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“Mother Dearest, Let Me Inherit the Earth:” Womanism and Sisterhood in Beyonce’s “Lemonade”

Beyonce dropped her sixth studio album this week, and the ripples were felt all over the internet. Accompanying “Lemonade,” which was only available on “Tidal” (the same streaming site that deprived the Spotify-using masses of Kanye’s “Life of Pablo” earlier this year) was a stunning visual album which, in short, forces us to completely reconsider how we see Beyonce as an artist.

“Lemonade” isn’t just a visual album, it’s an hour long feature film, masterfully constructed, and powerfully penned by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. Shire’s work has already been met with critical acclaim after the publication of a poetry pamphlet titled “Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth,” which explored the themes of blackness, family, and womanhood in the 21st century. “Lemonade” is only her third publication to date, but its maturity, eloquence and attention to detail is a powerful example of the #Blackgirlmagic Beyonce harnesses and celebrates throughout the album. “Lemonade” is a masterful interweaving of Shire’s poetry, Beyonce’s songs, and gorgeous visuals, what Syreta McFadden called a “Dense, layered, rich and nuanced” exploration of the experiences of the black female community today.

(Image credit: Guardian)

The album is split into scenes, or chapters, each complementing a track from the album. Clear to most viewers is the theme of heartbreak, each chapter delving into a different emotional aspect of Beyonce’s relationship troubles with husband Jay-Z, who allegedly cheated on her with the infamous “Becky with the good hair” last year. However, though Beyonce has drawn strongly on her own experiences to colour “Lemonade,” there is no denying the universality of the subject matter. “Lemonade” was made by a black woman for black women. As Piers Morgan put it: “The new Beyonce wants to be seen as a black woman political acitivist,” however while Morgan finds this “agitating” and alienating, the black woman for which “Lemonade” was made have been given a space and a voice. Ijeoma Oluo, a columnist for The Guardian, is one of many who professed not to have been a part of the so-called “Beyhive” of Beyonce fans, yet still felt “cracked wide open” by the album, which she aptly labelled a “project,” true to its artistic and inspiring nature. Beyonce also draws from the shared experiences of the black community. In the third section, “Anger,” images of black women staring down the camera lens are cut with samples from Malcolm X’s 1962 “Who Taught You To Hate Yourselves” speech:

            ‘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.’

Indeed, “Lemonade” is Beyonce demanding respect for, protecting, and celebrating the American black woman. Towards the end of the project “Resurrection” sees cameos from Gwen Carr, Leslie McSpadden and Sybrina Fulton, the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, black men dead at the hands of police brutality.

(Image credit: Noisey)

As well as being politically provocative, “Lemonade” is a true example of excellent filmography. The cinematic beauty of “Lemonade” is apparent from the first few shots alone. The running Southern Gothic theme is introduced by big colonial mansions, eerie looking cypress trees, and Beyonce wandering alone through vast cornfields in the first song “Pray You Catch Me.” The second track “Hold Up” falls into the section entitled “Denial.” After witnessing Beyonce suspended, dramatically floating in a bedroom completely submerged in water, as she contemplates her intuition repeatedly asking “Are you cheating on me?” we see her burst out onto the bright streets dressed in a striking yellow dress, followed by a cascade of water. “Hold Up” sees Beyonce playfully smashing up cars with a baseball bat named “Hot Sauce” in a cathartic display of frustration: “What’s worse: being jealous or crazy?” a question which has undoubtedly crossed the mind of any woman caught in a troubled relationship.

(Image credit: Guardian)

Beyonce’s playful and dramatic songs are complemented with Shire’s deeply contemplative poetry, spoken aloud by Beyonce between tracks. Haunting music box melodies play as images more akin to a horror film than a Beyonce album are described in detail. “Anger” accompanies “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” Both heartbreaking and horrifying, the verse goes “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine. Her scalp a cap…” and it goes on. In the fierce conclusion to the song, which is filmed in an underground parking lot, Beyonce hurls her ring at the camera, speaking right down the lens: “You try this shit again, you’re gonna lose your wife,” which can only be interpreted as a direct address to Jay-Z.

After the energy and rage of these two sections, the focus shifts to become more inward. In “Sorry,” the track associated with “Apathy,” we see a shift from color to black and white, and a row of women in white Yoruba face paint swaying in unison in a tram carriage, a powerful image accompanied by more music box melodies. Serena Williams makes a cameo in the next scene, with Beyonce seated on a throne like chair in a huge colonial style mansion.

The focus shifts to family, childhood and parenting in “Daddy Lessons.” The chapter entitled “Accountability” features poetry exploring the emotional labour of wives, daughters and mothers. The upbeat country-influenced track is interspersed with home video clips of Beyonce’s childhood with her father, and footage of him today with Blue Ivy.

Indeed, as “Lemonade” progresses, the themes of familial love become more and more pronounced. The dreamy “Love Drought” sees Beyonce march into the ocean with an army of sisters, featuring more Yoruba imagery and symbolism related to water and healing. These shots are cut with clips of Jay-Z playing with Blue Ivy in the immense Superbowl stadium, sending a clear message along side the song’s lyrics that this marriage is worth saving. The following chapter is titled “Forgiveness,” and features the song “Sandcastles;” an acoustic ballad which shows Jay-Z in a new, vulnerable light.

(Image credit: Dazed)

Other cameos are made throughout “Lemonade” by a huge array of successful black women. “Freedom,” co-penned by Kendrick Lamar with heavy Gospel influences, sees Beyonce take the role of a preacher featuring a huge group of straw-hat wearing women with shared experiences. Activists, performers, and cultural ambassadors included Amandla Stenberg, who appeared alongside ex-Disney star Zendaya, as well as singing duo Chloe and Halle Bailey. Star of “12 Years a Slave” Quevenzhane Wallis appears holding Blue Ivy’s hand, and model Winnie Harlow – recognisable for her rare vitiligo skin condition – wears a silver crown of thorns. Ballerina Michaela DePrince, an orphan born in Sierra Leone, is just another example of the rich array of black talent Beyonce is championing.

At 93, Leah Chase is the oldest and one of the most influential people featured in “Lemonade.” The Creole chef fed hundreds of civil rights activists that passed by New Orleans in the 60s. Chase’s cameo leads into the penultimate track of the visual album, “All Night,” featured in the chapter “Redemption.” More home footage is used here, this time of Jay-Z’s grandmother giving a birthday speech: “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” Beyonce shares her own grandmother’s recipe for lemonade at this point. Here is the clearest declaration and display of the power which exists between generations of black women, a testament to resilience and solidarity between them in times of both collective and personal struggle.

(Image credit: Dazed)

“Lemonade” as a piece of art has had unprecedented effect on how we, the masses, view Beyonce’s art. Such a far cry from her earlier works, like “Halo” or “Single Ladies.” It is not just an ode to her relationship with Jay-Z, a response to his infidelity, but a mature and holistic contemplation on the collective experience of the black American woman. Densely packed with symbolism and a powerful political agenda, “Lemonde” does more than any of Beyonce’s previous releases. It’s a celebration of black womanhood and a display of sisterhood marketed directly at those it celebrates. Through “Lemonade” Beyonce embraces the collective experience of black American women and uses it to inspire a mature, profound, experimental, and deeply feeling artistic piece.

Tash is the deputy lifestyle editor of Her Campus Bristol. She is a second year English student hailing from Landan town - Her favourite pastimes include browsing the internet looking for her summer holiday destinations and walking everywhere. She enjoys interior design and thinking about space.
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