Close To Home: A Conversation About Beyoncé's 'Lemonade'
A Beyoncé album release is now a communal experience. Who among us (and if you're here reading this, you're one of us) made it through this weekend without a conversation, typed or yelled, about her intent, her intonation, her read, her past, her bat, Serena, Tina, Etta, Warsan, Pipilotti, Zendaya? Whether you love her, hate her, or stay strong in your neutrality, our exchanges are kind of the point. This is what art makes us do. No doubt our opinions are in some places monetized and our vocalization of them surely buoys the price of Lemonade on up to $17.99. But what Beyoncé's got us talking about now is what we women are really always talking about, under our breath, late night on the phone, after the kids are down, over coffee, at the bar, in tears, irrespective of anybody's album drop: our worth. The video version of this album reflects the private lives of a certain group of women who share a set of memories and experiences; the arc of its narrative will be harrowingly close to home for all of us.
We asked Professor Regina Bradley and writer dream hampton to share their dialogue about the visual album with us, to show the many directions Lemonade is sending people, knowing the two of them don't come to the art or the artist from the same place, knowing they require different things if they're to feel represented, knowing that feeling is a major factor in what's happening right now culturally, but it's not the only thing. Uniting their perspectives here is our attempt to arm each other with information and knowledge and hard-earned truths. So that when we're talking about Beyoncé, we're really saying something. Regina and dream spoke on the phone Sunday afternoon. --Frannie Kelley
Regina Bradley: I was like, wow. So much wow. That was my immediate reaction. And then I went on a Twitter rant. Because I saw a tweet that was like, "Well, this is so much that I don't understand." I heard everything from "creepy" to "It's not for me." So of course I put on, you know, my southern hat and I was like, "Some of the stuff in that video wasn't meant for everybody!" It was a love note to southern black girls.
dream hampton: I'm not on Twitter and haven't been since last August, but I went on there and I saw that the Internet was melting. I was looking for rare Prince video, because a lot of people are sharing amazing performance footage and I just couldn't get enough this weekend. And I saw that Bey had released this album, which I of course knew she was releasing. I mean, we do have to say that part, like: I know these folks, or whatever.
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I saw someone who was a writer for Hannibal, the very dark TV show about cannibalism, and I saw her tweet out that she didn't think this album was for her, but she still was intrigued. And I thought, I bet when she was creating her scripts and her art she wasn't telling NBC, "This is going to be a show for cannibals. That's who's gonna watch my show." But in this moment, confronted with this many black girls on camera — and thank you Kahlil Joseph for honoring us in this way, to create this kind of visual altar to black girls, and black girl femmes — you know, in that moment, you can't locate yourself? I wasn't looking for myself in Hannibal, a story about FBI agents or cannibals, because I have no desire to be either. But I loved what she was doing and I didn't begin my read on that work with this feeling of rejection. And that was what was in her tweet. She's a white woman and she felt rejected looking at this video.
Regina Bradley: 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. Blueswomen in the south traveled and wandered and did not censor their existence. They made people uncomfortable. I say Beyoncé made people uncomfortable because her performance in Lemonade wasn't just a curation of the blueswoman aesthetic but an active reckoning with it as it manifested in southern spaces. Pair the blueswoman tradition with the traditional memory of the south as traumatic and backwards and you get a ripe space for unpacking the multiple layers of black women's healing and existence that Beyoncé tackles in this project.
dream hampton: When I think of the mashup that's happening here in terms of artists — and there are two collaborators that stand out, obviously, in this project, even though there were many — one of them is Warsan Shire, the poet who I have loved since I found her on Myspace in 2009. She's a Somali Muslim raised in London and her writing is beautiful and these are her musings on romantic love.
And then you have Kahlil Joseph, who is interested in all kinds of black magic. He did a beautiful short film on Oklahoma rodeos. He did Shabazz Palace's first video, "Belhaven Meridian," a nod to the great filmmaker Charles Burnett. He also did a conjuring video for Flying Lotus, which cast Lotus as an Elegba/Eshu in a Cadillac who kind of comes to collect the beautiful Brooklyn dancer Storyboard Pete. Kahlil is absolutely a director who is influenced by Terrence Malick, and he really looks at film as a philosophical medium. And then you add Beyoncé.
Ann Powers wrote a great piece when Beyoncé did the 2013 Super Bowl. She was looking at Beyoncé and Destiny's Child and that whole syncopated, southern marching band tradition and stepping contests. Beyoncé, even though she's incredibly popular, probably the most popular artist we've had since Michael Jackson, is performing very straightforward R&B and always has, since Destiny's Child. She has always performed very southern, black music since Destiny's Child. I thought her first album reminded me of Prince in that it wandered. I'm talking about songs like "Speechless," like "Naughty Girl," like "Hip Hop Star," like "Be with U." I think that people were kind of happy when she came out with the album after that, B'day, because it returned to the Beyoncé that they were used to, with these big giant hits, from Destiny's Child. But that first album, besides "Crazy In Love," was to me deeply influenced by Prince. And then when she did B'day she returned to songs like "Upgrade U" and "Get Me Bodied" and "Ring the Alarm," "Freakum Dress" — that album felt more like Destiny's Child, Michael Jackson, I'm coming for you with hits. And Lemonade comes back to the kind of wandering and exploring she was doing on her debut. When you take away all of the videos, you get some very interesting mashups. The James Blake. The White Stripes.
