sweet enough for Beyoncé’s audience?
Beyoncé’s new visual album, Lemonade, undoubtedly showcases infidelity as a theme, but a much more powerful commentary is revealed, too: black women’s place in society.
In Don’t Hurt Yourself, the third song in the album, Beyoncé unashamedly inhabits the angry black woman. Wearing a fur coat and corn rows she snarls at the camera, ‘I’m just too much for you’. This could be a wife saying it to her husband, but it could also be any disrespected black woman saying it to the world where descriptions like ‘ghetto, loud, opinionated and sexual’ have been used as weapons against them.
This metaphor is furthered in various ways throughout the album, but the defining anthem of the album is Freedom. Filmed on a plantation inhabited by women of all different shades of brown dressed in Victorian clothing, this song celebrates generations of strong black women, and in an intensely emotional part of the album, French-Cuban soul duo Ibeyi and actresses Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg stand with grieving mothers, Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden and Gwen Carr who hold portraits of their passed sons, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The reaction from Beyoncé’s audience faced with these thought-provoking messages has proved interesting. While some have felt empowered, others seem alienated and uncomfortable.
In an article for the Daily Mail, Piers Morgan’s headline read: ‘Jay-Z’s not the only one who needs to be nervous about Beyonce, the born-again-black woman with a political mission’. Is Morgan referring to the men that felt safe lusting after Beyoncé before she inhabited the ‘angry black woman’? Or is he referring to her white audience who are now forced to see issues that weren’t being highlighted in her less-than-thought-provoking, previous material? Morgan is speaking for a sector of her audience who are overwhelmed by this version of the once-safe star.
The idea that Beyoncé wasn’t recognised as actually black before Lemonade only shows how well she has managed to disguise herself to avoid alienating any audience. Since leaving Destiny’s Child, she has has made herself an accessible product to all. She is light-skinned, tends to wear her hair in a weave, and has generally adhered to Western standards of beauty. These factors have secured her vast listenership, all of different nationalities, who feel like they can see themselves as a type of Beyoncé. After Lemonade, this is no longer the case. It speaks specifically to black women, from a black woman. In Jamelia’s open letter to Piers Morgan she said: “Beyoncé has always been black, she just did what millions of black people feel the need to do to gain success: she made her black palatable to you, which is why you’re such a big fan!” and already there are members of Bey’s white audience uploading pictures and calling themselves ‘Becky with the good hair’ (the presumed ‘other woman’ but also the only potential white figure in the album) which is surprising considering its negative context.
In some ways it shows that people need to be able to connect with an artist and see themselves in their music in order to love it. This could prove troublesome for anyone in Bey’s audience that isn’t A) black and B) a woman. As Alex Brown wrote for Huffington Post: “as a white person, when Beyoncé gives you Lemonade, you sit back and watch black women take over the world. Lemonade was not made for us. It’s not about white people.”
"The idea that Beyoncé wasn’t recognised as black before Lemonade shows how well she has disguised herself"
Ultimately, it could be argued that Beyoncé is irrelevant in the wave that Lemonade has created. Whether you believe it has come from a place of her vulnerability and enlightenment or a marketing ploy that has jumped onto a devastating bandwagon, it has sparked a conversation. Kimberley Richards summed this up well in Romper when she said: “Being a black woman is both empowering and painful, and the more art that aims to tackle the truth of our existence, as the greats — Ms. Hill, Nina Simone, India Arie — have done, the more empowered we’ll be.”
Lemonade has raised a discussion that has been sidelined for too long. Black women have grown used to being ignored and disrespected. Time will tell as to whether Beyoncé will continue to present her audience with this discussion, or revert back to her old ways – because it may well depend on whether they are ready hear it.