Beyonce’s Lemonade and its Interpretation on the Afterlives of Slavery

By: Aditya Patel and Hassaan Asif

Overview

Lemonade is an unorthodox visual album that is both produced and directed by Beyonce. It is unlike any other studio album because the entire album is also a video production. In the album, Beyonce uses striking visuals, songs, and her avant-garde persona to display her emotions as she reacts to her cheating husband, Jay-Z. Her emotions can be partitioned into three main parts, with the first emotion being depression.

Her depression in Lemonade starts off as a sense of intuition that Jay-Z may be cheating on her. Beyonce spends much of her time pondering and questioning her trust with Jay-Z, like when she says “The need to know/Are you cheating on me?” (Beyonce). As her introspection continues, her depression becomes worse until it peaks; at this moment, Beyonce stands alone on the edge of a building and jumps off, only to land into a bedroom submerged underwater. While underwater, she finally ends her depressive mood and partially escapes the spiral of sadness by attempting to criticize her own relationship. She begins by going around euphorically shattering cars and windows, expressing her freedom and anger as her sense of intuition turns into a feeling of betrayal. Soon thereafter, she continues to directly attack her relationship with Jay-Z by becoming more apathetic and “emotionless” (or at least she presumes herself to be). Much after her revengeful episode, Beyonce transitions to her third and final emotion: forgiveness and acceptance. At this point in Lemonade, Beyonce realized her actions acted as a facade for her true feelings. She did everything in her power to believe that Jay-Z had not cheated, and as so, she transitioned through many emotions, such as anger and apathy to hide her emotions from herself her partner. Thus, Beyonce realized that she has to forgive Jay-Z and that both her and Jay-Z have to learn from this event.

Historical and Cultural Context

The main cultural event that this piece surrounds itself on is Jay-Z’s apparent affair. Between the years of 2015 to 2017,  there were many rumors circulating that Jay-Z had an affair (or multiple affairs) with the rapper LIV and or with singer Rita Ora. Then in April of 2016, at the height of all this discussion about cheating and possible divorce, Beyonce dropped her album Lemonade. Most of Beyonce’s fans confirmed that Jay-Z’s apparent affairs were true because of the specific lyrics in Lemonade, such as “Can’t you see there’s no other man above you / What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you” (Beyonce). It is worth noting that right before the release of Beyonce’s studio album, Rita Ora posted a SnapChat of herself in a bra with lemons on them and donning a necklace with a “J”.

Another important historical topic is the topic of slavery; slavery and its representation in Lemonade was very noticeable to its viewers from its many “aristocratic southern” and “plantation” scenes.

In her visual album, Beyonce is attempting to connect the main theme of the Lemonade (which is her disjointed relationship with Jay-Z) to slavery and its afterlives by juxtaposing both her relationship and slavery by exclusively separating them into the lyrics and the visuals, respectively.

Extrapolating from her relationship, black infidelity and divorce rates in general have increased over the past several decades. Although there is no one definite reason behind this, there are many theories. Researcher Elaine Pinderhughes contends that “slaves were forbidden by law to marry in some states… [and] any emotional bonds that slaves sought to create were substantially undermined by the prevailing beliefs and social structures …  males were regarded as oversexed, promiscuous, and incapable of marital commitment … [and] females were sexually exploited” (271). Pinderhughes situated the black infidelity problem in a more historical context and factual sense. The same “prevailing beliefs and social structures” that were ubiquitous in the 1800’s are still very prevalent today; it is unfortunate to see that continuous generational racism has allowed for the progression of these beliefs and their effects on the black community to still exist to this day. The harsh stereotype that black men are naturally cheating-inclined and that black women are hypersexualized are most likely the greatest influencer of the problem of black infidelity because of the simple fact that the stereotype still exists today, two centuries after the creation of these stereotypes. However, researcher Alma Carten approached the situation in another light by situating this problem in a more emotional stance; she believes that internalized anger, generational abuse, and self-shame has led to an unresolved, internal conflict in black men and women that is still unfortunately perpetuated through black culture today (Carten). By labeling the problem as a more internalized and unresolved anger, Carten shows how that manifested as a general psychological pain that may be a part of why a secure relationship may be difficult. When this generational psychological pain has been passed down century to century, the same stereotypes and slave marriage laws that caused anger in the 1800’s is still reverberated to this day, leading to the same problems of infidelity. In Lemonade, Beyonce is trying to signal that slavery is the the root of black infidelity and that it can be improved by publicizing her own relationship problems and her solutions to her audience.

Cinematographically, Beyonce and her fellow team-members were influenced by producer Terrence Malick’s pieces, such as To the Wonder and Tree of Life. Both of these pieces are especially dreamlike and surreal, and certain scenes are very similar to Beyonce’s Lemonade. In addition, one of Lemonade’s directors, Khalil Joseph, shot a B-roll (supplemental footage) for Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which could have influenced Khalil’s role in directing Lemonade.

Another possible influence is by the short video, Ever Is Over All, by Pipilotti Rist. In this video, a woman walks down a street with her dress flowing and begins smashing cars, which is almost identical to Beyonce in Lemonade’s “Hold Up”.

This image serves to compare a scene from Pipilotti Rist’s Ever is Over All to Beyonce’s “Hold Up”, and to show the striking similarity between both scenes (Rist).

