Beyoncé's 'Lemonade': The Power of One Woman’s Pain

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a black woman who is very clearly tired of pandering to the white middle class. She has of course, received backlash for this decision, a choice prominently displayed throughout her latest studio album, Lemonade. I’ve seen several responses to Piers Morgan’s repugnant reaction piece for the Daily Mail, and as the title of Poorna Bell’s riposte rightly states, it’s evident that he (alongside many other critics) knows “Diddly Squat About Being a Woman Of Colour”. It must however be specified that Lemonade, much like Formation, is expressly for black women. Although the visual album maintains an unexpected focus on Beyoncé’s relationship with her husband Jay-Z, much of the imagery and a good amount of the lyrics are overtly political and emphatic of black womanhood.

“I tried to make a home out of you.” Beyoncé recites the words of the writer Warsan Shire in a low voice, lamenting the tribulations of romantic over-investment as told in Shire's most popular, and arguably relatable, poem For Women Who Are 'Difficult' To Love. Here she expresses the fledgling feelings of doubt in a long-term relationship, and later asks recurrently, "Are you cheating on me?” She hyperbolises her pain in suicidal imagery as she tosses herself from a height and plunges into the interlude preceding Hold Up. In this video she takes to the street to express her anger, taking a bat to her surroundings in an homage to artist Pipilotti Rist. In Rist’s similar piece:

“Sympathetic women replace male authority figures and cars (boys' toys and symbols of relentless consumerism) become fair game. Inducing a joyous sense of relief and feeling of empowerment, this is art whose feel-good factor is especially high.” (Sarah Kent, 2011)

However, Beyoncé’s Rist reference is more racialised than gendered as all of the street’s pedestrians are black. Though there are few male onlookers, they are not part of the scene in the same way the black women are. They even seem to revel in the destruction of the property, giggling at the carnage. The violent actions are, in my opinion, radical in themselves. Anger is radical in media when conveyed by black women, the demographic so often excoriated for rage. Beyoncé isn't trying to be palatable any longer, and so white listeners like Piers Morgan will predictably become uncomfortable and cower behind words like “inflammatory” and “agitating”. In Don’t Hurt Yourself she escalates this rage, tearing off her wedding ring and exonerating herself from the damage done to her relationship. She makes her independence very clear: the woman is an empire who scorns even the concept of spousal support from a man she feels such contempt for. I believe Don’t Hurt Yourself is more than a fight song, it is also a statement of self-validation; it’s Beyoncé knowing she is worth so much (of course in a manner transcendent of currency alone) that a separation would cost her relatively little and him everything. She even assures him in the subsequent track (Sorry) that herself and Blue Ivy will live a good life, the implication being this is regardless of whether or not he is part of it.

There is of course much dispute as to whether the allegations of infidelity made are truly from Beyoncé to Jay-Z, as this would be a spectacularly public way to air one’s dirty laundry, especially as one of the most high-profile couples in the world. Many have speculated that the events she sings about are indeed fabricated, and to be frank, creating music this powerful about invented feelings this raw would not be something far beyond the realms of her ability. I personally tend to agree with the former proposition, however unlikely the scenario is. If the latter were true, Beyoncé would have also had to make up equally complex feelings about her father. In the forewords to Pray You Catch Me and Daddy Lessons she makes both of the most important men in her life culpable of similar crimes, drawing similarities between them: “In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 a.m. and lie to me”. Beyoncé deems both men ‘magicians’, capable of being in two places at the same time. She asks the viewer, “Did he convince you he was a god? Did you get on your knees daily? Do his eyes close like doors? Are you a slave to the back of his head?”, and finally, “Am I talking about your husband or your father?”

“The heavy hangover of the piece involves what lots of men have done to lots of women, black women in particular. Between songs, we hear Malcolm X intone that no one has had it rougher than they have. Think about what it takes to make lemonade. You have to split open a lot of citrus, remove the seeds, strain for pulp and add a lot of sugar. It’s a process. Black women are good at lemonade.” (Wesley Morris, 2016)

Daddy Lessons has its personal/political duality too: amongst the fatherly advice Beyoncé recalls is to “take care of your mother/Watch out for your sister”, applicable to the rhetoric of black female solidarity as well as in a literally familial sense. Lemonade’s political tones become more explicit as it climbs to its conclusion after its ballads of forgiveness (Love Drought, Sandcastles), and the final frames of the visuals for Freedom make it clear why. Beyoncé has vested interest in bettering black women’s lot in life, going by the name Blue Ivy. Here, and in Forward, Beyoncé employs a plethora of cameos by various black tastemakers. Forward’s cameos are the more striking of the two, featuring the mothers of some of the most visible police brutality victims clutching photographs of the lives that were stolen away from them. Kendrick Lamar’s verse in Freedom is almost certainly directed to these women who have experienced incomprehensible loss: "But mama don't cry for me, ride for me/Try for me, live for me/Breathe for me, sing for me."

“Few pop albums in recent memory have ever had such damning things to say about liberation, individual agency and the way society encourages or discourages the two.” (Chris Riotta, 2016)

As I’ve said in a previous piece, Beyoncé is the master of combining the personal and the political. Lemonade, in short, is transcendent. It interrogates musical genres, focuses on black womanhood and identity politics, and features an almost entirely black cast whilst being filmed entirely in determinedly southern settings: something that has been visually suppressed for decades. Of course it is dangerous to pedestal celebrities for their activism, and Beyoncé is by no means the perfect activist, but if anything, she is a force to be reckoned with.

“Like Beyoncé’s grandmother, like Beyoncé, like black American women across time, we are alchemists as much as we are pillars, holding up each other and our communities. We transform lemons into lemonade every day.” (Syreeta McFadden, 2016)

Words by Jenna Mahale