Music & Gender: 'LEMONADE,' an activist's album
How does one begin to talk about Beyoncé? As I find myself in this eternal authorial struggle with the beginning, one thought keeps cropping up in my mind: Beyoncé is a force of nature. With a career spanning decades and a presence that has permeated the globe, Beyoncé has carved out a spot for herself among the most notable artists of her generation. Her power is palpable.
The release of LEMONADE, a visual album, is a window into the singer’s personal life — something Ms. Knowles often keeps quiet. Covering diverse terrain, the album deals with adultery, race relations, struggles with confidence and family. Through these topics, LEMONADE encapsulates Black womanhood and encourages audiences to recognize its importance. Visually, musically and poetically, Beyoncé details the lives of women as wives, lovers, mothers, activists and artists. Effectively and beautifully dissecting the Black female experience, LEMONADE demands that the public respect this faction of the population that’s so often misrepresented.
In order to create this discourse, Bey invites audiences to step into her world — triumphs, fears and all. This open-book approach becomes glaringly obvious on tracks that deal with Jay-Z’s alleged adultery. In chronicling her own experiences as a wife and lover, Beyoncé holds nothing back. She puts up a fight, gets sad and becomes insecure. It’s this insecurity that is particularly telling, especially to female fans who have a hard time imagining a confident, beautiful woman like Queen B could have anything to be vulnerable about. This self-doubt shines through in the poetry, by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, which is included throughout the visual compilation of the album. Beyonce reads Shire’s resonant words, “Closed my mouth more. Tried to be softer, prettier…” letting female listeners know that even she isn’t impervious to the harsh cultural expectations of women.
This softer side of Bey’s dealings with her relationship troubles is contrasted (or, rather, made more realistic) by the inclusion of her clap back. In “Sorry,” Beyoncé, fittingly, is entirely unapologetic, singing “Tell him, boy, bye middle fingers up / I ain’t thinking ’bout you.” She becomes the antithesis of her previous self — cocky, strong and independent. The man has become replaceable and she holds all the cards. By breaching her own united front, Beyoncé’s telling of her marital strife challenges stereotypical conventions of a Black, single mother. She is not broken or helpless without the father, but is thriving and free.
From here the complexities only continue mounting. In assembling ideas of motherhood, the album places a huge emphasis on the power of matrilineal relationships; there is something unbreakable and impenetrable that’s passed from mother to daughter. This is a sentiment that many women feel within their family, but LEMONADE makes a point to emphasize the sense of community and solidarity that, in Beyoncé’s southern upbringing, Black women share. A moving moment in the film comes when women are shown holding photographs of men they have lost, including the mother of Trayvon Martin. The power of that image demands discussion; thoughts of the future and how Black women can shape it. The inclusion of Serena Williams, Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg is a wonderful example of how this community of women functions and how the influence of powerful Black women spans generations and prompts progress.
The visual aspect of LEMONADE is just as purposeful and precise as the nuances in the music and poetry. The work includes both virtuosic, cinematic shots as well as more authentic, free-flowing frames of people in their everyday lives. Though both the grand and raw scenes are thought provoking, the most striking shots are filled only with women. There are countless frames of Black women looking solid, smart and strong. Dressing in fashions bridging time and place, the women are multi-faceted and intricate — a depiction that challenges the stereotypical portrayals of Black women in the media. In these frames, the true message of LEMONADE comes out. Yes, the album deals heavily with infidelity. But, it’s more about taking a comprehensive look at the lives of Beyoncé and her family, and how that can be translated into much needed cultural change.
In short, LEMONADE is an activist’s album. Tracks like “Freedom” featuring Kendrick Lamar and “Formation” make poignant, overt political statements wrapped in impressive, infectious musicality. While looking at the lives of both women and African Americans, the album, more importantly, looks at Black women. Beyoncé tells the story of the women she came from, where they and she are now and, with the inclusion of younger Black women, what the future may hold. The album is so much larger than the dealings of a famous couple with a cheating husband. While Beyoncé’s feelings on that matter are truthfully difficult and resonant, the album uses those feelings as a catalyst to talk about her life as a whole.
Wrapping with “Formation,” the album makes clear that Bey knows exactly what she’s doing when making her political and cultural statements; she wants you to remember, to think about them. LEMONADE is about the power that bold, Black women hold and how their experiences have shaped this power. This is not to say it only resonates with African American women, but rather that this inspiration from a faction of women that is often discredited by media is, or should be, inspiring to everyone. Some may say that this is a breakup album, but it is so much more that that. Beyoncé makes a statement; a testimony to the importance of outspoken thought, solidarity and shared experience. And in doing so through the muscle of music, artistry and words, LEMONADE is a prime example of the weight that art can have in provoking much needed discussion.