Inside Beyoncé's Beyhive, an Uneasy Peace with the Rihanna Navy

Here is a comprehensive list of topics discussed in the pit at Brooklyn's Barclays Center during Thursday night's Beyoncé concert:

  • Is Beyoncé prettier than Rihanna? (The general consensus: Yes.)
  • Is Rihanna everything Beyoncé wishes she could be? (No.)
  • Does Beyoncé wish she could wear a thong like Rihanna does? (No.)
  • Is Beyoncé (the person) ratchet? (No.)
  • Is "Beyoncé" (the album) ratchet? (Sometimes.)
  • Could Beyoncé be ratchet if she so chose? (Yes; she is grown.)
  • Did/does Rihanna have sex with her mentor Jay Z—Beyoncé's husband? (Yes, but irrelevant; "EVERY TIME RIHANNA SELLS AN ALBUM, BEYONCÉ GETS PAID.")
  • Is "that random white girl" doing "The Wobble" Chelsea Clinton? (No.)
  • Should we pay attention to that random white girl? (Mixed.)
  • Is Beyoncé 5'11? (No.)*
  • Is Beyoncé 5'7? (Yes.)*
  • How tall is Beyoncé? (5'7.)*
  • Can you call yourself "dressed up" if you are wearing a fashionable sweatsuit? (Mixed.)*
  • Michael, can I stand behind you? (No, the hell you cannot; I am here.)*
  • Do the Beyonce and Rihanna fandoms need to coexist peacefully? (Yes.)
  • Is it disrespectful/foolish to come to a Beyoncé show and declare yourself a member of "The Rihanna Navy?" (Yes.)
  • Why are you even here? (Because it is possible to be a fan of both Beyoncé and Rihanna.)
  • Do these caramel candies have "roofies" in them? (Mixed, but for the record they did not.)*
  • How much battery is left in everyone's cellphone? (Variable.)
  • Is the pit the appropriate place for drama? (No, but irrelevant.)
  • Do you understand that "It's just the principle [of the thing]"? ("I DON'T HAVE PRINCIPLES!")
  • Was I talking to you? (Yes)
  • Was I talking to you, though? (No.)
  • Does anybody care about Diddy's new television channel? (One girl did.)

The first time I saw Beyoncé perform, I was within sight of the stage, but not uncomfortably close. I could see that Beyoncé had hair, for instance, but I could not watch breathlessly as individual strands of her honey-gold lace front wig were whipped off by the force of powerful on stage fans (charged with keeping her hair in riveting perpetual motion for two hours) and sent sailing through the air. I could see Beyoncé's face projected onto video screens bigger than my kitchen, but she could not see my face—and what if she wanted to?

So, three hours before our second Beyoncé concert was scheduled to begin—four and a half hours before a hidden platform bearing Beyoncé Knowles-Carter would lift her on stage, marginally closer to heaven—two friends and I found ourselves shivering in line outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We had paid double a king's ransom for "the good seats," and then $31 for an "early access" pass besides. (Sometimes, when your plate is already heaped high with food, you balance an extra biscuit on top of your mashed potato tower just because you can and it only costs $31). A few people ahead of us, a young woman twerked on a car.

There is something curiously disheartening about being one of the first hundred people to enter a 19,000 seat concert arena. Only when the vast emptiness of the stadium envelopes you from all sides does it hit you: You are truly fucking early. If Beyoncé started watching Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring right now, she could see it to completion, and still begin on time. She could watch the extended director's cut. Some attendees, visibly unsettled by the sight, paused a half second after entering the stadium to collect their bearings. These people were quickly shoved out of the way by those more focused, and forced to make do with the less choice of the choicest spots. At least one person tripped down the stairs in the mad dash for the front row.

The only people who made it to the front row were "the Beyhive." Usually, this name is applied broadly to fans of Beyoncé; at a concert, it's reserved for the most committed—in this case a small but vocal portion of the crowd consisting of black college-aged women and gay men, mostly, clad in matching black "Beyhive" t-shirts, pressed against the barrier of the stage. Members of the Beyhive were veterans of multiple performances (the highest number I heard was 11), and took great pride in the fact they knew the names of some of the crew members ("That's Beyoncé's cousin, Larry," they declared confidently, when a man walked by in a t-shirt reading "WATERMELON" in Beyoncé's signature pale pink font). From my position behind the hive—pressing into their backs, my chin on their shoulders, my pocketbook nestled deep inside their colons—I asked various bumblebeys how much time and money they had spent traveling around the world to see Beyoncé perform exactly the same show every night. One by one they evaded my question, answering with rueful smiles and indulgent head shakes, like Beyoncé was a great-granddaughter they just couldn't help spoiling. (The most precise number someone admitted: "In the thousands.")

