bey hive meet killer bees

Overanalyzing Every Beyoncé Reference in Swarm

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Getty Images; Prime Video

Swarm is buzzing with Beyoncé references. The Prime Video series from Atlanta’s Janine Nabers and Donald Glover follows a lonely, terminally online stan, Dre (Dominique Fishback), who worships a singer, her own personal goddess, Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown, who danced in Beyoncé’s Coachella performance), a blatantly obvious stand-in for Queen Bey. Throughout Dre’s cross-country murder spree, pivotal Beyoncé-inspired events and real-life cultural moments — including surprise album drops, the birth of Ni’Jah’s twins, and some shit going down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator — provide the backdrop for all the killing and shape the show’s plotline. Swarm takes place between 2016 and 2018, though it calls on events from both in and outside of the show’s time frame (including Beyoncé’s Renaissance-era aesthetics). The references are cherry-picked and purposefully unsubtle, but they are many. “We approached [the similarities to Beyoncé] with a lot of respect,” Nabers said in an interview with Vulture. “We presented everything: ‘This is not a work of fiction.’ That’s the first thing you see when you look at this show.”

Episode 1, “Stung”

Marissa Jackson
Chloë Bailey, the R&B singer and Beyoncé’s protégé, plays Marissa Jackson — Dre’s foster sister and the only family that she has left. (The serial killer’s adoptive parents returned her to the orphanage after a sleepover gone wrong, erasing all memory of Dre’s presence in their lives.) Offscreen, they made their way back to one another and live in their hometown of Houston, Texas, together as adults. (Yes, Beyoncé is from Houston.) Despite Marissa’s unwavering and unconditional support of her other half, the first episode reveals a deep rupture in their sisterly bond. Marissa’s life doesn’t only revolve around her standom — though a previous, unexplained suicide attempt left her with a scar on her wrist, she has fun with friends, sleeps with her boyfriend (Damson Idris), and keeps a job at the local mall to pay both their rent. Dre, perpetually unemployed, can’t seem to forge a life for herself outside of Ni’Jah and her insistence on keeping Marissa, the woman at the center of her only mutual relationship, stiflingly close. Their fragile peace doesn’t hold. A fight that grows out of Dre’s irritation with Marissa’s cheating boyfriend dominoes into the latter’s death by suicide, inadvertently triggering Dre’s bloody rampage.

In real life, Twitter gossip once spread about a Beyoncé stan named Marissa Jackson, who reportedly died by suicide following the release of Lemonade in April 2016. There is no evidence that the viral rumor is true, but that didn’t stop the creators from borrowing the tale. “There was a rumor about a woman named Marissa Jackson who committed suicide after watching this visual album because it basically confirmed that a very powerful man was cheating on one of the most incredibly beautiful and successful pop stars of our time,” Nabers told Shondaland. “I’m from Houston, Texas, and my very best friend’s last name is Jackson. There was a lot of texting between Houstonians being like, ‘Yo, who is this Marissa Jackson? Is this a true story?’ And that existed on the internet for a while, and people were tweeting really horrible things about this woman who had killed herself and making fun of her.” In Swarm, Marissa’s death also goes viral, and internet users guess that she died following the release of Ni’Jah’s album Festival that dropped in April 2016, which is analogous to Lemonade. The speculation leaves Dre seeing red — and with motive to go after the internet trolls who disrespected her beloved sister’s memory (and Ni’Jah antis, of course).

The “Apeshit” music video
The pilot uses Dre’s bedroom shrine to give viewers a concise introduction to the Beyoncé avatar. During an economical montage of Ni’Jah paraphernalia, we see an image of the fictional pop star and her husband Caché (her Jay-Z, played by Stephen Glover) that’s eerily similar to the “Apeshit” music video. Though the real-life song dropped in June 2018 to accompany the album Everything Is Love, this spoof is one of many overt references to Bey’s oeuvre. You’d have to be living under a rock to miss the picture that calls back to that famous tableaux of the Carters, wearing whimsically colored pink and blue suits and dripping with diamonds and gold in front of the Mona Lisa. For the Swarm version, the couple stand, hands clasped, on the Brooklyn Bridge. You know, Jay-Z’s hometown that goes so hard.

