Beyoncé knows how to pick her moments (and her platforms). There is something quite poetic (both literally and figuratively) in the premiere of her sixth album, Lemonade, as a music-meets-film experience on the premium cable channel, HBO, on Saturday, April 23.
Just days before her musical event, we had learned that the U.S. Treasury Department plans to feature freedom-fighter Harriet Tubman on our $20 currency and that legendary pop star Prince (né Prince Roger Nelson) had died unexpectedly. Such current developments made Beyoncé’s musical ode to the ancestors and Black womanhood, as reflected in Lemonade, even sweeter (pun intended).
I can only imagine what an ancestor like Tubman and an artist like Prince, who recently transitioned into ancestry, would think of Beyoncé’s efforts. Both Tubman and Prince championed Black liberation: legally, socially, financially and artistically. Beyoncé’s success is the result of these past struggles, whether in Tubman literally freeing slaves or Prince—who once scrawled the word “slave” on his face—taking on big record companies to fight for artistic control over his music, pushing back against an industry notorious for exploiting Black artistic labor. As Jamilah King noted, “Lemonade is what happens when Black women control their art.” Lemonade is what happens when a pop star, having learned from the collective past of her people, ambitiously mixes and samples the stories and the art and bravely blurs the lines between art and popular culture, between the personal and the political.
On her previous album, Beyoncé changed the game for new album releases, exclusively dropping what she called her self-titled “visual album” on iTunes at the end of 2013. The surprise element, combined with her sampling of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” TED talk for her track “***Flawless,” prompted Black feminist public intellectual Melissa Harris-Perry to label the album a “feminist manifesto.” At the time, I thought this pronouncement was premature, and I was hesitant to agree. I knew then that the pop star could deliver more. Lemonade is evidence of this.
This too is a “visual album” but, unlike BEYONCÉ, the different singles are delivered cohesively as a complete musical and film narrative, held together expertly by both the striking visuals and especially by the poetry of Somalian British poet Warsan Shire, performed as spoken-word voice-overs that Beyoncé delivers in dreamy, elusive pronouncements and whispers. Once again, the pop star broadens the international audience for another Black woman writer existing in the wider Black Atlantic world. This added voice expands the global and transnational context for the local texts Beyoncé signifies through her construction of Southern Black womanhood, often celebrated in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, who are obvious influences in the themes and images presented.
Other literary influences that come to mind include Toni Morrison, especially in the “fully dressed women” wading in the waters, and especially Ntozake Shange, in which Beyoncé literally embodies the “colored girls who have considered suicide,” as she leaps off the roof of a building during the “Intuition” segment of the film featuring the song “Pray You Catch Me.” Shange’s generic stand-in characters—lady in yellow, lady in red, lady in blue—make various appearances throughout, most tellingly in the “choreopoem” recreation of poetry and dance. In the segment “Anger,” featuring the song “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a group of Black women dance in the subterranean space of a parking lot, outfitted in overlong sleeves as they struggle to free themselves. The lyrics “Love God herself” echo in Shange’s struggle to “find god in myself” and to “love her fiercely,” while the spoken-word dance is reminiscent of Alvin Ailey’s celebrated Revelations.
Other African and Afro-Caribbean religious iconography abound, especially in the manifestation of the Goddess that Beyoncé channels for each of her segments. There is La Sirene, underwater, in the realm of the other world, asleep before slowly awakening to her resurrection in the here and now, becoming Oshun, fertility goddess bedecked in her trademark yellow with gushing waters accompanying her entrance. Threatening to flood the city streets, like Hurricane Katrina (already referenced in her “Formation” video), she is both lover scorned and a Hebrew-like “jealous God” who rains down the great flood onto her disobedient devotees and/or her unfaithful husband. For the featured song, a reggae-based “Hold Up,” Beyoncé sets about destroying cars and store windows in her path all while gleefully smiling and laughing, thus signifying the work of Pipilotti Risti’s audiovisual work, Ever is Over All, as well as the extended end to Michael Jackson’s Black or White music video. Not only does the pop star unleash the power of the Orishas but, through art, she signals her dismantling of the dominant gaze—best reflected in her destruction of a police surveillance camera and the music video camera itself. This is the visualization of “smashing the patriarchy” writ large.