My first foray into the world of Beyoncerts—at the same venue in August, in the cheap(er) seats—was largely joyous. I hugged a complete stranger as we watched Beyoncé start to tear up during "Halo" (I can now say that starting to tear up during "Halo" is one of the many physical feats Beyoncé executes with ruthless perfection on stage). By contrast, down in the pit, the vibe was tense, teeming with open hostility and constantly shifting alliances. A girl from Long Island, standing one row behind me, informed a fellow concertgoer, multiple times, that, were she not afraid of getting kicked out of the concert, she would punch that concertgoer in the face.

I ended up next to a girl named Aisha, whom I loved. She ended up next to a girl named Aisha, whom I hated. I don't think Aisha liked her either, although they did briefly bond over the fact that they were both named Aisha, which made me wish my name were Aisha too. Aisha was just there to have a good time ("I wish I weren't so short!), whereas Aisha was not afraid to make enemies ("I work for Diddy"). Aisha and I became friends after I shared a tangerine with her, but Aisha's concert attire (fire engine red sweatsuit, cropped at the chest to reveal washboard abs; sparkly necklace) made it clear she would not eat seasonal fruit from anybody's pocketbook.

Here are some things Bad Aisha did to earn the ire and fearful respect of those around her: Immediately, upon entering the arena (about 15 minutes after the initial rush), Bad Aisha marched up to the packed crowd and declared "I'm a member of the Rihanna Navy!" This declaration was initially met with mild confusion, and then disinterest. The kingdoms of Rihannarnia and Beyoncé have not been at open war for centuries. Why was bad Aisha seemed determined to provoke an inter-fandom incident? She said it again: "I'm Rihanna navy!" Then she said it again. "Rihanna navy!" Then she danced while she said it. "I'm Rihanna navy!" Then she said it again in a sort of pan-Caribbean accent: "I'm from Barbados! I love Rihanna! Rihanna navy!" Then she ordered people to stand up from their staked-out seats on the floor so she could take their photo. Then people got annoyed. (But also excited to have their picture taken by a confident stranger.)

Using this trick, Rear Admiral Aisha of the Rihanna Navy began snaking her way through the crowd, commanding people to rearrange themselves for pictures and maneuvering the newly created spatial vacancies to her advantage. "You can take [my picture]!" said one tall blonde man to Aisha, who by now had made her way all the way up to the second row. (Impressive, Aisha.) "I'm a model."

"So I am I!" exclaimed Aisha. "Do I not look like a model?!" (Of what these two were models remains unclear, but I can tell you one thing it was not: citizens.)

Serene in the presence of a self-identified model, Aisha ended her attempts to sneak closerclosercloser to the stage. (There was no breaking through the Beyhive, anyway.) Person by person, the members of the crowd reached grudging détentes, as everyone began to accept that where you were standing was where you were gonna stand.

(Photos published the day after the concert revealed Madonna and Drake watching the show from a special VIP area in the middle of the arena, where Beyoncé performs a short set on a round stage surrounded by the audience on all sides. It is unclear which of them was the Aisha.)

Finally, after 270 odd minutes of waiting, the lights of the Barclays center abruptly cut out and the first of Beyoncé's high concept video interludes—which are, without exception, absolutely insane ("You are the judge...and the army!" she declares in one, via voiceover, while she appears in the foreground caressing an overturned chair)—blared out over the crowd. Then her dancers appeared, wearing cage skirts. Then Beyoncé appeared, wearing white, spangled hot pants.

Throughout Beyoncé's set, the young women in the first row hollered an unbroken stream of encouragement at her, taking note of whatever activity Beyoncé was currently performing and then shouting that she had better be doing that. "You better sing!" they shouted when she sang. "You better dance!" they shouted as she whipped around stage in high heeled boots. "You better drink!" they sang as she sipped gatorade in between songs. Whispers moved through the crowd: "Gatorade, Gatorade!"

Mistakes were not permitted.

[Image by Emma Carmichael]


* denotes an argument/discussion in which I was an active participant