The Sweet Taste of Lemonade by Cheryl Thompson
Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter never ceases to amaze audiences. For nearly 20 years, she has consistently recreated herself, her music and her brand.
It is easy to forget that she began her career in 1998 at age of 16 as part of the girl group Destiny’s Child. Since then, she’s become one of the most recognized R&B/pop singers in the world—and one of the most critiqued. With each album, listeners delve into her creative subconscious, and her latest (sixth) solo project, Lemonade, is no exception.
In fact, since the release of “Formation” in February and the title song in April, no artist, male or female, has garnered more buzz this year than “Bey.” Dropped the day before her performance during the halftime show at the Super Bowl, “Formation” is a not-so-subtle nod to the aesthetics of the New Black Panther movement—with its Afro hair, faux-bullet bandoliers and berets.
The video features the singer sprawled atop a New Orleans police car, circa hurricane Katrina in 2005; a black youth dancing before a line of white police officers in riot gear; abandoned Louisiana homes; flashes of civil rights resistance; the Black church in Charleston, South Carolina in which churchgoers were killed, and a fierce all-woman dance troupe.
It includes powerful lyrics like, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/ I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” This is a far cry from her previous girl-power anthems, such as “Who Run the World (Girls)” and “Flawless” (released in 2011 and 2013, respectively), which featured a sampling of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.”
“Formation,” make no mistake, is not about the universal “we” but the Black “us.” Following the Super Bowl, a Saturday Night Live skit, titled “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” parodied a group of Beyoncé’s fictional white fans responding to the new-found Black political consciousness of her music. The skit featured several confused white fans coming to grips with the fact that, after seeing “Formation,” they realized for the first time that Beyoncé is a Black woman.
The skit was more than just parody. Beyoncé, like many mainstream R&B artists before her, has often had to balance being palatable to white audiences and Black audiences alike. This is not an easy task. The inability of Lauryn Hill, for example, to live up to mass appeal, came in spite of the fact that many regard The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) to be one of the most important albums of all time. Hill’s music is scarcely talked about today.
It is very difficult for Black female artists to be Black (i.e. politically and socially attuned to the lives of Black women) and be feminist (i.e. place the struggles of gender and sexism above everything else) at the same time. Lemonade has made it clear indeed that Beyoncé struggles with this duality.
“Lemonade,” the second track off the album, was first released as a 20-second teaser and then as a one-hour premiere on HBO. In the video for “Lemonade,” the artist appears in cornrows (an African-descendant hairstyle consisting of tightly braided rows), while angrily bemusing her ill treatment by men. It also sees her wearing a lemonade-inspired dress, wielding a baseball bat and smashing car windows. The video includes multiple scenes of Beyoncé’s fierce all-girl company and can only be described as tumultuous.
What “Formation” and “Lemonade” reveal is that Beyoncé is letting out her inner Black feminist. By including appearances from the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, all children and young men lost to gun violence (most notably at the hands of police), Beyoncé is attuned to her times. And yet, mainstream reporting of the visual album was ablaze with chatter over “Lemonade’s” suggestive infidelity lyrics.
The lyric, “He only want me when I’m not there/ He better call Becky with the good hair” made critics wonder whether the relationship between Beyoncé and Jay Z was in trouble. Apparently, “Becky with the good hair” is a reference to fashion designer Rachel Roy. Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles, was seen on video footage fighting with Jay Z in a New York hotel elevator in 2015 after she accused him of being too close to Roy. In response to the video, Roy said she didn’t care about “good hair,” and, sadly, this tiff overshadowed much of the Black feminist overtones of “Lemonade.”
Beyoncé’s previous albums were about feminism, singular. However, Lemonade is specifically about Black feminism. For example, in an article for Time magazine, writer Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley called “Lemonade” “Black woman magic,” noting that it is art—not autobiography. Tinsley also positioned Beyoncé as continuing in the tradition of Black women’s music, wherein “trifling men have long been metonyms for a patriarchy that never affords Black women the love and life they deserve.”
Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, is often touted as one of the first theorizers of Black feminism. In her influential text, Black Feminist Thought (1990), Collins argued that black feminist thought must aim to clarify a standpoint of and for Black women. She also noted that is it vital to transcend group specific politics and move toward an understanding of how Black womanhood is uniquely positioned across two systems of oppression—race and gender. If we are to think intersectionally about Black women’s issues, we need to open up the possibility of seeing and, more importantly, understanding how socio-cultural politics affect Black women’s lives. To be Black and a woman means that structures of racial oppression and gender privilege are not separate issues but are integral to one’s sense of self.
With Lemonade, Beyoncé uses her artistry to acknowledge this duality. As Jacqui Germain astutely noted on feministing.com, “Beyoncé using the specific cultural marker of ‘Becky,’ [a social trope for white womanhood] in Lemonade is less a question of who’s excluding whom and why, and more so just us watching Beyoncé be the … multi-layered Black woman.” Thus, when we focus on Beyoncé as an individual, we ignore the importance of Black women’s lived experiences, especially in music.
Last year, the University of Victoria and the University of Waterloo both developed courses on Beyoncé. The University of Victoria School of Music course, titled Beyoncé, aims to explore how the superstar is positioned as a cultural product. The course Gender and Performance is an excursion into the singer’s albums, her feminism and critical race themes by the drama department at the University of Waterloo.
“I had to take up the work of this performer who is astute, an astute businesswoman, who is articulating a kind of feminism that is fascinating and very much of the 21st century,” University of Waterloo drama professor Naila Keleta-Mae told CBC News. “She uses visuals and music to tell young people around the world what it means to be a woman, wife, mother and feminist, Keleta-Mae added in a subsequent blog on Huffington Post.
What is essential in any study of Beyoncé is an understanding of the historical continuum of Black women’s performance. Beyoncé cannot be understood in isolation from the Black women artists who have come before her. As Angela Davis asserted in her book, Black Legacies and Black Feminism (1995), on blues singers Bessie Smith,
Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday, such history must be acknowledged in critiques of contemporary Black women artists. The book dispels popular assumptions that the historical origins of second-wave feminism are white, arguing instead that, through their music (not their lives), Black women blues artists forged a template for understanding Black feminisms.
While Beyoncé has not struggled in the way that many blues artists in the 1920s and 1930s did, Lemonade reflects an increased awareness of a race/gender consciousness that speaks to the aforementioned challenges. To isolate her from this history is to misunderstand why she is both loved and incessantly critiqued in ways that her white contemporaries are not. “Formation,” with its proud-to-be-black-don’t-get-it-twisted aesthetic, even incited some authorities, including Toronto city councilor Jim Karygiannis, to claim that because of her “anti-police” message, Beyoncé posed a potential threat to police and the Canadian state.
I have not always been Beyoncé’s biggest fan. I have questioned her politics, lyrics and public statements she’s made about feminism. To me, Lemonade confirms that Beyoncé should not be framed as a feminist in isolation from other Black women artists who have come before her. She is, in the words of Angela Davis, part of the legacy of Black feminisms in music. Therefore, her art, not in her public statements, is where we need to locate her feminist politics. Beyoncé’s music might be mere artistic expression to some, but her message is personal and political, the very definition of feminism.