times seeking compensation for the sample. Thus far, the pop star has not responded to requests for comments from Pitchfork or Vulture.
Whether the lawsuit holds weight or not, it does highlight a much overlooked, and debated, aspect of Beyoncé’s hit song.
Messy Mya — with his long, frizzy, purple hair, Lil’ Wayne-esque gravelly voice and shaky-cam videos shot on the streets of New Orleans (generally the French Quarter) — was a burgeoning bounce rap star. He became a symbol of the city’s murder epidemic.
His mother was fatally shot by her boyfriend when he was 13 years old, and years later his grandfather, political powerbroker Stan “Pampy” Barré, was imprisoned in a City Hall kickback scheme, as reported by Nola.com.
Still he kept his eye on his musical ambitions, which he supported by creating “on the street” style videos in which he wandered around the city, interacting with residents and making sly comments.
“This is my reality show,” he said in one. “Welcome to Messy world.”
In his later videos in 2010, he began discussing death, hinting that his own might come soon by pointing out the life expectancy for a young black New Orleans man is shockingly shorter than average. He even coined a catchphrase, leaden with sorrowful meaning: “Now, who gonna pop me?”
In November 2010, at 22 years old, he went to the baby shower of his unborn son. Upon leaving, he was gunned down in the streets of the 7th Ward. Word of his death first broke online. Reported Nola.com:
Moments after gunshots roared through the 7th Ward on Sunday night, a lone snapshot appeared on the Internet.
In it, a 22-year-old man is lying cheek to the ground, crimson pooling around his neck. His eyes are closed, his torso curled.
Chaos explodes around him, with the arms of others pressed to the back of his head. And someone is holding a cell phone just inches from his face.
This is how the world learned of Messy Mya’s death.
The ensuing trial, which was filled with oddities of its own, earned him posthumous national attention.
Given “Lemonade’s” direct references to the lost lives of young black men, and its deep links to Black Lives Matter, some found fitting the usage of images of Hurricane Katrina and the sampled voice of a semi-prominent young black man killed in, as FiveThirtyEight noted, “a city where more than 100 black men are gunned down each year and hundreds more see their lives derailed by jail or prison.”
For some in New Orleans, Beyoncé including Messy and New Orleans bounce music legend Big Freedia on “Formation” is an emotional moment. To see a major, internationally successful artist like Beyoncé recognizing their impact, and to set her diverse, sprawling audience on track to learning who they are, is significant:
“Beyoncé + Messy Mya + Big Freedia. Y’all don’t understand how that makes us New Orleanians feel lol. I’m feel so liberated right now. 😂😂” wrote one commenter, Ginia Maxwell, on Messy’s video after “Formation” was released.
In Vice, Wendy Syfret wrote, “The inclusion of the sample doesn’t only pay homage to a piece of local culture, but serves as a reminder that Messy’s life and murder, and the following trial continue to represent the city’s ongoing battle with crime and violence.”
Others, though, found these references to the city’s tragedies offensive.
“I really want to know if Messy Mya’s family or son was paid for the use of his voice and work which is sampled in the very beginning of the video and then around the one minute mark. People love to enrich themselves off the tragedies in this city,” wrote one Nola.com commenter at the time of the album’s release.
Similarly, many have criticized Beyoncé’s references to Hurricane Katrina.
Maris Jones, in piece titled “Dear Beyoncé, Katrina is Not Your Story,” wrote “showing Hurricane Katrina inspired images and inserting yourself into the storm narrative is just as insensitive as using Katrina’s aftermath as a conversation starter when you meet a New Orleanian. Our trauma is not an accessory to put on when you decide to openly claim your Louisiana heritage.”
While some are made giddy by the metaphor of Beyoncé’s body being subsumed by the water, I am remembering images of bloated bodies of grandmothers and grandfathers, cousins, uncles, great aunts, and nieces that drifted through the floodwaters like discarded pieces of scrap wood. These were all images that ran across my television screen on repeat in the weeks and months after the levees broke. These were the horrifying tales relayed to me by survivors of the storm.
Regardless of which side of this debate fans and critics fall, one thing’s clear — Mya’s sister Angel Barré considered the usage of her brother’s voice to be appropriation.