Last night, Beyoncé premiered the visual album LEMONADE on HBO, and released an accompanying, 12-track recording—her sixth full-length—on TIDAL. Every Beyoncé release is an event, but increasingly, the singer's work has become more complex and engaged with the world, spirituality, and identity. The FADER's Anupa Mistry talks with Naila Keleta-Mae, an academic and writer, who has taught courses on Beyoncé.
Anupa Mistry: Naila, I'm so glad we get to unpack some of this new visual album together! You are literally a Beyoncé expert, having taught a Gender and Performance course at the University of Waterloo that focused on her last album. I've watched LEMONADE twice now, and I'm more floored than expected given that we previewed some of Bey's new thematic terrain on "Formation." That song closes out LEMONADE, the album, and it's the most blithely pop track on there, making it kind of a perfect Trojan Horse for a career (and a life's) worth of ideas about womanhood, black womanhood, and American black womanhood. Like early 2014, when her claim to feminism was contested by the feminism police, some of the pushback, or discomfort, to "Formation" attempted to negate her credibility: as if she wasn't always a black pop star.
I am not a black woman, and I'm not American, but I love this message. This is what I see on my social media timelines every day, and it makes me feel like Beyoncé is watching, and listening, and using her platform to validate concepts and identities women are learning about, working through, and/or sharing with each other as social media activism. It's Bey validating and canonizing both experience and idea through art—whether it's the image of a young boy dancing in front of and disarming police, or the poetry of Warsan Shire who is quoted throughout LEMONADE—and I think that's an incredibly powerful thing, given the lack of credibility black, and other racialized narratives, have historically suffered.
She reiterates this point with the Malcolm X clip: "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman."
There is a thing she said in her first HBO doc, 2013's Life Is But A Dream, that has become an unshakable tenet of her work: "I'm always thinking about women," she said, "I love my husband but there is nothing like a conversation with a woman that loves you." LEMONADE, like self-titled before it, and 4 before that, and so, is an evolution of that conversation.
Here's what I want to know: Are there moments of genuine fandom in this for you still, given that it's your work? What are you excited to dig into with your next rewatch?
Naila Keleta-Mae: I’ve never actually been a Beyoncé fan. I obviously know her music, but it wasn’t until she released her first visual album in 2013 that I began to pay close attention to her work and to research, write about, and teach the Beyoncé album using critical race, gender, and performance theories. That said, there were moments in LEMONADE when I was in tears—that’s the first time I’ve ever been moved in that way by her work and it’s because LEMONADE is mature, socially conscious, and an artistic choice. Beyoncé could have just released a new visual album that was full of great songs, fashion, and visuals and it would have sold well. Instead she released LEMONADE, which is an overt engagement with contemporary black American life that will probably also sell well.
I was on Twitter as LEMONADE aired, and in the hours after people wrote about feeling healed, full, and free. They quoted excerpts that spoke of the need to persevere, to love, and to hope, and there were countless references to the #BlackGirlMagic of it all. And while some may be thoughtfully critical of Beyoncé as the hallmark-inspirational-black-woman and the attribution of black female success to 'magic' there is, nonetheless, something noteworthy about Beyoncé choosing to speak directly to her black American audience.
LEMONADE expresses a profound sense of a black female self. But, most interestingly, the self that it depicts is part of a larger context. It’s timely that she does both in this visual album. I would argue that in a very short period of time the #BlackLivesMatter movement has productively split the focus of black popular culture. So while we are, as a larger society, in the midst of an era of hyper individualism, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has also brought black organizing into popular culture. To that end, there is a straddling of individuality and community that LEMONADE also reflects. So, yes, LEMONADE further depicts Beyoncé’s black, female, southern, American, Creole, Texas-bama self that "Formation" and February's Super Bowl performance foregrounded but, it also does something else. LEMONADE locates the individual self within multiple kinds of relationships and those relationships are with nature, architecture, spirituality, and other human beings.
