Survival, celebration and Beyoncé

May 5, 2016

Khury Petersen-Smith considers the many layers of an album and film from Beyoncé

Freedom! Freedom! I can't move

Freedom, cut me loose

Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?

'Cause I need freedom too

I break chains all by myself

Won't let my freedom rot in hell

Hey! I'ma keep running

'Cause a winner don't quit on themselves

IN THE days since the release of Beyoncé's epic album/film Lemonade, the discussion in the news and entertainment media has been dominated by speculation about Jay Z's betrayal of the couple's marriage vows. Did he cheat on Bey? How could he? Who is "Becky with the good hair"?

For those of us who aren't celebrity gossip bloggers, there is actually something deep to connect with in Lemonade's themes of betrayed trust, heartbreak and conflicted feelings about a committed relationship in trouble. These themes have especially resonated with women--Black women in particular--who navigate relationships under the weight of social expectations to present a happy face in public and carry on with wifely and motherly duties while struggling in private.

Beyoncé in Lemonade
Beyoncé in Lemonade

But for the mainstream media and news/culture websites, with their endless stream of mostly useless commentary, Beyoncé's album offers just the latest opportunity to present popular culture as a realm of drama and superficiality. Instead of celebrity musicians, actors and athletes being treated as artists whose work represents reality, their lives are presented as spectacles to distract us from it.

So before getting into the politics of Lemonade, let's begin by appreciating its artistry.

RECENT YEARS have given Beyoncé fans plenty to be excited about. But there is a certain anxiety that comes, too, as the Queen raises the bar time after time.

We wondered how she could top her 2013 Super Bowl halftime show, when--dressed as a supernatural figure from Norse mythology--Beyoncé delivered a performance so electric that it caused a power outage in New Orleans' Superdome. Then she did--by surprising the world with a self-titled album that, despite no prior promotion, became the fastest-selling one ever released on iTunes.

With a video accompanying every track on that album, could Beyoncé surpass her own standard again? After Lemonade's release, no one is even asking the question. The obvious answer is "yes."

The album's music pushes the boundaries between mainstream and experimental pop and alternative R&B. Beyoncé takes risks that call to mind the songs of experimental, genre-bending pop stars like Janelle Monae and Santigold--and she nails them. Lyrical and sonic elements of pop, soul, gospel, trap and 1960s psychedelia flow through each other seamlessly.

A good example of the eclectic palate from which Lemonade samples comes in the song "Hold Up," which offers lyrical nods to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Soulja Boy, all over a minimalist indie pop beat punctuated by dancehall air horns.

The visuals are nothing short of stunning. Lemonade is set in Southern U.S. landscapes that range from haunting slave plantations to vibrant New Orleans streets. The variety of places at once evokes Black histories and deeply personal feelings, from despair to joy.

The film involves surreal scenes--for example, one where Beyoncé is suspended in a water-filled bedroom--and liberally features figures posing in still shots. These portraits affectionately portray the beauty and power of their Black, mostly female subjects, who range from professional models and dancers to more familiar, everyday Black women--all of whom are glamorous.

Work on the video involved a team of directors and other artists, including Melina Matsoukas--who directed the unabashedly political video for the song "Formation," and another for "Pretty Hurts," the feminist anthem from Beyoncé's last album--as well as Mark Romanek, whose credits include the videos for Johnny Cash's "Hurt" and Jay Z's "99 Problems."

The film manages to be both highly conceptual and perfectly accessible, and there is great attention to detail, such as the Yoruba-inspired body art of Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo.

Between the visuals and the music, the skeleton structuring the film is the poetry of Warsan Shire. By featuring the deeply intimate, very visual poems of the Somali-British, Kenyan-born Shire, Beyoncé not only folds in yet another art form to this multifaceted project--she also takes the work of an already successful African woman and shares with her the audience of one of the most famous entertainers in the world.

What's more, the choice of Shire follows up on her sampling the words of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the song "Flawless" off her self-titled album.

There is a theme here. For someone whose public image involves superhuman ability, it is striking how much Beyoncé's latest projects embrace collaboration with and celebration of other artists.

Beyond the most visible nods to the art of the singer's contemporaries, through featuring or sampling their work, Lemonade is peppered with quieter involvement by different artists. This is true of Black, female artists in particular, as in a voiceover from New Orleans queer bounce music legend Big Freedia in "Formation" and the appearance of French-Cuban twin singing duo Ibeyi in the film.

THE CELEBRATION of Black women and Black womanhood is perhaps the most straightforward theme of Lemonade. The choice of which Black women to highlight expresses where Beyoncé's political affinities lie, but also reveals the breadth of the relentless demonization of Black women in this society.

The film features tennis superstar Serena Williams, as well as Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McFadden and Gwen Carr--the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. All are maligned in the news media and by other powerful institutions with the most humiliating, racist and misogynistic tropes. Featuring these women prominently is an implicit act of defiance.

That comes across clearly as Serena Williams dances unapologetically in the video for the song "Sorry," whose refrain is "I ain't sorry." It does again when Beyoncé seats the Mothers of the Movement in the front row of a theater featured in the film, and then launches into a performance of the song "Freedom," whose lyrics include:

I'ma wade, I'ma wave through the waters
Tell the tide, "Don't move"
I'ma riot, I'ma riot through your borders
Call me bulletproof

But for Beyoncé, implicit politics weren't enough. "Freedom" also features Kendrick Lamar, who has made it his business to bring poetic lyricism and incendiary politics into mainstream music. The verse he spits more than stands up to that tall order.

The film presents shots of Fulton, McFadden and Carr holding photos of their slain sons. If Beyoncé's identification with the movement for Black lives isn't clear enough after that, she makes it plain with "Formation," the last track on the album.

The song isn't only a proud, lyrical embrace of nappy hair, Red Lobster, hot sauce and other aspects of a Black cultural landscape--its video shows a Black child forcing a police line to surrender with his dance moves, and Beyoncé drowning a New Orleans police cruiser after having conjured and redirected the floods of Hurricane Katrina.

These visuals are not the only explicit reference to Black oppression and resistance. On the video version of the album, during the track "Don't Hurt Yourself," the song pauses to make way for an excerpt from a Malcolm X speech:

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.

Malcolm X's words seem abrupt on a track that is ostensibly about marital infidelity. But is that the only thing the song is about? Probably not that alone.

When, in the same song, Beyoncé says, "When you lie to me, you lie to yourself," and screams "Who the fuck do you think I is?" she is talking to a deceitful lover. But is she also talking to this country and its history?

THAT'S THE thing about Lemonade. In making an album that is about both strained romantic relationships and why Black lives--and particularly Black women's lives--matter, Beyoncé could have divided the tracks with a neatly bound "political" song here and a "personal" one there.

Instead, she creates a whole musical and visual experience that is aesthetically gorgeous, emotionally intimate and very political--all in ways that are woven together. As Beyoncé said in a rare interview in this month's issue of Elle magazine, responding to critics of the video for "Formation," which was released in February:

If celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me. I'm proud of what we created, and I'm proud to be part of a conversation that is pushing things forward in a positive way.

Further Reading

From the archives