April 6th, 2017
Lemonade’s Secret Recipe: Decoding the Messages
in Beyoncé’s Visual Album
Surpassing the standard level of what a music video is supposed to represent in the 21st Century’s music industry, Beyoncé’s sixth studio album Lemonade delivered audiences more than simply a handful of soulful, catchy songs but incorporated with it a feature length art film to further deliver her artistry’s message to the masses. Lemonade sonically through its music recounts the story of her husband Sean “Jay Z” Carter’s alleged affair while narrating the themes of betrayal, anger, redemption, and ultimately triumphant love. However, through the use of cinematic imagery in the film Beyoncé also illustrates the concepts of black womanhood and their struggles of identity resulting from historical influences of slavery and misogynoir. Lemonade does not discuss the two narratives of Jay Z’s affair and black womanhood separately but instead illustrates the two themes in a marriage of shared artistic expression allowing audiences to understand both concepts through one another. Throughout the film Beyoncé pays homage to historic black womanhood through images of art, fashion, culture and even mythology to further drive the celebration of black female identity in visual culture. From this it can be understood how Beyoncé, a notoriously private celebrity who is rarely heard from, as an artist is able to convey her beliefs and messages through artistic expression rather than objective verbal dictation.
Themes in Lemonade:
Lemonade is told through 11 chapters, each one for a different song (excluding “Formation” which plays after the closing credits) that each individually represent a different theme in Beyoncé’s journey through her husband’s adultery: Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, Hope, and Redemption. Although Lemonade plays as one fluid singular full length film, there is still the filming, set, costumes and themes that change noticeably for each song to differentiate the chapters and their themes from one another. The significance in this representation of emotional range is to showcase the versatility of character that black women posses, a luxury rarely afforded to most black women in media and art. Black women are predominantly forced into figurative boxes as to what their characters in media may be which often fall into harmful stereotypes: the sassy hairdresser, the angry black woman, the twerking video hoe, etc. Rarely do black women get the privilege of being allowed to express themselves as multi-layered beings with depth of character much like their white female counterparts. When Beyoncé is furiously flailing her arms in “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, carelessly laughing with her friends in “Sorry” or holding back painful tears in “6 Inch” she is doing more than simply playing roles in a film but she is showing her audiences the complexity of identity that black women posses as individuals. Through this, Beyoncé is slowly but surely making small steps to help eliminate the narrow view society has of black women as emotionally unintelligent, one-dimensional persons whose behaviour is irrational coming from a place of inarticulately created thought. When black women see themselves being represented in media and art as equally significant beings as men and white women they are able to take greater agency in their own identities as unique individuals.
Historical and Cultural References in Lemonade:
Throughout the entirety of the film Beyoncé makes subtle allusions and references to black history to serve as a collage that explains how black womanhood came to be what it is now in modern American life. Much of Lemonade is filmed inside and around a gothic Southern home reminiscent of a slave plantation used very consciously. As one of the directors of the film, Melina Matsoukas explained on Beyoncé’s decision of this message, “She wanted to show the historical impact of slavery on black love, and what it has done to the black family…And black men and women—how we’re almost socialized not to be together.” [Okeowo, 1] The representation of slavery however does not take the form of women in the videos being beaten or forced to labour while being depicted in a demeaning manner, instead the women in the film are given an empowered sense of dignity and agency. In the video for “Love Drought” Beyoncé and her dancers are seen dressed in white robes while holding hands as they march into the ocean in a single line. This is a subtle reference to the Igbo Landing, in which was as described by Owunna as, “the location of a mass suicide of Igbo slaves that occurred in 1803 on St. Simons Island, Georgia. As the story goes, a group of Igbo slaves revolted and took control of their slave ship, grounded it on an island, and rather than submit to slavery, proceeded to march into the water while singing in Igbo, drowning themselves in turn.” [Owunna, 1] Slavery has long been a hot subject of fascination in film and television when looking at films such as 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained but all of which present black slaves as being ridiculed, tortured, and dehumanized in a fetishizing manner. “Love Drought” however allows for a powerful portrayal of black resistance in history, especially for women, to restore a sense of pride and dignity.
Beyoncé goes further into black history beyond slavery by tapping into the rich history of African cultures that are seldom seen in American media. “Hold Up” serves as the Denial chapter of Lemonade where our heroine struggles to accept the reality of her lover’s infidelity and instead channels her emotions by joyfully strutting through inner city streets in a flowing yellow Roberto Cavalli dress ensuring mayhem and destruction upon cars and storefronts by the use of her faithful baseball bat, Hot Sauce. This character Beyoncé portrays is more than just the “crazy ex-girlfriend” music video archetype seen in other female videos such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” or Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”, rather this is a characterization of a revered figure in Nigerian mythology. Beyoncé is actually paying homage to Oshun, a Yoruba water goddess known in stories and artwork to be depicted wearing flowing yellow fabric surrounded by fresh water, as well emoting a sinister smile to express her fury before releasing mass destruction upon those who would disrespect her. A correlation between Oshun and Beyoncé can be clearly seen below in the opening scene of “Hold Up” in which Beyoncé opens two wooden doors with water flowing down the stairs beneath her bare feet. Rather than falling into the harmfully sexist stereotype of the psycho ex-girlfriend (or worse yet, “Angry Black Woman”) Beyoncé turns to powerful figures of history and culture to channel her raw feelings as a way of maintaining power and control of her identity. Furthermore, she is showcasing – and educating – others black culture untouched by white colonialism.