Regina Bradley: I was listening to "Don't Hurt Yourself," the song that plays during the section of Lemonade called "Anger," and I thought about Prince. The live instrumentation, the boisterousness of the music, I thought, this was for Prince. And I think she's always in a space to do that. But I really enjoyed the fact that she's making folks uncomfortable with her music right now and the imagery associated with it.
I guess on the one hand I feel like my ear has been tainted when listening to Beyoncé, because for me it's mostly been what I've heard on the radio and it wasn't until lately that I was like, let me actually dig into it and think about what these influences mean. But one thing that I, as a literary person, was looking at during the actual video album yesterday was so many references to black women writers, singers, and just this quotidian black woman experience that I was so in love with. Finally, you didn't have to have these supreme cosmic influences just to have a conversation. I felt like it was an everyday conversation that I was having with her through these videos. Ok, well — maybe not the red light, going around town knocking people out with a bat named Hot Sauce. But for me, I saw the influences of Zora Neale Hurston.
dream hampton: I would say in that moment you're also seeing Kahlil Joseph, who also has a real connection and interest in Zora. That's what I mean that this is a mashup. And some of it is just musings — Warsan could be happy in a romantic relationship. Now her poems and Beyoncé's lyrics are being taken literally and used to speculate about Jay and Beyoncé's relationship. But in the end, these three artists, Warsan Shire, Kahlil Joseph and Beyoncé, are reflecting what they choose to, of their interests, back into their art.
Regina Bradley: The actual visuals probably teach a lot more than the lyrics. And I'm not trying to discount those at all. But we're in a current visual cultural moment and we learn more through what we see than what we hear.
dream hampton: But let's not act like lyrics have ever been deep. I mean, that's what makes Prince an anomaly. Literally. These kind of love musings tend to never be deep. But that's where Warsan Shire comes in and complicates it. And I say that loving music! As an academic yourself, as someone who writes, myself, we would probably overwrite songs. Because we would be overthinking them. Now Prince, of course, knew how to do thinking but simple love songs. He knew how to make really complicated lyrics make sense in a pop song — when you listen to a song like "Lady Cab Driver" and he says, "This is for the moon ... so beautifully complex." We don't expect our pop love songs to be sonnets. You're not going to hear that in an average song. By "average" I mean the very best. I mean The Beatles.
And that's why it's lovely that Kahlil brought in Warsan Shire and had her go even deeper on a literary level than a song. That's what makes this project a masterpiece. Because all of them are playing their parts. Beyoncé is the consummate performer, she is black girl magic personified in this moment. Warsan is bringing that literary genius to it and, because Kahlil is deeply invested in a visual folklore, he's directing all that into an ancient yet modern visual folklore around black people.
Regina Bradley: I'm still processing it. Even though I've watched it three times, there's so much stuff I'm still missing. One of the things that stood out to me is when they were preparing dinner. The whole idea of soul food as a southern trope, and actually having a seat at the table that black women have been preparing for others, that was big for me.
dream hampton: That was a visual nod to Julie Dash's Daughters Of The Dust.
Regina Bradley: Daughters Of The Dust and also Alice Walker's In Search Of Our Mothers' Gardens.
dream hampton: Yes! And Carrie Mae Weems's Kitchen too! It's gorgeous, this idea that we're going to feed one another into love and healing. That food is healing, that our fellowship is healing. That all women's spaces are sacred. And all of that comes through. I've said this before, but I don't measure a woman's strength by her ability to endure suffering. I think true strength is about reaching out when you need help. It is about forgiveness, which Bey has in there. But there's also a call for accountability. Accountability in our most intimate relationships and accountability as it relates to the images of the mothers of these three victims of police violence.
Regina Bradley: That accountability is real, though. Like Beyoncé's done so many times in the past, she's putting her money where her mouth is. She doesn't speak up in public spaces other than her music. I feel like her work begs the question, "What else do you want me to do?"
But I'm most struck by her use of antebellum imagery to situate her southernness. Southern black girls and women are at the front of Beyoncé's vision. Not in the back. Not in her peripherals or tucked away under the heavy assumptions of southern black women and girls as hopeless. We are in the front. We are joyful. We are communal. Antebellum blackness as joyous and fruitful seems oxymoronic for black women. Slave women are the most silenced and traumatic representations of southern black women. It is a massive undertaking to sift through the forced silence regarding the physical, social and spiritual violence of slave women to locate the quiet of black women's endurance. In Lemonade, the trauma of slavery itself does not propel the images of black women in undeniably southern spaces forward. Rather, the antebellum south serves as an entry point for Beyoncé to recognize the historical and cultural horrors of black womanhood while reclaiming the survival techniques passed down over time.
