On April 23, 2016, Beyoncé dropped her second visual album, Lemonade. The world had been writhing with anticipation. No one was quite sure what to expect from the vague trailer saying that it would debut on HBO. As I sat in my dorm after scrambling to sign up for the free HBO Now trial, I watched the masterpiece and cried at the beauty, the pain, the vulnerability, and the strength. I was in shock when a few days had gone by and I had not seen any disrespectful social media posts from white people and non-Black people of color trying to make it about themselves. We saw it with "Formation"—people were defensive and aggressive when it was not theirs to claim. Countless white folks made Instagram captions with lyrics such as “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” and Black women echoed back saying “No, you’re not. This is not for you.” I thought, for once, maybe the world had listened to us.
I was wrong.
Soon, the unnecessary and unwanted commentary began slowly trickling into my social media feeds. People were saying “Becky is a racial slur” and white people were talking about “good hair” without understanding the socially, culturally and politically loaded context of the phrase. One article really irked me in particular. It was from Vogue, titled “Deconstructing Lemonade: Everything You Need to Know About Beyoncé’s New Visual Album.” The title sounded somewhat promising.
But I was wrong again. This piece was messy. It was written by a non-Black woman who barely skimmed the surface in the themes covered in the album and asked shallow questions like “What’s the best song to GIF?” Like, really? I thought we were unpacking??
There were two things that REALLY set me off, both having to do with the Blackness of both Lemonade and Beyoncé. One question asked, “Who were the women holding up photos?”, referring to a scene in which the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner display framed photographs of their sons who were victims of police brutality. And here’s where I start to go off. First, if you don’t recognize at least one of these pictures, it means there is a 98% chance you don’t know anything about the #BlackLivesMatter movement nor do you pay attention to any news dealing with people of color. If you don’t know the names and/or faces of these young Black men, you should not be watching Lemonade. Turn it off. This is not for you. Go educate yourselves first. You do not have the capacity to even begin to understand Lemonade.
Beyoncé with Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, Beyoncé, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown. (source)
The cherry on top was the answer to the question, “Is this whole thing about Jay Z?” to which the writer responded, “She seems to intend for the viewer to draw this conclusion.” This is probably the most disrespectful statement you could say about the album, especially in an article with the word “deconstructing” in the title. Congratulations, you touched on the most shallow and easily accessible theme from the entire album. While, yes, of course that is a theme, it is not the only theme or even the right way to approach that theme. The album is not about Jay-Z cheating on Beyoncé. This album is about Beyoncé. It is about her emotions, her responses, her pain, and her choice she actively made to forgive him. It is about her. In such a patriarchal society, we tend to default the focus to men. However, that is the antithesis of what Bey is trying to convey. The entirety of this album has an overwhelming theme of Black woman empowerment and being an unapologetic Black woman who refuses to be censored by her own community and the larger society we live in. She is liberating herself through this album.
If infidelity is the only theme you take away from her work, you are blatantly ignoring the Blackness in every aspect of this film. You ignore the heavy African influence. Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s beautifully crafted writing is weaved into the interludes and songs. There is the specifically heavy Nigerian influence–the ankaras of the Yoruba people; Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo’s ori (Yoruba body painting); references to the Igbo Landing in “Forward;” and, most obviously, Beyoncé channeling the Yoruba orisha, Oshun—the goddess of beauty, love and wrath who wears primarily golden-yellow—in “Hold Up.”
Left: Beyoncé channeling Oshun; Middle: "Forward"'s similarities to the Igbo Landing; Right: Ori done by Laolu Senbanjo.
But Lemonade is more than just its African influence. The entire film and album is a tribute to the women of the African diaspora and re-appropriation. The Victorian-style dresses made of ankaras are reminiscent of British-Nigerian designer, Yinka Shonibare, who “uses the tools of the oppressor” and “re-appropriates a European import — the cloth — to remake symbols of European cultural dominance in the spirit of Africa.”