This is later expanded upon in her video for “Sorry” in which African beauty is again reinforced. Beyoncé and her dancers sport natural hairstyles, clothing, neck jewellery and even Ori, a sacred Yoruba tradition of makeup, to promote the proud beauty standards of Nigeria and the Maasai of Kenya [Roberts, Downs, 1]. Black women reclaiming their beauty standards is more than just creating self confidence, it is refusing to accept micro-aggressive internalized racism that a white supremacist society is telling them they are less desirable and of less value than the white women around them, but rather they are genetically perfect just they way they naturally are.
The Women of Lemonade
Being a self identified feminist, as heavily discussed in her previous visual album BEYONCE, Beyoncé must use her position of power and influence to do more than just serve her own self interest but to also uplift the women around her. It is worth noting how the women within the videos are depicted in their stature and their poise; that they are not don’t simply look beautiful but they look powerful. “portraits of ordinary everyday black women are spotlighted, poised as though they are royalty,” [Stansfield, 1] wrote acclaimed feminist scholar bell hooks of the women of Lemonade. Their bodies transcending the objectification of being used as props in videos by black males and white females, but rather being the focal point of attention capturing the audience, “. Beyond that though comes the much more serious depictions of mothers of slain young black men by the hands of police brutality. In the video for the James Blake collaboration “Forward” the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner are shown staring directly into the camera holding portraits of their deceased sons. During the murders of the young men in discussion, media news outlets tended to release unflattering images of the young men to depict them as thuglike and menacing as a medium of justifying their murders at the hands of police officers, a common practice of American white media. But in “Forward” the mothers are for once given the opportunity to show the real identity of their children to the world; charming, innocent young men with futures taken from them along with their reputations. Beyoncé is also noticeably absent from the video for “Forward” as she knows it is not her story to tell, that her presence would only distract from the messages being communicated in the video. This strongly ties into the greater message of Lemonade’s visual message separate from its musical one; Lemonade isn’t about Beyoncé, it’s about women like her. The story of Lemonade’s music could have easily translated into a literal story of betrayal and redemption in love focused solely on her and Jay Z’s relationship, but instead she opted for the greater picture of black women’s shared struggle.
Notably, the depiction of the black family is a highlight of Lemonade in videos for “Daddy Lessons” and “All Night”. The videos show unknown children playing with their parents as well as romantic couples of different sexual orientations and ethnicities juxtaposed to illustrate the diverse spectrum of black love that is connected in its enduring struggle to survive in a world that has tried to destroy it. Beyoncé credits the survival of the black family predominately to the thanks of black women who have endured mistreatment from the black men in their lives, beginning with their fathers and continuing into their husbands. A snippet of Malcom X’s speech “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself” discussing the mistreatment of black women in America played over shots of unknown black women in the video for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” sets the foundation for calling out black men for their misogynoir, a theme later reintroduced in “Daddy Lessons”. Beyoncé does this not to blame black men spitefully for their behaviour, but simply to hold them accountable for their actions and to take responsibility for their mistreatment of the women in their life who hold their community together. For feminism is not just for the benefit of women, but for the advancement of gender equality that creates a better community for all that partake in it.
While critics may dispute the musical significance of Lemonade amongst its lyrical and audio content, the visual aspect remains undeniably iconic in its influence of modern pop culture. Lemonade being named after the cliché of “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade” took the struggles and hardship of black womanhood in order to create an artistic celebration of triumph. Through use of iconography mixed with metaphorical symbolism Beyoncé used her personal turmoil as a platform to elevate her community of sisterhood. Between bending the genres of music to accompany the spectrum of emotional diversity of a black female in her videos Lemonade offered a message of complex misunderstanding of black women in media through agency all their own. Is this album the magnum opus of black female artistry that will restore equity in society? No. There are countless other talented black female artists whose work is far more political and influential than Beyoncé’s, and she knows this. Lemonade is ultimately Beyoncé citing all of the black female creatives that have not only inspired her but in fact paved the way for her to create the work that she does now. Lemonade serves to be the gateway to allow new generations of black girls to walk through into new potentials of excellence, but without closing the door completely on all that has happened before them.
Harris, Hunter “Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is a Celebration of Black Identity (Analysis)” IndieWire.com, 2016 http://www.indiewire.com/2016/04/beyonces-lemonade-is-a-celebration-of-black-identity-analysis-289327/
Knowles, Beyoncé, “Love Draught”, Lemonade. Directed by Kahlil Joseph. http://owning-my-truth.com/post/143801363662/beyonc%C3%A9s-love-drought-video-slavery-and-the, 2016
Knowles, Beyoncé. “Hold Up”, Lemonade. Directed by Jonas Akerlund. http://headlineplanet.com/home/2016/09/11/beyonce-hold-up-dj-snake-justin-bieber/beyonce-hold-up/, 2016
Okeowo, Alexis “The Provocateur Behind Beyoncé , Rihanna, and Issa Rae” The New Yorker. 2017 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/06/the-provocateur-behind-beyonce-rihanna-and-issa-rae
Owunna, Mikael “Beyonce’s “Love Drought” Video, Slavery and the Story of Igbo Landing” Owning My Truth. 2016 http://owning-my-truth.com/post/143569446582/beyonces-lovedrought-video-slavery-igbolanding
Roberts & Downs, Kamaria & Kenya “What Beyoncé teaches us about the African diaspora in ‘Lemonade’”. Pbs.org. 2016 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/what-beyonce-teaches-us-about-the-african-diaspora-in-lemonade/
Stansfield, Ted. “Author bell hooks Critiques Beyoncé’s Lemonade” Dazed, 2016 http://www.salon.com/2016/05/17/bell_hooks_vs_beyonce_what_the_feminist_scholarly_critique_gets_wrong_about_lemonade_and_liberation/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow