Beyonce's 'Lemonade' Is an Anthem for the Retribution of Black Women

When life gives you lemons, make 'Lemonade.'

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Apr 26 2016, 2:10pm

Screenshot from 'Lemonade.' Courtesy of HBO/Tidal

Early in Lemonade, Beyoncé's much-anticipated new visual album that premiered Saturday as a secretive HBO special, we are shown a row of regal women perched on a rustic porch à la 1991's Daughters of the Dust. "I tried to make a home out of you," the singer laments in a quiet voiceover, "but doors lead to trap doors." The reference—autobiographical or not—to her much-publicized marriage to rapper mogul Jay Z sets up the film/album's powerfully realized themes of marital betrayal, rocky relationships, and triumphant rebirth.

Many of Beyoncé's haunting words in Lemonade are drawn from the work of 27-year-old British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, whose writing Bey adapted to serve as interludes between songs in the film. London's first Young Poet Laureate, Shire was the subject of a glowing profile in the New Yorker last year, which described her writing about African migration to Europe as "enthralling" and "remarkable." I devoured her 2011 chapbook Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth—an intimate meditation on loss, loneliness, war, and diasporic trauma, leading the reader through the generational upheaval of women in her family from Somalia to Britain. With lines such as "You can't make homes out of human beings / Someone should have already told you that," Shire's poetry strikes an incisive yet deliberate tone whose influence resonates in Lemonade.

Like Shire's poetry, Beyoncé's new visual album ruminates on generational trauma through 11 chapters such as "Emptiness," "Forgiveness," and "Resurrection," reminiscent of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The audience is taken on the ride of ups and downs of recognition to rage, to reconciliation. Beyoncé's narrative delves into marital troubles, her strained relationship with her father, and her miscarriage, all couched between poetic interludes influenced by Shire. Whether she's celebrating the resilience of real love in the album-closing "All Night," or gleefully smashing up car windows while referencing her partner's infidelity in the reggae-influenced "Hold Up," Bey is keenly honest and vulnerable, fearless and ultimately victorious.

The influence of Shire's poems on love and betrayal can be heard from the beginning chapter titled "Intuition," as Beyoncé reflects while submerged underwater, "You remind me of my father, a magician—able to exist in two places at once. In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 AM and lie to me. What are you hiding?" Strains from Shire's "The Unbearable Weight of Staying" can heard in the interlude for "Anger": "My father's arms around my mother's neck. Fruit too ripe to eat." Weaving Shire's intimate memories with her own, Beyoncé effectively fuses the personal with issues familiar to so many other women.

Screenshot from 'Lemonade.' Courtesy of HBO/Tidal

In the interlude titled "Hope," Beyoncé takes from Shire's "Nail Technician as Palm Reader," retelling, "The nail technician pushes my cuticles back, turns my hand over, and says, 'I see your daughters, and their daughters.'" The mention of daughters is poignant—underlying Lemonade is the importance of the matrilineal connection between generations of black women. The album encompasses the diaspora with its purposeful, culturally compelling visuals steeped in black Southern Gothic imagery as well as nods to the Orisha deities of the Yoruba religious tradition. Beyoncé acts as a conjure woman, and the natural and spirit worlds, past, present, and future coexist in her narrative.

The Black Future serves as a metaphor, and is represented quite literally in the film by the appearances of a host of prominent young black women from across the globe: teenage actresses Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Zendaya; musical duos Chloe x Halle and Ibeyi; 21-year-old model Winnie Harlow; 21-year-old ballet dancer Michaela DePrince; and, naturally, Beyoncé's four-year-old daughter Blue Ivy. These young women and girls have got next, and Beyoncé makes sure we recognize that.

The Black Future and the stars that represent it, notably Stenberg and Zendaya, have been diligent about not separating their politics from their public personas. Likewise Lemonade's narrative deliberately blurs the lines between the personal and the political. Beyoncé has been clear about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and it's not surprising that the mothers of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin, all victims of police or policing-related violence, are featured. As Beyoncé notes in "Intuition," "The past and the future merge to meet us here."

The fusion of past and future is reminiscent of Beyoncé's anthemic Super Bowl performance of "Formation," where she and 30 female dancers rocked Black Panther-inspired regalia. Similarly, Lemonade is meant as an empowering love letter to black women from all walks of life, who are, in the words of Malcolm X, the most disrespected, unprotected, neglected people in America. The meaning of the album's title is made explicit when we are shown video from Jay Z's grandmother Hattie White's 90th birthday. As Ms. White herself relates, "I was served lemons, but I made lemonade." In turn, the entire film/album asks: What could be more triumphant than a black woman, given lemons, who in turn, makes lemonade?

With Lemonade Beyoncé is once again controlling her own narrative, offering a nuanced and highly consumable image of both her life, and black life writ large—one that simultaneously recognizes black pain and lifts up black joy.

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