Girl’s Tyme and Destiny’s Child
In Swarm reality, Ni’Jah burst onto the scene as a member of the girl group Xllent, a precursor to the girl group that would make her famous, according to a news report after the surprise release of her album Festival. IRL, Beyoncé debuted in the sextet Girl’s Tyme in 1990 at just 9 year old. The original lineup included LaTavia Roberson, Kelly Rowland, Támar Davis, and sisters Nikki and Nina Taylor.

That girl group where Ni’Jah first got her flowers is Glamour Child, analogous to you-know-what in real-life land. Dre has a Glamour Child concert ticket on display in her bedroom.

Beyoncé and the BeyHive’s online presence
Dre is addicted to the internet, and Ni’Jah feeds her well. Between, the pop juggernaut’s Spotify profile and socials, and the barrage of tweets from her Killer Bees — all of which appear onscreen throughout the show — we know that Nabers and Glover want us to make the link between Dre’s online diet and its counterparts:, Bey’s social-media and streaming-platform profiles, and the BeyHive’s corner of stan Twitter. The Killer Bees are the textbook definition of a crazed BeyHive member — I’m talking about a specific subset of Twitter users who weaponize the strength of their stan community to defend their fave with shit talk and internet bullying. But Dre takes protecting Ni’Jah a little too seriously. Blunt objects are her tools of choice when defending against online trolls and proving the enormity of her devotion.

There is one reference whose absence is loud. Where is the Tidal of Swarm? Did Hov’s incursion into the streaming business not make enough noise for inclusion … ?

Lemonade, The Lion King: The Gift, and Renaissance
Ni’Jah’s surprise April 2016 drop about her husband’s infidelity — the earth-shattering record titled Festival — is definitely her Lemonade. The visual album nods to works that dropped outside the timeline of the show. Afrobeat-inflected tracks and West African–inspired choreo featured in Festival’s video point to sonic territory of Beyoncé’s The Gift, a 2019 album that united cross-continental African diasporic musicians to soundtrack Disney’s uncanny valley live-action Lion King and her own accompanying visuals. Real-life singer and songwriter KIRBY, a Beyoncé collaborator, voices Ni’Jah and is credited on Swarm’s soundtrack, together with Childish Gambino in his return to music after a three-year hiatus. Meanwhile, the fictional album also takes from Renaissance’s crystal-emblazoned yeehaw agenda (e.g., flicks of Ni’Jah riding a horse in a bedazzled cowboy hat). Ni’Jah embarks on the Evolution World Tour to promote Festival — Dre secures tickets for her and Marissa, but we know their relationship ends in tragedy.

There’s a famous line in a Warsan Shire poem that Beyoncé reads in the Lemonade visual-album voice-over: “So what are you gonna say at my funeral, now that you’ve killed me? ‘Here lies the body of the love of my life, whose heart I broke without a gun to my head.’” Dre tries to attend the love of her life’s funeral, whose heart she thinks she unintentionally broke after a miscommunication, but she doesn’t have a chance to speak before Marissa’s parents shoo her out.

Episode 2, “Honey”

Carmen: A Hip Hopera
Dre is on the run. After murdering her sister’s cheating boyfriend (partially for his role in Marissa’s death, and partially because his favorite artist is not Ni’Jah), she ends up in Fayetteville, Tennessee, working at a strip club and living in a shabby motel. It’s now August 2017 and she’s going by the name Carmen. It’s also the name of the Beyoncé-led musical rom-com Carmen: A Hip Hopera, based on the Georges Bizet opera. The film is Bey’s debut acting role. It’s unclear whether or not Ni’Jah has a Hip Hopera counterpart.

The birth of Beyoncé’s twins
Ni’jah’s twins are born in August 2017. As are Beyoncé’s.

