What is the significance of Beyonce’s Lemonade? It cannot be overstated.
Right up front; I never paid much attention to the artist known as Beyonce, until very recently. Oh, I knew who she was – she has been very, very famous for a long time. But I never really listened to what she had to say until…well, until Lemonade.
Who knew that Beyonce Giselle Knowles would grow up to be our foremost Intersectional Black Feminist? Destiny’s Child, her Supremes-modeled girl group, broke big in the mid 90’s, lovingly groomed by Bey’s designer mother and heavily controlled by her manager dad. It was solidly generic R’n’B/pop crossover music, smooth and upbeat. Beyonce was but a teenager, pretty and marketable. When the group fell apart and Beyonce started a solo career, her music remained unremarkable glossy pop, with just a touch of hip-hop but not much real edge. I didn’t pay attention, because at first, she didn’t command much attention. Yet, since her solo debut in 2003, Beyonce has slowly, steadily and inexorably grown in status from pop star to artist. She moved away from letting her image be controlled by her parents. She increasingly took control of the writing and production of her music. She became more and more outspoken in public about her beliefs. She wrote opinion pieces about women’s issues that were published in The New York Times. And it wasn’t just celebrity posturing – when Beyonce spoke about feminism, she was never less than articulate and thoroughly well informed. Slowly and steadily she established herself as an influential public figure who, hot pants be damned, would not be intellectually dismissed. Her music was only waiting to catch up…
Now, Beyonce has fully arrived as an artist. She has arrived in a way that can not be denied. Though empowerment and identity have always been themes for her, never before has she underlined her message with so much conviction. Lemonade is a concept album. A visual concept album accompanied by an hour long movie (without which the music, though undeniably fantastic, cannot be fully appreciated.) A visual concept album about her husband’s infidelity. Yah. Beyonce has been married to Jay-Z since 2008 and she has always maintained a graceful distance between her private life and her public one. But now she’s taken her most intimate experiences and made them public. The intimate is the political.
Beyonce has done what only the very best artists have been able to do; she’s taken the mundanely personal and made it universally relevant. Love, betrayal, jealousy, anger, sorrow, forgiveness…those things are universal. And in being universal, they are trivial. Anybody can sing about their poor broken heart. It is one of the easiest things to write about. In weak hands, it’s nothing more than selfish and whiny. It’s just, “whatever, bitch, who cares”. What Beyonce has done is take that boring, everyday, mundane selfish heartbreak and reframe it in a wider context. The context of what a woman’s experience means in a male dominated world, and more than than, the context of what a black woman’s experience means in a racist patriarchy. It’s an outspokenly feminist work, and it is an intersectional feminist work. The themes of the album transcend the merely personal, they transcend the merely female; they speak to the experience of black women in America. The album explores themes of sisterhood, marriage, family, self expression, intimacy, love, identity… It acknowledges how those things are all so much more difficult and fraught for African-Americans. African-American families who struggle with images that seek to degrade and devalue their experiences, African-American women who find themselves sexualized and exploited, African-American men who are demonized and slaughtered, children who come of age in a minefield of hostility. Beyonce shows how simple things that privileged people dismiss or take for granted are mightily significant for the oppressed. It is specifically a black woman’s voice, and it is universally the bruised and injured cuckold’s voice, and it is the angry outsider’s voice. It is the outward and the inward voice.
A woman’s emotional journey, as a topic, is so often often dismissed; self-awareness is conflated with self-absorption. But what does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a sexual being? What does it mean to be a wife? What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to exist within a community? What dotes it mean to be a female individual within society? How about all of those things plus Black? How about empowered, Black and proud? And a creative artist on top of it all? Beyonce asks all of those questions. She’s not alone; there are contributions from Warsan Shire, the poet responsible for the dramatic and intimate spoken-word interludes; musical collaborators like Jack White and Kendrick Lamar, culturally inspiring figures like Winnie Harlow, Serena Williams and Quvenzhane Wallis. In an especially heartrending moment, Bey gives a somber spotlight to Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McFadden, and Gwen Carr; the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively.
Lemonade is a work by a popular artist, a popular artist who has awoke to the full capacity of her own power and importance. Beyonce is an artist who has come of age in the public eye and has been able to evolve from pop star to cultural figure. She’s had things to say for a long time, but now she’s finally pulled together all of the strands she has at her disposal; best-selling pop star, iconic public figure, deeply private wife and mother, empowered woman in a male dominated society, proud and empowered Black woman flourishing in a white supremacist patriarchy, flagrantly sexy babe, well spoken thinker, fashion plate, astute businesswoman, singer, dancer, songwriter, her own fabulous outspoken self. Never more intimate or relevant.
Lemonade can be streamed on Tidal, or downloaded on Amazon or iTunes.