Once Oshun enters the stage, so too do the other African goddesses: from Oya-Yansa, warrior goddess of the storms, represented by Beyoncé’s multicolored attire set against a stormy sky, to Yemaya, healing goddess summoning her female devotees entering her waters, to the “lady in red,” such as Isis the Egyptian moon goddess, following a scene of women donning Nefertiti-like hairstyles, and Haitian Vodou love goddess and warrior Erzulie Ge-Rouge, invoked during “6 Inch,” which features a sex worker resembling the “Creole Lady Marmalade” soul singer Patti LaBelle once serenaded. Through the power of her sexuality and her rage, this “sacred prostitute” burns down the big house—presented throughout the film as a “master’s house,” at once oppressive with its memories of Black women’s roles as house slaves, servants and concubines as well as in its more generalized symbolism for women’s domestic confinement.
In “Sorry,” tennis champion Serena Williams appears alongside Beyoncé in this big house, gliding down elegant staircases all while twerking and grinding and recreating her iconic Sportsperson of the Year cover for Sports Illustrated. It is no mere coincidence that Beyoncé chose to feature cameos by Williams and younger personalities including Quvenzhané Wallis, Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg, all of whom received unfair attacks on their Black womanhood or girlhood via social media. Lemonade redeems Black womanhood in bold celebration and resistance against the dominant gaze, which includes a reclamation and, later, refutation of the oppressive space of the big house. In the segments “Resurrection” and “Hope,” different groups of Black women across generations, color complexions and hair textures gather together and build community away from this space and on the grounds inhabited by slave ancestors, still haunting us like the women in the mossy trees: symbols of longevity and lineage.
The black-and-white cinematography of the Louisiana plantation alludes to the work of artist Carrie Mae Weems’ “Louisiana Project,” while the surrounding landscape evokes the aesthetic treatment of Black feminist films like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Kasi Lemons’ Eve’s Bayou. Dash’s film also invokes the Orishas, but Lemonade further bears the stamp of another experimental filmmaker, Maya Deren, a Vodou devotee whose documentary footage of Haitian Vodou, Divine Horsemen, remains a definitive narrative in representations of African religion.
The creative genius of Beyoncé lies in what singer/songwriter Sia describes as her “very Frankenstein” approach to taking bits and pieces of songs and mixing them together. She has assembled and interwoven an eclectic collection: from her country song, “Daddy Lessons,” routing the genre through its Black music origins, to R&B tracks such as “Love Drought” to the powerful “Freedom,” which includes beats from work songs collected by Alan Lomax, to the reggae-based songs “Hold Up” and “All Night,” the latter featured in the final segment, “Redemption,” which is quite appropriate considering its echoes of Bob Marley and his prophetic songs (think “Redemption Song,” “One Love” and “No Woman No Cry.”) More than that, Beyoncé has set these songs to film and performance art, and not since Daughters of the Dust have Black women looked more glorious, more dreamy, more haunting, more celebrated and more revered.
Sure, the basis for the album is the story of a woman reeling from an unfaithful partner and traveling through the different emotions: denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, forgiveness, hope. But when this most personal narrative is situated in the larger context of other Black women, including the mothers of slain sons Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who also make an appearance, as well as our more distant ancestors whose memories we hold dear, Lemonade is the feminist proclamation that “the personal is political” and that “Black lives matter.”
In a music environment that has struggled to stay afloat by pushing singles, Beyoncé tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment and turned the paradigms of digital technologies and music distribution on their heads by revitalizing the importance of full albums, as illustrated in one scene showcasing the vinyl of Nina Simone’s Silk & Soul. Prince would be proud. Tubman would rejoice. Here is a woman proclaiming “Freedom,” singing before her collective community of Black women—past and present—and choosing the platforms for her music distribution all while announcing her full autonomy. This is the “feminist manifesto” we’ve all been waiting for and that we knew Beyoncé’s “fierce feminism” could deliver.