"Lemonade": Beyonce’s Ode To Black Women…and Black Men?

Very few artists command the cultural capital as one Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. Yet, Ms. Carter continues to set herself apart from other pop artists with her ability to push the envelope as both a musician and a global brand. Two weeks ago, Beyonce released her exclusive visual album Lemonade on HBO, quickly followed by the release of Lemonade, the album on Tidal. The creation of Lemonade represents a new chapter in the Beyoncé brand. Throughout her career Beyonce has remained relatively private and explicitly apolitical. However, through this album we have seen that Beyonce fall to the wayside. Lemonade (whether you believe it is an authentic narrative or not) shows us that Beyonce is an unapologetically candid womanist who is more than ready to grace the world with her Black Girl Magic.

I’ve spent two weeks trying to digest the visual and sonic interpretations of Lemonade. Part of this is because everytime I watch Lemonade or listen to the album, I am hit with a whole new slew of interpretations. Think piece after think piece has used Lemonade to discuss black feminism, the sanctity of marriage, even “Becky with the good hair”. A large part of this is Beyonce’s role as a zeitgeist like figure in the realm of popular culture (thank you Dr. Tinkcom). However, her music is subjected to so many opinions and interpretations it is difficult to parse one editorial from another. In doing this, I had to think back to the first time I watched Lemonade. Caught up in the stunning visuals and visceral lyrics, I kept coming back to the same question: Is this an Ode to Black women or an analysis of Black men?

Now, these two are not mutually exclusive, yet throughout Lemonade, viewers are treated to Beyonce’s musings on her relationship with her husband and her father. Lemonade, rather than being about Black female autonomy, is about how Black women reconcile dealings with their other half. How do you come to terms with a not so perfect husband? How do you deal with the betrayal of a parent? And most heartbreakingly, what is it like to raise a Black man in a country that has deemed him a threat from inception? While I do not think Lemonade attempts to answer these questions for all women, I believe Beyonce explores the complexities of these dynamics through both the literal and phenomenological lens.

“With Every Tear Came Redemption. And My Torture Became My Remedy.”

In her video and album, Beyonce addresses the many relationships that exists between men and women, specifically Black men and women. The most obvious, of course, is her marriage with rapper and mogul, Jay Z. The thread that ties the album together is the discovery of infidelity within their marriage and the emotional transformation she goes through dealing with this revelation. However, Lemonade takes on new dimensions when looked at through the lens of black femininity and black masculinity. Infidelity is not a concept singularly tied to African Americans–nor any race for that matter. However, the negotiation of betrayal is a decidedly Black female archetype that has existed for centuries and one that Beyonce punctuates in her film.

Blue Ivy, allowing Jay Z to eat off her table.
Blue Ivy, allowing Jay Z to eat off her table.

As a private citizen, I am unable to understand what it must feel like to live life under a microscope. Whether this the level of attention is self-inflicted is irrelevant at this point. What is pertinent is the fact that celebrities live their lives–the highs and lows, ups and downs–within the public sphere. Their beings are consumable products for the public. This notion is particularly complicated when we add on the dimensions of race and racial solidarity. Throughout history there has been an implicit notion that Black women suffer in silence, especially when we talk about the wounds inflicted on them by men of their own race. This trope has been iterated time and time again. From slavery to the erasure of Black women from the Civil Rights Movement to the rampant misogyny of the Black Panthers to today, there’s been exists a rhetoric that Black women should support, love, and protect Black men–even when this same respect is not handed out in tandem. Of course, there has been pushback to this idea: In 1979 Michele Wallace published her controversial book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman criticing the very notion that Black women are–by default–the heavies when dealing with issues of systemic racism and its effects on internal issues within Black communities. More recently, Melissa Harris Perry delivered a speech in front of the Congressional Caucus for Black Women and Girls that acknowledged the fact that while Black women have been integral in the Black Lives Matter movement–a movement that does, though not intentionally, focus on Black Men–no one has focused on the brutalization of thousands of Black women over the past 3 years.

Bringing us back to Lemonade: I say all of this because Beyonce implicitly and explicitly addresses this very real truth of what it means to be a Black woman in relation to a Black man. What is it like to love and trust someone as a partner and know that they have betrayed you in the most screwed up manner? And what does this mean when you feel like everyone is telling you that you must make your relationship work because it is your duty within society? Regardless of wealth, power, or fame Beyonce is not immune to the limitations of American racial dynamics. She is not above the common discourse that frames a fundamental part of the way many Black women are reared from childhood. If you question the validity of this statement, take a look at the “Don’t Hurt Yourself”.

Within the song, Beyonce makes a reference to Malcolm X, yet in the video she includes an interlude from Detroit Red, in which he asserts that,

“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.”

The speech, given at a 1962 rally to a predominantly Black audience was on the importance of self-determination and self-love. However, the use of this particular line Beyonce acknowledges that her relationship with her husband is not merely coded in the traditional symbolism of love and care. There are levels to this shit. Levels like sex, gender, money, power, and of course race. Through the album, Beyonce addresses all of these complexities highlighting the fact that “Black Love”, as a concept, will never be a simple as a Nicholas Sparks’ novel. The beauty of Lemonade is in its ability to go beyond the layers of what is expected, leaving audiences with what is. The final tracks on this album are as triumphant as they are bittersweet: At the end of it all, love (or the love Beyonce feels in her marriage) is not something that can not be codified through any narrative–racial or otherwise. It is simply her’s. She ends Lemonade with these beautiful words:

“The audience applauds … but we can’t hear them.”

Moving past Jay Z, we can begin to  think about the other relationships explored within the text, specifically those between parents and their children. Beyonce makes a brief interlude to address her father in “Daddy’s Lesson”. This song presents an interesting parallel to “Forward”, the heartbreaking James Blake song that appears later in the story. While “Daddies Lessons” holds up a mirror on the similarities between Jay Z and Matthew Knowles that shape the present, “Forward” is the loss of a dream. Within “Forward”, Beyonce shows the images of fallen Black men and boys, underscored by the first women who loved them: their mothers. 

The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner

My analysis barely scratches the surface of this video and album. I could spend hours talking about the religious imagery, the allusions to slavery, Beyonce’s references to traditional African culture, but this is the glory of Lemonade. It does not sugarcoat the pain of black femininity, but it celebrates the triumph of the spirit of Black women in all of its multiplicity. In doing this, the redemptive quality of Lemonade extends open arms to Black men as it lifts up its sisters. As this album echoes, we were given a legacy of lemons, and so we turned them into lemonade.


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