Beyoncé’s Lemonade released initially as a surprise hour long video album, has generated tidal waves ofcommentary, the larger part of it being incredibly shallow. Whether it centered on the Jay-Z infedelity / who is Becky with the good hair themes, or took the format of privileged media figures (most notoriously Piers Morgan) reminding Beyoncé that entertainers shouldn’t be political, by and large it seemed to miss the point.
At first glance it’s a shame that such bold, provocative moments, from her Black Panther inspired Superbowl performance of Formation and her open advocation of feminism (which, unbelievably, still seems controversial) through to the quoting of Malcolm X and support of Black Lives Matter, have generated so little informed and nuanced discussion, but actually there are a lot of great writers engaging with the politics, contradictions, and cultural significance of Beyoncé. We’ve gathered together some of the best articles for you to read:
Moving beyond pain
The strength of Lemonade lies in its contradictions, and if there’s anyone worthy of delving into the intersections of race, gender, patriarchy and capital, it’s got to be Bell Hooks, who in this piece praises and criticises Beyonce in roughly equal measure:
It is only as black women and all women resist patriarchal romanticization of domination in relationships can a healthy self-love emerge that allows every black female, and all females, to refuse to be a victim. Ultimately Lemonade glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction. It does not resolve. As Beyoncé proudly proclaims in the powerful anthem “Freedom”: “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner-strength to pull myself up.” To truly be free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal well-being and joy.
Get in Formation
If you’ve ever wondered why there’s such a big fuss about Beyoncé in general, and Lemonade in particular, then Ash Sarkar’s brilliant piece in the London Review of Books is a great place to start.
How has Beyoncé engendered such a deep sense of solidarity among women and the marginalised? Most reviewers have pointed out that Lemonade is Beyoncé’s most personal and political work to date, but few have interrogated how the album moves between the two. Lemonade is about adultery in the way that Moby-Dick is about fishing. As Ijeoma Olua has written, Beyoncé uses the pain of personal betrayal to highlight the political marginalisation of black women. I gasped as she summoned Malcolm X (‘The most disrespected person in America is the black woman’) to excoriate her cheating spouse.
Beyoncé’s Formation and the Boutique Politics of the Left
Adam Szetela, writing in CounterPunch recognises some positive aspects in Knowles’s work, but convincingly criticises her -and the wider culture – for harnessing radical imagery in the service of capital:
Yet, “Formation” nonetheless turns Panther activism into a diffused and defused aesthetic at a historical moment when the left is in dire need of the radical critique and socialist intervention the Black Panther movement embodied. In its absence we get a singer who performs radicalism for a millennial generation interested in social change, before changing outfits to have lunch with Barack Obama, or proudly endorsing the reactionary progressivism of Hillary Clinton.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade Is What Happens When Black Women Control Their Art
Jamilah King, in MIC compares and contrasts Beyoncé’s Lemonade with Nina Simone, taking issue with the dreadful recent bio-pic Nina along the way.
Black art has always been profitable, but it’s rare for a black artist — and a black woman, at that — to reap those profits. But Beyoncé is proof that it’s possible. And she’s a testament to the fact that the true power of those profits isn’t necessarily money; it’s the ability to control the art that you put into the world, the way that you interact with fans and the way that those fans consume what you give them.
Prince, Cecil Taylor, and Beyoncé’s shape-shifting black body
Tying together the sad death of Prince, a recent celebration of the work of pianist and poet Cecil Taylor, and Beyonce’s Lemonade, via the work of Octavia Butler‘s pioneering science fiction, Hilton Als writes about the time-travel and shape-shifting that black (female) bodies are required to do in modern America
Butler is the dominant artistic force in the movie version of Lemonade. Shot by various young filmmakers, ranging from Kahlil Joseph to Melina Matsoukas, the movie is accompanied by lyrics that chronicle the anxiety of infidelity and resolution—no love, let alone any coupling, is perfect—but it’s the black female body, Butler’s great subject, that struggles against and sometimes breaks free of Beyoncé’s pop perfection.
We Slay, Part I
Writing about Beyoncé’s Formation in particular, Dr. Zandria Robinson unapologetically stands up for Beyoncé’s revolutionary credibility in a powerful essay:
Movements for black liberation are led by black folks at the margins who know we must all get free to sink that car. Folks who know that we must be coordinated, and we must slay. And because I recognize black southern country fence-jumping feminism as a birthright and imperative, I have no tolerance for the uncoordinated–those who cannot dance and move for black queer liberation, black trans liberation, black women’s liberation, at all intersections.
Close To Home: A Conversation About Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’
Dr. Regina Bradley and Dream Hampton discuss Lemonade here
I think what made folks uncomfortable was the fact that she was pulling from not only a blues tradition, but a southern black woman blues tradition. Shug Avery, Bessie Smith, Rosetta Tharpe and other blueswomen performers used their voices to sonically and lyrically expound upon their personal trauma and strife as a collective call-to-arms for black women.
Beyond Becky: Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the fallacy of ‘good hair’
While acres of media coverage has been devoted to identifying the ‘Becky’, called out in Lemonade, Reshma B. writing in Pigeons and Planes, focusses instead on the deeper theme of ‘good hair’ that runs visually and lyrically through Lemonade
The film itself contains a vast collection of natural black hairstyles. Taking a closer listen to—and look at—Lemonade from this perspective, it becomes clear that one of the most important themes running throughout the album is hair: the huge emotional power and personal significance that hair holds for all women, and specifically for black women.
A Call and Response with Melissa Harris-Perry: The Pain and the Power of ‘Lemonade’
Melissa Harris-Perry hosts an engaging discussion with a number of journalists and academics, to tease through the various themes that Lemonade brings up:
Beyoncé uses supernatural elements and often portrays the actresses as damaged or delusional, while unveiling the issues that black women face in the American South. In the end, she reminds us that even though “the South” presents us with some terrible feelings, it is undeniably home. The visuals of plantations and unkempt scenes of urban areas paint a picture of the painful history that the South holds. However, it is the culture, and the dialect of the South that help the complex characters make sense of the world around them. Southern black sisterhood helps black women understand how to navigate the horrors of the South and bring into perspective the trauma and joy that it holds.
Review of Lemonade in Pop Matters
Evan Sawdey writes one of the best reviews of Lemonade, in Pop Matters:
The rest of Lemonade‘s songs stretch far beyond anything Beyoncé has done before, whether it be her rightfully-ballyhooed turn at country (Daddy Lesson) to the incensed psych-gospel rave-up that is Freedom to the Led Zeppelin-sampling Jack White feature Don’t Hurt Yourself. On the latter, where she proclaims that she’s a dragon breathing fire, it’s clear that Beyoncé has found new dimensions in her own voice, her yelps and screams having no precedent to anything she’s released prior, with the on-the-nose ballad Sandcastles also giving her a chance to show off a dynamic, theatrical strain of anguish that helps anchors what would otherwise be considered an overwrought slice of melodrama.