Anupa: I'm very interested in the way Beyoncé wants to contextualize and engage with those things you just mentioned—physical spaces and objects, as well as communities—through her work. There are so many intense, fascinating visual transitions in LEMONADE but the one that I keep coming back to is that sequence where she's underwater, then bursting through double doors engulfed by a wave, walking down the steps barefoot; and then, all of a sudden swinging a bat at car windows. It's so emotionally loaded and mirrors the lyrics in a really poetic way: suffocation and fear, release and enlightenment, anger and righteousness.
The mood board, reference binder, whatever it was for this project must have been insane! And I'm scanning the list of LEMONADE's personnel: there's Shire, and Father John Misty, Diplo, the director Kahlil Joseph, the Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, and James Blake, amongst others. I feel like in the days to come, the term "woke," will be used to characterize the music and visuals of LEMONADE because of the way she centers a variety of black identities and experiences and spaces in her work. I like that the she's doing this in the context of a pop album, like Prince and Michael Jackson before her: consciousness and righteousness doesn't look any one way.
“LEMONADE isn’t the unive’sal 'give you a touch of cool and a new slang’word' blackness of’the 'Bootyli’ious' era. This is’the 'come check this if you want to, there might be something in here for yo’ too' Beyoncé era. I read that as radical anti-pop star “ove."—Naila Keleta-Mae
Naila: What caught my attention was LEMONADE’s fullness of expression and I attribute that, in large part, to Beyoncé hiring Warsan Shire to do the film adaptation and poetry and Khalil Joseph to be one of her co-directors. Shire is a seminal 21st century black feminist poet who brings the richness of everyday life into relief with clean lines like, “The nail technician pushes my cuticles back, turns my hand over, stretches the skin on my palm and says I see your daughters and their daughters.” And Joseph brings a visual vocabulary to LEMONADE that feels tactile, distorted, urban, rural, hip-hop, and spiritual—it’s a visual vocabulary that closely mirrors the aesthetics of his short film Black Up for Shabazz Palaces.
I was also struck by the extent to which LEMONADE improved on her use of the visual album as a genre. In comparison to her self-titled visual album, LEMONADE boasts a much tighter narrative structure, a more cohesive sound, and a clearer overarching visual aesthetic. It doesn’t feel like videos with similar themes pieced together in an interesting way; it feels instead like a visual treatment that can be pulled apart to make individual songs and videos. The other thing is that LEMONADE is the 2.0 of so many seminal moments in black culture such as: Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow’s enuf, the iconic scene in Waiting to Exhale when Angela Bassett lights the car on fire and walks away, and Oprah Winfrey’s Legend Luncheon.
It was also noteworthy, and thrilling to me, that I’m a black Canadian woman who didn’t feel represented in every aspect of LEMONADE nor understand all of its references. I’m thrilled because one of the ways that anti-black racism enacts violence on black humanity is that it strips us of our nuance. For a long time black performers in the U.S. have had to create work that operated on at least two registers if they wanted mainstream success—the primary one was the white mainstream and the secondary one was the black mainstream. Not only has Beyoncé explicitly made the black mainstream her primary audience, post-"Formation," but she’s also spliced that audience and focused on even more specific registers of blackness. In my case, that means that as a black female audience member I can see, feel, and imagine myself represented in LEMONADE, but it’s not primarily for me; it’s for a black American southern audience. In that regard, LEMONADE isn’t the universal 'give you a touch of cool and a new slang word' blackness of the 'Bootylicious' era. This is the 'come check this if you want to, there might be something in here for you too' Beyoncé era. I read that as radical anti-pop star move. I read it as a sign of maturity and self-confidence that we don’t often get to see in pop music. That’s impressive.
I’m looking forward to researching the textual and visual references, thinking about each song-video and looking closely at the credits. I’m also looking forward to reading the think pieces that will emerge in the days to come. I know that many people have think-piece fatigue. Many are frustrated by the fact that everyone has an opinion and multiple platforms on which to express it, but what gets missed in that derision is that for a long time black art in the U.S. and elsewhere was only consumed and not engaged with meaningfully. So, when so many of us seek to engage with black art in thoughtful, nuanced ways I see it as an unofficial collaborative effort to create a wide range of critical engagement that draws from our respective analytical strengths. And I really like that we’re expressing our collective analyses not only through articles and blog posts, but also with memes, gifs, tweets, and more. What about you? What are you thinking about?
