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On Saturday, Beyoncé’s new visual album Lemonade was released on HBO. I think the whole world was surprised as the generally private artist opened her soul and let us all peer into the intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, and redemption (also the name of chapters within the visual album) she has experienced over the past several years following (what seems to be) her husband’s infidelity.
It is the most intimate portrait into the couple’s lives that has ever been provided and I spent an hour picking my jaw off the floor at the raw truth-telling that I witnessed.
As I watched Lemonade, it occurred to me how rare it is to see an unedited journey of the feminine — with its complicated emotions, twists, and turns — laid before us in popular culture. Lemonade takes one of the most taboo subjects of all and rips it wide open, illustrating the heartbreak of infidelity and moving it from the realm of quiet whispers among our closest sister-girl confidants and showcasing it to the entire world. While Lemonade is a deeply personal album, it is also one of the most realistic and comprehensive public portrayals of the pain, struggles, difficulties, and ultimately joy of black family life I’ve ever seen.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I was awestruck at Beyoncé’s courageous decision to be so open about her pain and redemption. I laughed, I cried, I rejoiced — it gave me soooo much in one hour. After watching and re-watching (probably ten times in a 24-hour period), I was able to identify four major themes that are vital to recognize in order to understand the work in its entirety. This includes infidelity, resilience of the black family, breadth of black culture, and finally redemption through love.
In the album, Beyoncé refers to infidelity as a family curse. It is the overarching topic on the album and really raised eyebrows primarily because of all of the Jay Z affair rumors over the past few years. They started in May 2014, after the infamous elevator incident during which Solange Knowles attacked Jay Z. Tabloids claimed that earlier that evening, Solange had a heated exchange with Rachel Roy (ex-wife of Hov’s former business partner Damon Dash) over her close relationship with Jay Z. Then, later that year, there were rumors about a possible relationship between 1Oak hostess Casey Cohan and Jay Z.
Just as we resigned ourselves to never knowing who Bey was referring to in “Sorry” when she said, “He only want me when I’m not there/he better call Becky with the good hair,” Rachel Roy posted a photo on her Instagram account that read:
“Good hair don’t care, but we will take good lighting for selfies or self truths, always. Live in the light #nodramaqueens” (Roy deleted the post about five hours later). However, it was too late and the Bey Hive (Beyoncé’s diehard fans) took immediate action, trolling Roy’s Instagram profile with lemon emojis and other less-printable responses. Roy responded later by posting a tweet that reads: "I respect love, marriages, families and strength. What shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone, no matter what, is bullying, of any kind."
Her Instagram account is now private. Um, yeah Rachel. Moving on.
The second theme in Lemonade that is portrayed beautifully is the resilience of black people — both men and women. This is shown in the video cameo, following the song “Forward.” We’re introduced to a poor, young African-American man in New Orleans who talks about his lack of hope before meeting President Barack Obama, and how the brief introduction to the POTUS opened the possibility of what his life could be for himself and his family. Following this sequence, we see the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement. With quiet strength and dignity, they hold photos of their sons who we now recognize as Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and others who haven’t become household names.
Then there is the monologue by Beyoncé explaining her grandmother’s process of making lemonade.
“Take one pint of water, add half pound of sugar, the juice of 8 lemons, the zest of half lemon, pour the water from one jug then into the other several times, strain through a clean napkin, grandmother, the alchemist. You spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind, found healing where it did not live, discovered the antidote in your own kitchen, broke the curse with your own two hands, you passed the instructions to your own daughter, who then passed it to her daughter.”
Beyoncé also shares a family video from the 90th birthday party of Jay Z’s grandmother, Hattie White, who says, "life gave me lemons and I made lemonade.” It’s really beautiful to see that legacy of strength come full circle and be exemplified in the powerful, gospel inspired song “Freedom,” with lyrics that include the line “Hey! I'ma keep running/Cause a winner don't quit on themselves.”
Amen to that, Queen Bey.
There are so many nuanced displays of black culture throughout the one hour of Lemonade that the film could be screened during Black History Month. It showcases a diversity of blackness that many may not be familiar with including nods to African, New Orleans, rural African-American and Gullah life. New Orleans is featured prominently, and we’re treated to scenes of Big Easy musicians blowing their horns on doorway steps and at jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians, and daily life in the wards. In the country inspired song “Daddy Lessons” Beyoncé wears a West African inspired dress and sings along to a blues guitarists. The song’s visuals provide a nod to black cowboys, an almost forgotten part of our nation’s history.
In the song “Sorry,” tennis star Selena Williams twerks in a black bodysuit, background dancers wear Afro-centric braided hair styles along with Yoruba tribal makeup created by Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo, and Beyoncé sports a Cleopatra inspired hairstyle and earrings. For those familiar with Julie Dash’s groundbreaking film, “Daughters of the Dust” you’ll recognize similar imagery throughout Lemonade of women dressed in 1900s Victorian fashions. The film was the first full-length feature film directed by an African-American woman and distributed theatrically in the U.S., and is one of the only film portrayals of the black Gullah community of coastal South Carolina.
We were also treated to several cameos that played like the cast from a Black Girls Rock award show including Serena Williams, ballerina Michaela DePrince, model Winnie Harlow, and actresses Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhane Wallis, and Zendaya. It was amazing to see so many of the cultural, artistic and musical contributions people of African descent have made packed into one hour of amazing.
Lastly, there is the theme of redemption through love. I think this is the most beautiful part of the entire project. I love the intimacy and tenderness we see from Jay Z and Beyoncé in “Sandcastles.” I love the freshness of starting over and new beginnings. And I love the intro to “All Night” where Bey quotes Somali-British poet Warsan Shire (most of the albums fabulous introductions are by her):
"My grandma said, nothing real can ever be threatened. True love brought salvation back into me. With every tear came redemption and my torturer became my remedy. So we’re going to heal. We’re going to start again. You’ve brought the orchestra, synchronized swimmers, you’re the magician. Pull me back together again the way you cut me in half. Make the woman in doubt disappear. Pull the sorrow from between my legs like silk. Knot after knot after knot. The audience applauds… but we can’t hear them."
Beautiful. Everything about this album is beautiful. I applaud Beyoncé for taking the most intimate part of her soul, turning it inside out, and providing us with something timeless. This is exactly what good art should be. Time and time again, Beyonce elevates the standard for popular music — this time by creating an artistic blend of art, film, poetry, history, and music into something the world has never seen before. But, I shouldn’t be surprised.
After all we don’t call her Queen Bey for nothing.