Self-love and body affirmation: Beyoncé performs in Los Angeles earlier this year ©Frank McLeott/Rex/Shuttstock

Despite the hype, Beyoncé isn't saying anything radical

She's not the Nina Simone of her generation
August 16, 2016

In April, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter Beyoncé Knowles-Carter released her sixth solo album Lemonade on her husband Jay Z’s music streaming service, Tidal. Easily her most personal work to date, Lemonade was accompanied by a “visual album” broadcast on HBO, a lush and beautifully shot series of music videos interspersed with poetry from the female Somali-British writer Warsan Shire. Many of the songs apparently reference Jay Z’s long-rumoured infidelity. But the album broadened one woman’s amorous troubles into a collective struggle against layers of historical oppression. “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,” the sampled voice of Malcolm X explains.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade arrived in anticipation of a summer of extraordinary racial tension in the United States. In July alone, we witnessed the horrifying videotaped police killings (at point-blank range in both instances) of two unresisting black fathers, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. These were followed by apparent retaliatory assaults on police. In Dallas, a former US soldier murdered five officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest; days later, a man armed with an assault rifle killed three police officers in Baton Rouge. In the wake of such upheaval, it has become something of a cliché to liken the current maelstrom to that of the 1960s. For some, Beyoncé’s latest offering conjures a “Mississippi Goddam” moment—a confluence of pop culture activism and social consciousness (called “wokeness” in today’s parlance) in the mould of Nina Simone’s 1964 civil rights classic, along with a pro-black-woman message of self-love and body affirmation.

"Lemonade was immediately deemed an important document of our time and heaped with critical praise"
But was Beyoncé thinking anything deep? Is a pop entertainer supposed to be thinking deep thoughts? Is it any wonder that as American politics has devolved to the level of a game show—indeed, when the next president may be a reality TV star—our most visible “politically engaged” artist is as superficially profound as Beyoncé? This is a time when one can be deemed a moral authority not for adhering to principle (think of the late Muhammad Ali refusing to go to Vietnam, at great personal cost), but merely for existing in one’s own skin and narrating the feat. It’s a time when feminism and race consciousness can be reduced to free-association games of body-positive images and out-of-context displays of suffering and solidarity. Celebrating pop fare like Lemonade seems a lot less challenging than doing the work of bringing forth—or at least explaining how to bring forth—actual systemic change. That would require, at a minimum, addressing how entertainers such as Beyoncé are wilfully complicit in (and happy to profit from) women’s objectification.

Nonetheless, Lemonade was immediately deemed an important document of our time and heaped with critical praise. Acoustically, the album is a mature, post-genre mash-up of sounds ranging from country and electronic to hip-hop and the R&B style that made Beyoncé famous. The website Pitchfork deemed it “some of Beyoncé’s strongest work—ever, period.” The New York Times reviewed the album and video (twice) and organised a roundtable on it. It also published a profile of Shire, plus two reviews of Beyoncé’s “Formation” tour, which came to Britain in early July. All appeared within five days of the album’s release. As Jon Pareles noted in his Times review: “The video is filled with images of female solidarity and of family, Southern and African roots, women of all ages and roles and eras. Often, Beyoncé is joined by African-American women in white clothes enacting shared work, gatherings of women or eerie communal rituals.” (Commercially, Lemonade has proved something of a disappointment, blown out of the top spot on the Billboard charts after one week by the Canadian rapper Drake.)

If critics were impressed, the internet was in full swoon, picking over the references and allusions in the visual album. This culminated in the “Lemonade Syllabus,” a document with 60 contributors published on 29th April. Billed as “a labour of love by a black woman and black women who believe in each other,” it runs to 36 pages and is sub-divided into categories comprising fiction and literature, poetry, photography, black feminist studies, religion and womanist theology, music, theatre and film and documentary.

Beyoncé’s marriage problems have thus been linked to the larger narrative of black suffering that has transfixed America in the last two years. In Lemonade we glimpse the mother of Michael Brown, an unarmed 17-year-old black boy killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; the mother of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black boy killed by a vigilante in Florida; and the world’s greatest living female athlete, Serena Williams—whose on-court dominance has never shielded her from the worst kind of body-shaming sexism and racism. Williams is shown twerking (a sexually provocative style of dancing), luxuriating in the fullness and liveliness of her body. Yet the personal need not always be political. Lumping together such serious and pressing issues as police and vigilante violence against black people and the internalised self-hate that our culture too often teaches black women (which Williams’s dancing presumably refutes) risks trivialising all of it, reducing everything to the scale of one woman’s heartbreak.

Beneath the surface, very little in Lemonade said anything new or interesting about what it means to be black, or a black woman, in America today. But for some it was the stuff of revolution. The writer Nikole Hannah-Jones compared the multimillionaire former Destiny’s Child star—a group that made its name and fortune at the expense of female agency with songs like “Bootylicious” and lyrics like “Can you pay my bills?”—to the pioneering early 20th-century black novelist Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. “She’s showing that the very backbone of the community is the one that is being most hurt and disrespected,” said Hannah-Jones in the New York Times roundtable. “And that the expectation of loss, that you will find loss and betrayal at the hands of your father, at the hands of your husband, at the hands of the police—everywhere that you look as a black woman that there is going to be that loss. And that the redemption does come from love, but it really comes from the sisterhood of other women.” But if that is what the video showed, it is deeply problematic. The idea that such experiences of letdown are unique or essential to black women is parochial. The implication that black men are somehow categorically no good is insulting.