Anupa: I just read this incredible book called Homegoing, by the Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi. It's about many things, including colonization, slavery, choice, and fate, but I walked away from it thinking about blood memory. In our "Formation" roundtable in Feburary, writer Doreen St. Felix touched on this attribute of Bey's work, writing: "'Formation' is precise, it's familial. Beyoncé is named after her mother's bloodline; Celestine's maiden name is Beyince. The matriarchal line coursing through her veins has been as consistent a fact as possible, in her career and also in her life." Over the time-traveling imagery of LEMONADE Beyoncé, riffing on Warsan's words, makes me think of the practices of women in past lives and present:
I tried to change, closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake. Fasted for 60 days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word. In that time my hair, I grew past my ankles. I slept on a mat on the floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. Went to the basement, confessed my sins, and was baptized in a river. I got on my knees and said amen and said I mean.
That passage is so intense! It makes me think about cultural traditions, and also the rituals pressed upon most women the world over because of patriarchy. How do we cope? How do we contain? What are all the ways we perform emotional labor? Bey is definitely alluding to these ideas but given that she's relatively private, I also find myself drawn into the human drama of LEMONADE too. We've heard so much about and love the women in her life—Solange, Ms. Tina, Kelly Rowland, Blue Ivy—as avatars of what Beyoncé represents. This has, as Doreen says, been consistent throughout her career. But on LEMONADE we get to know some of the more complex thoughts Beyoncé has about the men in her life: her father Matthew and Jay Z. Did he get that Red Lobster? Is he cheating on her? Who is Becky? What are the consequences of growing up, "daddy's little girl?"
A final thought: you brought up the fact that Beyoncé is deliberately making music for a black American audience. I don't want to strip Bey of her agency in the choices she's making, but fanbases are fickle and I think it's important to give credit to her audience for allowing her to grow and become more complex over her career. That’s unique in the music industry, certainly for women. Even though it’s a very expensive time to be a music fan—between the concert ticket prices and the HBO subscriptions!—there’s this reciprocity happening between the artist and her audience that, in some ways, evades the capitalist DNA of pop. It's transgressive.
The seed of this was always teased at in Life Is But A Dream when she highlighted the fundamental dilemma of her career: “How do I stay current, and how do I stay soulful?” I’d say she’s figured it out, no? You said that you don't identity as a Beyoncé fan, so let’s pause: does anything in LEMONADE ring hollow to you? Where does your skepticism, or your academic critique come in?
Naila: The histrionics worry me a bit. I was uncomfortable in the scenes where the mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner are seated before Beyoncé as she sings on stage and in the scenes where she’s seated up in tree as the mothers stand on the ground before her. Granted, most longer artistic pieces—be they plays or films—have a climax, but these mothers are not random characters derived from someone’s imagination. For those of us who have paid even cursory attention to the stories of police action that has resulted in black death in the U.S. over the past few years, we have seen these mothers grieve publicly as they advocate for justice for their children. Beyoncé taking center stage or perching atop of them in those moments feels tone-deaf to me. That said, she attempted to navigate a complex space by even including the mothers in LEMONADE—and some may read their inclusion as an opportunistic move by Beyoncé; one that co-opts the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
It will also be important for some time to pass between LEMONADE’s release and substantive analysis of it. Beyoncé continues to experiment with how she uses surprise to generate interest in her work and it can be difficult, in the midst of all of that manufactured marketing frenzy, to contemplate LEMONADE as a stand alone artistic product. Immediate responses to LEMONADE are also impacted by the cultural void left by Prince’s very recent death. In the past few days there has been an upsurge of personal and public reflections on the role of artists in society and the profound cultural impact that an artist can have. Reactions to LEMONADE, mine included, are taking place within that larger cultural context of mourning and reflection. All of that, combined with the surprise factor of its release, can lead to grandiose statements about LEMONADE. It will be interesting to think about this visual album in the days, months and years to come.