She's not the Nina Simone of her generationby Thomas Chatterton Williams / August 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
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…