“Haunted” and “6 Inch”
These two tracks have spooky-trap inflected R&B beats and lyrics that could function as the plot summary to Swarm’s second episode. “Haunted” is a track off Beyoncé’s self-titled album about work-related existential malaise and her resignation to fame, but the lines that resonate in this episode are “What goes up, ghost around / Ghost around.” Dre is a spectral presence in the show because she’s always lurking, yet unseen — a fact that allows her to murder and get revenge against Ni’Jah’s haters for two years with impunity. “6 Inch,” on the other hand, is a reference so direct that we don’t even have to spell it out. “Six-inch heels, she walked in the club like nobody’s business,” Beyoncé sings in the opening lines to the Lemonade track. “Goddamn, she murdered everybody and I was her witness.”

Before Dre kills one of her co-workers (played by Paris Jackson), her co-worker’s boyfriend, and a man talking shit on the internet about Marissa and Ni’Jah, a fellow stripper offers her some job advice. Stop dancing to that sad Ni’Jah song about a “dead baby” so that she can earn more than $7 in tips while pole dancing. The strippers find Dre’s taste in music puzzling — who in their right mind only performs to the songs of one singular artist? — but the depressing dance backed by a miscarriage song was beyond the pale. The dialogue points to Beyoncé’s unreleased track “Heartbeat,” which was made for her self-titled album but was eventually scrapped, she said in her 2013 HBO documentary Life Is But a Dream. Recorded shortly after her own miscarriage, lyrics include: “I guess love just wasn’t enough for us to survive,” she sings. “You took the life right out of me. I’m so unlucky I can’t breathe. You took the life right out of me. I’m longing for your heartbeat.”

Episode 3, “Taste”

The fateful elevator video
Let’s play word association for a moment. If I say “elevator,” what do you hear? Is it the sound of a security tape, rewinding to the scene of Solange and Jay-Z fighting in an elevator at New York’s Standard Hotel? “When you’re making a show about the culture, you have to think about the moments within that two-and-a-half-year time period that, as Black people with music, culturally broke through the noise,” Nabers said in an interview with Vulture, explaining why she remade the infamous elevator incident for Swarm. “When you are telling a time period within a very iconic point in an artist’s life — real events that happened between 2016 and 2018 — you’re hitting the benchmarks people will be talking about for years to come. When you see something, anything, in an elevator, you’re going to think about the moment you saw that thing happen and where you were and who you called and who you texted. It’s about the feeling of being somewhere when our version of the Berlin Wall came down.”

The altercation happened when Solange, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé attended a Met Gala after-party in 2014. Swarm uses the incident for a subplot about a Tomi Lahren–esque conservative commentator who takes issue with the fight. “@thenijahhutton, I thought you were a feminist and then you’re with this man,” reads an Alice Dudley tweet, which Dre comes across in her doom scrolling.

“Formation” backlash
A headline reads “Alice Dudley accuses Ni’Jah of police brutality with her music.” Remember, Dudley is a caricature of right-wing pundits who have made a career out of riling up conservatives with circular arguments. Following Beyoncé’s performance of her song “Formation” styled in black berets and leather military jackets (it was giving Black Panthers), people like Rudy Giuliani, Toronto politician Jim Karygiannis, and Tomi Lahren accused the singer of attacking cops. “You’re talking to Middle America when you have the Super Bowl,” the man who had a press conference outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping said on Fox News at the time. “So if you’re going to have entertainment, let’s have decent, wholesome entertainment. And not use it as a platform to attack the people who put their lives at risk just to save us.”

The mystery of who bit Beyoncé
Tiffany Haddish said someone bit Beyoncé in a March 2018 GQ story, and the mystery turned people into armchair detectives because, for God’s sake, who and why would anyone do that? Swarm makes the bitee Dre, who sneaks into a concert-wrap party and can’t help herself but get a taste of Ni’jah. Tangentially speaking, stans have a way of expressing their obsession and horniness with freaky, violent imagery. “Step on me,” “Slam me into the wall,” “I want to eat them,” etc. Maybe Dre took her own tweets a little too seriously.