Not everyone was so enamoured of Lemonade. Some highly-regarded voices on the feminist left wondered if twerking was really revolutionary or liberating. The black feminist Bell Hooks commented: “Even though Beyoncé and her creative collaborators daringly offer multidimensional images of black female life, much of the album stays within a conventional stereotypical framework, where the black woman is always a victim.” By the end of this “visual extravaganza,” Beyoncé has reunited and apparently forgiven a silenced and chastened Jay Z. For voicing her reservations, Hooks was roundly attacked.
"For many black Americans, we find ourselves in the midst of nothing less than a new civil rights movement"
It has been a tumultuous second term for the United States’s first black president. Somewhere between the 2012 killing of Martin, and the 2014 killing of Brown, the early optimism of the Obama era, encapsulated in images and slogans of post-racial hope and Yes-We-Can-do-ism, was cast aside for the more pragmatic declaration that #BlackLivesMatter. For many black Americans, we find ourselves in the midst of nothing less than a new civil rights movement. This new movement is directed most notably against a criminal justice system steeped in anti-black bias from the police to the courts to the lawmakers in Congress, but also, more amorphously, against a broader American or even global ethos that devalues black people’s bodies in general and black women’s appearance in particular.

Beyoncé’s message, though, was sometimes confusing. The standalone video for Lemonade’s first single “Formation” is a surreal, politically inflected, incoherent amalgamation of images of Louisiana that evoke Hurricane Katrina. Transcendent, unsinkable Beyoncé perches atop a police cruiser and sings of herself: “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/ You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” This reference to her parents is not the only time Beyoncé has identified as something other than wholly black—she was once described as “African-American, Native American and French” in an advertisement for L’Oreal. Given the painful and continuing reality of “colourism” in the black community, and the pigment-based caste system enforced by Creoles in places like Louisiana, it was a jarring distinction to draw for someone keen to take up the black pride mantle. Here was Beyoncé with her bleached-blonde hair extensions appropriating the imagery of black resistance. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the “Formation” video shows a black boy dancing in front of a line of police in riot gear who, on his cue, put their hands up.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has taken off, so has the American market for personal accounts of victimisation. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent for the Atlantic, became a runaway bestseller and invitation to national catharsis (or self-flagellation) after its publication in 2015. In that book, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates depicts his own 1980s youth in a tough, drug and crime-addled section of West Baltimore, Maryland as rooted not in class division but as the consequences of white supremacy. Despite the fact that through his ambition, hard work and success his son can now seize on opportunities most Americans—of any colour—can only dream of, Coates still cautions: “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels… The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” In such a bleak scheme there is scant chance to change the victimisation and disenfranchisement that many black Americans endure. The irony is that Coates need look no further than his own cultural influence—the book was cited by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a recent dissent—to find compelling reasons for hope.

But Between the World and Me, like Lemonade, is a product of a specific political mood. The privileging and performance of adversity, suffering and grievance in discussions of contemporary black life, even at elite levels, as opposed to the triumphant poses that figures such as Beyoncé—and especially Jay Z—were once so happy to strike, has been swift. The rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a sonically ambitious album steeped in soul and unapologetic blackness is far more complex, self-aware and even self-critical than Lemonade. Yet Lamar has also shown that a major talent willing to weave social issues into their work can expect the dominant culture to provide overblown praise, without damaging robust record sales and commercial endorsements.

When Nina Simone recorded “Mississippi Goddam,” her response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black girls, it was an astonishing act of bravery and professional self-sacrifice—if not self-destruction—for a larger cause. In the fading light of the Obama era, the calculations that artists make are entirely different (in 2013, for instance, Beyoncé told British Vogue that the feminist label felt too “extreme.”) After giving us frothy pop music for all of her career, the time has come for Beyoncé, the most admired, wealthiest and most powerful woman in pop culture to declare that she is a victim too—at least in the confines of her own Tribeca penthouse.

But if black protest art has become so watered-down, it’s worth asking whether black American culture has become so commodified and defanged that it no longer speaks truth to power. This is a problem that transcends the artists themselves and one compounded by the presence of an eloquent and at times dissenting black man in the inner sanctum of American power. That President Obama, at times, has proven himself as capable and subtle a thinker about race as anyone in America poses new creative problems for black artists. As a writer and orator willing to acknowledge issues in public that are rarely spoken about in America—embodied in his funeral oration for the victims of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, where he led the congregation in an emotional rendition of “Amazing Grace”—his quest to reconcile past divisions and move the country to a new and better place has been faced with ferocious resistance.

That Obama and his wife Michelle have used their platform to champion black artists such as Beyoncé and Jay Z forces the question of whether there is any longer a collective black experience of subjugation against which black popular creative expression can be harnessed as a weapon and a shield. The blues, the form from which all black music derives, arose as a philosophy and a survival technique, a method of transcending the chaos and indignity of slavery and oppression. Whatever her personal dramas, Beyoncé, a woman described as a role model by the First Lady, can only sing the blues as pastiche.

In Lemonade, Jay Z’s grandmother, Hattie, speaking at her 90th birthday, declares that while life has served her lemons, she has made lemonade. It was a moving peek behind the curtain of mega-stardom, startlingly humble and real. But there is also an uneasy sense that Hattie was being used as a prop in someone else’s project. Beyoncé, our era’s Diana Ross, Madonna and Janet Jackson rolled into one, has not, as many commentators insist, metamorphosed into our generation’s Simone. On the contrary, in all-American entrepreneurial fashion, she has harvested the aesthetics of black pain and anger like ripe lemons in a Florida orchard, pressing them into something sweet for mass consumption. She has worked out not how to make but how to sell lemonade.