Left: Beyoncé's ankara dress in Lemonade; Right: The work of Yinka Shonibare
The film reclaims plantations, using them instead to willingly grow food in beautiful gardens, have an all-Black girl dinner and stand powerfully, in solidarity, in a place which once witnessed so much pain and destruction. It touches on Queen Bey’s roots in Louisiana as well, featuring a New Orleans funeral, New Orleans jazz and even a special appearance by a Mardi Gras Indian.
My favourite part of the entire film is the overwhelming amount of Black female empowerment. Beyoncé refuses to censor herself. She gets angry, she cries, she allows herself to fully feel every emotion, something women of color, especially Black women, rarely do due to how our society sees us. She expresses things Black women are told not to and conveys all the painful details with words like “I pray you catch me listening” and “Am I talking about your husband or your father?” Black women are not meant to be unbreakable like the world thinks we are or should be.
The way in which the women in this film are celebrated and shown is so raw. The close-up shots where they look directly into the camera with a neutral facial expression pierce your soul. My nine-year-old niece asked me, “Why do all they look so unhappy?” and I told her that the point isn’t to see their emotions, the point is to see them. As Malcolm X said, “The most neglected person in America is the Black woman." Our society does not take the time to see Black women for who they really are. Black women, rather, are only ever seen as the traits used to describe them—dark-skinned, light-skinned, angry, loud, ghetto, bougie. The list goes on. These uncomfortably close shots force the viewer to ask themselves why they are so uncomfortable with the image of a Black woman and confront it.
Close-ups of women from Lemonade
From the everyday women in the film footage, to the mothers we know from their sons’ names, to icons and celebrities, all of these women are making sure that they are seen for who they are and everything that they are. These women are:
Serena Williams – the number one women’s singles tennis player in the world
Amandla Stenberg – queer, intersectional feminist, actor, activist and filmmaker
Zendaya Coleman – Disney Channel star and humanitarian with her own Barbie
Chloe & Halle Bailey – sisters whose cover of “Pretty Hurts” went viral, who now have a $1 million record deal and just put out their debut EP
Michaela DePrince – ballet dancer featured in the documentary First Position who currently dances for the Dutch National Ballet
Lia-Kinsé Diaz & Naomi Diaz – sisters who make up the Afro-Cuban music duo Ibeyi, which translates to “twins” in Yoruba.
Winnie Harlow – Canadian model and activist with vitiligo who competed on the 21st cycle of America’s Next Top Model under her birth name, Chantelle.
Quvenzhané Wallis – youngest person to ever be nominated by the Academy for Best Actress and first person born in the 21st century to be nominated for an Oscar
Ava Clarke – 8-year-old model with Albinism
Leah Chase – owner of the historic restaurant Dooky Chase and the woman off of which Tiana from The Princess and the Frog was based
Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton, Gwen Carr & Wanda Johnson – the mothers of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant, victims of police brutality
Left: Winnie Harlow (source: Lemonade); Middle: The mothers of son's who were lost to police brutality (source: Lemonade); Right: Chloe and Halle Bailey (the two with dreads)
Disrespected, unprotected and neglected: this is the story of the Black woman in three adjectives. And with these words come unique struggles and points of intersectionality that only Black women can understand. Many of these issues I will never face as a mixed, light-skinned woman who does not have Afro-textured hair, but as a partially Black woman, I found power in Lemonade that I never thought possible. To see other Black women celebrating everything about themselves made me proud—proud of these women, proud of my sisters, proud of my heritage, and proud of myself. Out of all the obstacles Black women have faced and continue to face, this proud response other Black women had to Lemonade is something that can never be taken from us.
So to those who Lemonade does not apply to: please, respect us when we say that it’s ours. Save yourself the embarrassment and stay in your own lane while we soak up the pride and glory of what was made for us.
Lissa Deonarain is a rising Junior studying Documentary Production and Producing for Film at Emerson College. She is from Omaha, NE and is of Guyanese descent. She loves cats, old photographs and mangoes.