This article contains spoilers for “Swarm.”
The first image of the debut episode of the serial killer series “Swarm” is a spin on classic Hollywood disclaimer language: “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.”
It’s a provocative start to the kaleidoscopic pop culture satire, created by Janine Nabers and Donald Glover and starring Dominique Fishback as Dre, a woman so obsessed with pop singer Ni’Jah that she’d kill to defend her honor. Given the bloodshed and not-so-subtle parallels between Ni’Jah and the career and passionate fanbase of Beyoncé, it’s easy to believe there could have been a real-life cross-country serial killer murdering those who dare take Queen Bey’s name in vain. But what’s the reality behind the purported true story of “Swarm”?
The answer is…complicated. Before diving too deep, it’s important to note that at the end of the credits, there is a much more conventional title card removing “Swarm” from litigious vulnerability, reading, “While this story is inspired by certain actual events, it is a work of fiction. The characters and events portrayed are fictitious, and any similarity to or identification with the name, character, or history of any actual persons, living or dead, or any company, is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”
Plus, Nabers told Variety, “Everything is legally combed through. If we pushed it, we pushed it to the very, very, very edge, but it’s legal and we’re proud of that.”
But what are the “certain actual events”? It’s not hard to break down the many nods to Beyoncé throughout the series, which start with the titular fanbase of “Swarm” itself, which evokes the singer’s BeyHive faithful. Here are more of the similarities between Ni’Jah and Beyoncé:
- The Ni’Jah visual album “Festival” is a nod to Beyoncé’s 2016 record “Lemonade”: a surprise release about her unfaithful husband.
- Both artists are from Houston.
- Ni’Jah is pregnant with twins, just like Beyoncé was in 2017.
- Characters pit Ni’Jah against her sister, as Beyoncé is often compared to her sister and fellow recording artist Solange.
- There is a reference to an incident where Ni’Jah stood to the side while her sister and husband fought, recalling the infamous elevator battle between Solange and Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z in 2014.
- Dre gets overwhelmed by Ni’Jah and bites her, a nod to a story Tiffany Haddish told about Beyoncé being bitten at a party by a famous fan. The episode also pokes fun at an internet rumor that actor and director Sanaa Lathan was the guilty party (When the two cooks, lounging around on a smoke break spot Dre fleeing from the club, one says, “You know who that was? Chick from ‘Love & Basketball’”). Episode 4 begins with a spoof of Ellen DeGeneres’ interview with John Legend in which she grilled him about what he knew.
- The Ni’Jah outfit in the finale is inspired by Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl dancers.
Despite those and many other subtle nods, the creative team has been careful to not name Beyoncé specifically. At the series’ Mar. 10 South by Southwest premiere, the moderator asked if a “pop star who shall not be named” had seen the show. Nabers said “of course,” but then a rep retracted her answer the next day, saying she doesn’t know who has seen the series and who hasn’t.
Elsewhere during the premiere, Nabers would only refer to Beyoncé as “a certain pop star,” even Chlöe Bailey, who co-stars in the series and counts Beyoncé as a mentor, was cagey, telling Variety when asked whether she’s seen the show, “You’ll have to ask her that. I can’t speak for her.” The closest Glover came to actual confirmation was at the Los Angeles screening, quipping about the show’s reaction: “Beyhive, don’t kill us.”
As for the murders? As Variety reported, Nabers says that “every episode, with the exception of Episode 4, has a true foundation for its murder.” Speaking about Dre’s murder of her girlfriend Rashida (Kiersey Clemons), she said, “We found a murder in 2018 that took place in the outskirts of Georgia with a young woman that was brutally killed and discarded in some sort of kind of like desert, woodsy area. That was a white woman, but we did our own thing. All of that is based on real situations.”
Nabers also spoke at the SXSW premiere about a grim story that kicked off the idea for the series.
“In Texas, there was a rumor that a girl named Marissa Jackson killed herself because she realized that a certain pop star was being cheated on by her husband,” she said. “And my very best friend’s last name is Jackson. So there was a text with some of my friends where we were like, ‘Who is Marissa Jackson?’ For two days, we thought this was a real event, and it was dispelled later on Black Twitter. So when Donald pitched this idea of a Black woman who’s obsessed with the pop star, I said, ‘I know what the pilot is’ and ran with it. So every episode deals with real news stories, real events or internet rumors that have happened, and we have put our wonderful woman at the center of that story.”
Additional reporting by Selome Hailu and Angelique Jackson