If Donald Trump is the terrifying face of today’s America, Beyoncé has the thrilling counterpoint

by Rachel Morris / 31 May, 2016
Writer Rachel Morris reports from Washington D.C.
Shot from Don't Hurt Yourself in Lemonade.
Shot from Don't Hurt Yourself in Lemonade.

Unless you live inside a sensory deprivation chamber, or are in a coma or dead, you probably know that Beyoncé released a new album in April. Although “album” hardly seems the right term for Lemonade. It is a ­stunning hour-long art film, thesis-dense with imagery plumbing the racial history of the US and the murkiest caverns of the female psyche, featuring songs from every contemporary music genre intercut with shards of verse by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire.

Five years ago, maybe even one year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine something so strange and provocative emerging from the mainstream US music industry. I can’t think of a more revealing document about the state of the country – cultural, economic, political – in 2016.

That Lemonade appears to describe infidelity and strife in the marriage of Beyoncé and Jay Z is by far the least interesting thing about it. In the film’s opening moments, Beyoncé appears in a black hoodie, evoking ­Trayvon Martin, the African-­American teenager whose death launched the Black Lives Matter movement. Later, Martin’s mother appears with the mothers of two young black men killed by police officers.

Much of Lemonade is set in and around New Orleans, site of the single greatest recent reminder of the scale of black disenfranchisement: Hurricane Katrina. In one scene, Jay Z joyfully chases his small daughter around an empty Superdome, the football stadium where thousands of Katrina refugees were stranded in sickening chaos for days.

But the album’s real subject is black women. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” Malcolm X says in a 1962 speech sampled in the film. He was referring to their mistreatment by white society, but Beyoncé is at least as preoccupied with their mistreatment by black men.

Lemonade presents the varieties of black female experience in a way mainstream culture never does. Beyoncé portrays archetypes usually considered too politicised for a mass American audience: African queen, voodoo priestess, a black woman consumed by rage. Her recitations of Shire’s poetry are equally unflinching: when was the last time a pop phenomenon busted out anything like, “I bathed in bleach, and plugged my menses with pages from the holy book”?

Beyoncé also surrounds herself with women and girls, often wearing long, white lace dresses and inhabiting the lush landscapes of Southern slave plantations. The sheer diversity of bodies, ages, faces, skin tones and hairstyles feels like a revelation in a time when it’s still considered progress if Hollywood casts one non-white person in a big-budget movie rather than none. This film was hardly conceived as a message to white people, but it does seem to say: here’s what it’s like to watch movies and television and see yourself nowhere. But also: here are the riches you’ve been missing.

Until very, very recently, this album would have been career suicide. Instead, it’s likely to be a massive commercial success. That’s because the US has changed in ways that are real and seismic in just the past few years. Feminism and racial justice, long considered untouchable subjects, have moved to the heart of US politics. The traditional engines of mass culture have lost their mono­poly power – Beyoncé made and distributed the album through her own companies. Thanks to widening economic inequality, there’s more anger and more hunger for upending the status quo.

The US may be entering a ­prolonged period of profound upheaval, and there are some things about that that are terrifying, such as Donald Trump, and others that are exhilarating, such as Lemonade. And the music’s very good, too.

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