Lemons to Lemonade, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Side Chicks
Beyoncé surprise-released yet another album last week, sparking all kinds of controversy and support, and I wasn’t sure what “Lemonade” was even referring to when it started coming up in memes and Facebook posts. I was hesitant to jump into the conversation because I knew that there was a lot to unpack and discuss when talking about race and feminism, and I, as a white woman, was hesitant to seem like I was passing judgment on something that is not necessarily for me. I think opinions do matter and should be shared to help and improve society, and these are mine that I hope don’t overstep the boundaries of my knowledge and experience.
I know Beyoncé has garnered many haters that are as vocal as the BeyHive since the release of her hour-long HBO special, “Lemonade.” As far as I am aware, she presents herself in a very particular way and everything she produces is working toward that image and her own brand marketing. Some people think she uses her identification as a black woman, as a feminist and as a sex icon to hit many audiences and make tons of money. I have also heard that some think she has no artistic influential merit and she is using politics to further her brand.
Some of those may be true statements, but I think that Beyoncé deserves a little bit more credit. Her work is creating a discussion, and the video itself is a piece of art crafted through the collaboration of many creative minds with thought and effort to make an hour-long HBO-caliber event.
If nothing else, Lemonade brings Beyoncé down from the level of the gods to a mortal human level. In this world, even beautiful, glorified Beyoncé is cheated on. She feels rage, jealousy, sorrow, regret, forgiveness like everyone does, albeit, heightened with the stunning visuals of this album.
She is shown as a human being, full of flaws, insecurities and even violent tendencies. The album suggests an autobiographical account of her husband Jay-Z having an affair, as well as her father’s infidelity in the way that history repeats itself and people find themselves attracted to the same trauma that haunts them.
The themes that title the different segments — intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, redemption — reflect the process of coming to terms with grief and reconciliation. Though Beyonce is deified in pop culture, I have to believe her music conveys something of her own human experience on this earth and that it’s not just manufactured for the money.
The amount of people involved in this production obviously help give Bey’s work this much production value, but it also lends to the artistic value. Her references are meant to be noticed and attributed, and now you can find dozens of guides to the samples used.
Some of the most recognizable are the chorus from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps,” the Weeknd’s voice, a speech from Malcolm X, Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On” lyrics, Led Zeppelin fragments, poetry from a British-Somali writer, Warsan Shire and the instrumental intro to an Andy Williams song from 1963, among other contributors like Diplo, Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and James Blake.
The visuals too feature a huge array of celebrity cameos, visual references and thematic choices. Her destruction of cars and city features in “Hold Up” actually refers to an installation piece from 1997, “Ever is Over All” by Pipilotti Rist, while wearing a long, flowy yellow dress that fans have said references the African goddess Oshun.
The goddess of beauty, love and sweet water is represented with yellow skirts and flowers channeled by Beyoncé as she wields a baseball bat and breaks in car windows. She is both goddess and mortal plagued by marital strife, cyclical violence, institutional racism and things seemingly beyond her control.
That is just one fraction of the interpretations and layers of meaning within “Lemonade.”
She and some of the dancers use white body paint designs by Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Laolu Senbanjo; filmmaker Kahlil Joseph who directed music videos for Kendrick Lamar and the music video for “Formation” contributed to the visual album; clothing from the 1800’s through present day range from sophisticated brocades, to a fur coat with tan leggings, to lacy leotards with heels that match the different tones and color schemes of the segments. If you remove the music and assess Lemonade as a film, it can stand on its own two legs for a robust amount of symbolism and content for analysis.
As to Beyoncé not being a feminist for writing songs about romance and her own suffering at the hands of a man, that’s just ridiculous. A man can write about his relationships all he wants with no criticism. If this is what someone wants to write about and express in her own artistic mode, that’s her choice, and not because that’s the only thing she can do.
Honestly, love and loss are the biggest bestsellers no matter what genre or medium you’re in. It’s a part of life that resonates with Beyoncé as much as it does the rest of us. And if she wants to talk about sex—about how she’s the best lay Jay-Z ever had—she is in control of her body and her sexuality and can use it however she likes, that’s her prerogative. Gender equality should not be conditional on one’s sex life.
Last but not least, Beyonce is embracing and addressing her Blackness whether or not you like it. She is paying tribute to her Southern roots; she’s from New Orleans and a self-proclaimed Texas-Bama. She sports corn rows and the many women in her video sport their natural hair or braids.
She curses, she uses slang, she flips off the camera, she expresses her anger in recognition of the stereotype of the angry Black woman and she’ll gladly take it out with her baseball bat, stamped with “Hot Sauce” in reference to her song, “Formation.” She explicitly sets the scene with typical Southern imagery of Victorian plantation mansions, fields that slaves would work in, Bayou swamps, wooden front porches and the “ghetto” part of the city. Home videos of Black women, families and musicians are a proud reminder of where Beyoncé is from, and how her experiences as a Black woman have shaped her.
In what Piers Morgan finds nefarious, the mothers of the highly publicized cases of Michael Brown of Ferguson, an unarmed Black teenager who was gunned down by police in 2014, and Trayvon Martin, shot by white vigilante George Zimmerman in 2012, hold their son’s portraits. Morgan seems to think that Beyoncé is profiting off their demise and the political undertones that will make her relevant.
But should art be without politics? Should artists address the social issues that are going on around them or is it just a marketing ploy? If art—and yes, music and pop culture are art—aren’t saying something, then they aren’t really challenging or improving society. So if you feel uncomfortable with Beyoncé, that’s a good thing; that starts a conversation and that potentially leads to change.
And like some others on the internet have said, Lemonade isn’t for all of us, but it is important. It is for Black women to see themselves represented in the music industry in what they find a strong and empowering representation who acknowledges her influences, her roots and her ethnicity with pride. It is for women to see that heartbreak is universal, that their suffering is valid and worth sharing, that they can find community in each other, and above all, that they should not center their world around one man.