Solange’s dress in Homecoming
The first time we see the show’s Solange avatar is the elevator fiasco. The second time we get a glimpse of Beyoncé’s “more artsy” sister is at the party where Dre bit Ni’Jah. She’s wearing a shimmering version of the sequin tassel dress the “Cranes in the Sky” singer wore in her Homecoming cameo.

Episode 4, “Running Scared”

Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, a.k.a. Beychella
It’s April 2018, and Ni’Jah is just about to headline Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee. Dre decides to go to the concert on the cheap, planning to sneak into the festival through a gate and sleep in her car, but when a racist cop is on her tail after she lied to him about her accommodations, a seemingly nice white woman offers her a reluctant refuge …. which turns out to be a cult. Though she escapes the NXIVM-style compound after mowing down the leader, Eva (played by Billie Eilish), she misses Ni’Jah’s headlining performance and watches the footage from her phone. It’s a relatable moment, as many of us watched Beyoncé’s Coachella performance from afar, too.

Solange’s When I Get Home
Eva tells her followers to “remember to speak with intention.” The line is reminiscent of Solange’s interlude “Nothing Without Intention” from her album When I Get Home.

Episode 5, “Girl, Bye”

The John Legend interview on Ellen about who bit Beyoncé
There’s a fake The Ellen DeGeneres Show interview playing in the background of the very first shot of “Girl, Bye.” In the episode, Dre returns to Houston after two years away for one reason alone: get Marissa’s phone plan back on so she can continue pretending she’s texting her dead sister. The serial killer arrives at her phone provider’s brick-and-mortar store (the cashier is played by internet celebrity Rickey Thompson). The daytime TV spoof, Helen, calls back to John Legend’s interview where he teases who bit Beyoncé. In Swarm, the interview functions as a reminder for Dre of her transgression. She spends the rest of the show trying to get close to Ni’Jah to apologize.

On the Run Tour
Instead, the Running Scared tour promotes Ni’Jah and Caché’s joint album.

“Daddy Lessons”
The daddy from Swarm is not like the one Beyoncé describes in the country song “Daddy Lessons.” “’Cause he held me in his arms / And he taught me to be strong,” she sings. When an armed Dre tries to threaten her foster father into turning Marissa’s phone back on, Mr. Jackson pulls out a rifle and fires at the daughter he abandoned. Daddy said shoot.

Episode 6, “Fallin’ Through the Cracks”

Adidas x Ivy Park 2020 collection
The penultimate episode is reminiscent of Atlanta’s meta episodes that play like documentaries, or an episode of a local talk show. That is to say, “Fallin’ Through the Cracks” is a true-crime show about the “real-life” Dre, whose obsession isn’t Ni’Jah, but a pop star whose name is bleeped (we know by context clues that it is Beyoncé). A BeyHive member appears in an on-camera interview to explain that, while fans are devoted, they are no killers. His burgundy tracksuit looks suspiciously like it belongs in Bey’s Adidas x Ivy Park 2020 collection — a creative partnership that ended when the two parties mutually agreed to part ways in March 2023.

Episode 7, “Only God Makes Happy Endings”

Jay-Z’s business ventures
Dre’s girlfriend, Rashida, is a Ni’Jah anti who hates the pop star’s “money-grubbing husband.” Hov is known for his moneymaking efforts, which include the Rocawear brand, his chain of 40/40 clubs, his alcohol-beverage companies, and the flagship Roc Nation imprint. In 2022, he led a program with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to encourage people living in a Brooklyn project to buy crypto.

That man who rushed the stage at an Atlanta Beyoncé concert
Dre is less deranged in the finale — for a time. She’s going by Tony now, and is happy with her girlfriend, the college-educated Rashida. Her rejection of Ni’Jah tickets, however, is reason enough for Dre to relapse into her old killer ways and strangle Rashida. Post-murder, she makes it to the concert in time and rushes the Mercedes-Benz Stadium stage. There is a real-life Tony who rushed the stage at Beyoncé’s Atlanta show, but he didn’t get to cry in the arms of his idol afterwards like Dre (dreams she) did.

Overanalyzing Every Beyoncé Reference in Swarm