Towards the end of the film, a group of girls runs from a garden with fresh vegetables in their arms. Another shot shows a group of black women in antebellum dresses proceeding into a kitchen to chop vegetables, grind spices and prepare to literally and figuratively break bread. The agency of the antebellum south as the epitome of white southern pride gives way to the quiet dignity of black women as workers, healers and conjurers. The imagery is not new: Black women in head wraps, simple white dresses gathered in communal spaces like a cooking house and a southern plantation manor with black girls running through white columns off of a porch are referenced in multiple slave narratives like Linda Brent's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Yet the work being done is for the women's own benefit, culminating in a communal dinner underneath a massive oak tree with Spanish moss and performances by Beyoncé of her song "Freedom" and ballerina Michaela dePrince. The gathering women and girls are of multiple ages, smiling and conversing with one another. This scene juxtaposes with an empty candlelit table and a lone black girl — possibly a house slave — sitting at the table. The scene quickly cuts back to the same communal table in the dark under candlelight. The rapidness of the transition between the two scenes is like a blink. It suggests that the women at the table are the dream of the solitary black girl. What I most appreciate about Lemonade is its ability to pull the viewer through multiple lenses, historical periods and vantage points to complicate southern black women. It demonstrates healing as messy, non-linear and generational. Sometimes we deal with the same s*** that our mothers and grandmothers and foremothers experienced. The responsibility of remembering is not only a collective, but it's a collective for multiple generations of black women.
dream hampton: The other thing that I really loved in the film is this way that she really loved up on her father and on Jay Z as a father. Kahlil reflects that back to us with all these everyday fathers in New Orleans loving on their baby girls.
Regina Bradley: I thought it was gorgeous. I cried a little bit because it made me think of my dad. Especially when he [Beyoncé's father, in a clip of home video] was like, "What would you do if your grandparents were here?" And she was like, "We would have fun." He said, "Tell them." I'm like, yes! The ancestors are everywhere. We have to speak them into existence. We have to remember to keep them alive. He was instilling that in her.
dream hampton: And then the father that Jay is with Blue Ivy is something that she has to love the most about him. I know that, having been his friend for the past 20 years, this is my favorite phase of his life. This phase where he gets to be deeply connected with his daughter. Because for him, and he's been public about this, this isn't me snitching on him, at least he was public about this in the book we worked on together, Decoded, he healed his relationship with his father at the very last stage of his father's life; his father was dying. And that made it possible for him to be in his first real love relationship, which is with his wife. And to see him be able to do more healing around that karmic energy, with his own daughter, is beautiful. Beyoncé must really love that about Jay.
Regina Bradley: And it's an ongoing process, too. That idea of the vulnerability that's associated with being a father. For me, one of the things I'll always remember about my dad is we had a kind of rocky relationship in the beginning. I remember one time we were talking when I was 14 and I was like, "I don't need you" and he cried. I had never seen a grown man cry before that. My dad was a big dude. He was like 6'5" and 300 pounds. And he was crying. He said, "But I need you though." With Jay Z being such a public figure and actually letting us see him be vulnerable with his daughter, it wasn't refreshing, but more like like, "I'm also human too." It added levels of humanity for him that we don't often reserve for superstars.
dream hampton: And I think that's something that we're guilty of, which is stripping celebrities of their humanity. The way that we talk about them. Grown people who may or may not have given birth, which is a big deal, openly speculating about whether she had her own child. This kind of viciousness. I remember Jay saying early on, when he first started dating her, there are only two headlines to write about a celebrity couple: They're together and they're divorced. And that's all anyone's interested in.
We really do say the worst things to our lovers. And we really do treat our lovers the very worst and the very best. That's part of what intimacy is about, being so up in somebody's stuff that they can't avoid all the parts of you. But I do love that Beyoncé, unlike blueswomen before her, rejects the idea of sacrificial love as the wife's duty in a cis-het relationship. In this suite, she demands accountability before we get forgiveness. She's also being fully present in her rage, and fully understanding of what it is she deserves.
Some classic standards are hard for me to listen to: songs that were recorded by some of my favorite black women, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, but weren't always written by them. Often they were written by white men and they're sacrificial songs, they are not about being in your power at all times. Beyoncé brings us this power. She's not the first to bring us this — '70s rock star Betty Davis, Miles Davis' ex-wife, brought us this, in the "Anti Love Song," for instance. We've seen it before, we've absolutely seen it in hip-hop. But it's so good for Beyoncé to bring that archetype back — "I know what I deserve, I know that god lives in me, I am a divine being and that I deserve all the respect and all the care." And that's what the accountability piece is, that you will care for me in the way I deserve to be cared for.
Regina Bradley: And I'm starting to care for myself.
dream hampton: Or that I've always cared for myself! We don't always have to have the hero's journey, where people have to hit rock bottom and come back up. That's not our tradition: a single person on a single journey.
Regina Bradley: Multiple journeys.
dream hampton: And not just multi-journey, but your crew, with your woes.
Regina Bradley: You need a squad. Every woman needs a squad.
dream hampton: And in that sense, Kahlil turns away from the hero's journey and populates this video, even though it's clearly about Beyoncé, with all of these other black women in different phases of their life. And I think that that's important.
Regina Bradley: Yes. Because squad love is the best love.