Themes and Styles

Aside from the cheating scandal that Beyonce directly addresses, her album also strongly conveys themes and motifs from American slavery. Throughout the music video, she shows the viewers how she feels like a slave in her own world, chained up and powerless against all the bad things that happen to her. In the first few minutes of the music video, during the song “Pray You Catch Me,” Beyonce states “You can taste the dishonesty/Nothing ever seems to hurt like the smile on your face.” While she is saying this, we see her underwater, twisting and turning in an unrealistic way, almost as if she is trying to break out of an imaginary set of chains. Eventually, she does, and she walks away, ready to rebel against what is hurting her. She grabs a baseball bat and starts hitting cars and fire hydrants, and she smiles in sweet revenge. This section of Lemonade, titled “Denial”, is similar to how a slave revolt would play out: one or several slaves would find the power within themselves to rebel against their oppressive institution, and they would go out and express their pent-up anger through a slave revolt. Likewise, after having spent several long moments struggling with herself underwater, Beyonce decided to break free and unleash her rage with a baseball bat.

At the same time, Beyonce dresses up as all sorts of cultural figures from African life, thus overwhelming us with the large amount of culture that had been lost due to American slavery. Cynthia Okoroafor states “The influence of African tribalism and cultural practices, which Beyonce ultimately celebrates, are also a prominent theme in Lemonade” (Okoroafor). During the song “Hold Up”, Beyonce dresses up as Oshun, the Yoruba Goddess of rivers and purity. In “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, she dons the persona of a Voodoo priestess, and then continues to dance around a ring of fire. Finally, in “Sorry”, we see her in bus with other African-American women who appear to be in a trance, chanting and dancing together. Okoroafor states that “the bus ride is actually symbolic of a spiritual transition to the afterlife” (Okoroafor).

However, most importantly, Beyonce expands this connection to American slavery past herself and past the historical context; she shows many African-American women and girls who are going through the same problems: marriage issues, cheating, and absent fathers (Beyonce 54:00 to 56:00). This reveals the main, overarching theme of Lemonade: American slavery had a direct psychological impact on the Black community by introducing the “broken marriage” stereotype, in which the father leaves the family. She also shows the effects of social injustice, which have, without a doubt, resulted from slavery.

Another theme that Beyonce introduces for the purpose of connecting her music video to modern-day slavery is police brutality.  One scene during Lemonade shows three Black mothers holding framed pictures of their deceased children.

Beyonce included this image in Lemonade to remind her viewers of the ongoing hatred towards African-Americans in our society today. It symbolizes the sadness and despair that result when African Americans are treated as modern-day slaves (Goodridge).

All three of these children are young males who were slain by white police officers: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. In showing this, Beyonce’s point is that slavery has brought along a type of social injustice that still claims lives today. Also, not only does it tear apart single families and mothers, but it also drills in the stereotype of the helpless mother and broken family, thus spiraling the African American community into an everlasting theme of torture and misery. However, as Beyonce always does, she turned this theme into something positive in her song “Formation.” There are short scenes of a young black child dancing in rebellion in front of a line of riot police officers. This is basically symbolic of the Black Lives Matter Movement and other signs of peaceful rebellion that have come up in the recent past; Beyonce simply wants to instill in the African-American community a sense of hope for the future.

Critical Conversation

Many researchers and critics insist that Beyonce’s Lemonade does address slavery. One professor at Stanford, Carol Vernallis, states that Lemonade develops historical strands about Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, reconstruction, lynching, neo-liberalism and the disinvestment of black neighborhoods at the beginning of the 1970s, Hurricane Katrina, and the police murders of African-Americans” (Vernallis). Another author, Cynthia Okoroafor, delves into talking about how Beyonce directly addresses African culture by dressing up as a Voodoo worshipper and Yoruba, the African goddess of fertility. By addressing African culture, it shows how Beyonce is attributing importance to black culture before the negative influence of slavery.

Some critics, such as Kevin Ball and Tyler Goodridge, disagree with this well-established point of view; they see not as much connection with American slavery, but rather Beyonce’s attempt to empower African Americans. Goodridge points out that “Beyonce shows the images of fallen Black men and boys, underscored by the first women who loved them: their mothers” (Goodridge). Thus, his main point is that Lemonade is as much of a social commentary about the oppression against Black males as it is an ode to the misery that Black women face. On the other hand, Kevin Ball believes that Lemonade is solely as a modern social commentary about Black feminism, and he claims the song “Formation” is the epitome of that during the course of the music video. By leaving out any mention of American slavery, Ball actually appeals to a different set of people than others such as Vernallis, who revolves her argument about Beyonce’s fascination with history. Thus, Beyonce’s Lemonade offers different point of views that allow for a flurry of discussion from different types of audiences.

Thus, just as it is the nature of most powerful social commentaries, Lemonade has numerous numbers of possible interpretations, including the strong and apparent connection between historical slavery and the modern African-American community. However, one fact does remain consistent, and it is that Beyonce created the most powerful music video that focuses on the topic of African-American women ever. With its striking scenes and uncanny images, Lemonade has definitely shaken the meaning of the phrase “social commentary”, and she has without a doubt changed the face of music videos forever.

Works Cited

Ball, Kevin. “Beyoncé’s Formation.” ProQuest, vol. 40, no. 3, Film Criticism, 2016. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.

Carten, Alma. “How the Legacy of Slavery Affects the Mental Health of Black Americans Today.” The Conversation, 27 July 2015. www.theconversation.com/how-the-legacy-of- slavery-affects-the-mental-health-of-black-americans-today-44642. Accessed 4 Oct.

Goodridge, Tyler. “Lemonade: Beyonce’s ode to Black Women … and Black Men?” Gnovis Journal of Communication, Culture, & Technology, 06 May 2016. www.gnovisjourn al.org/2016/05/06/lemonade-beyonces-ode-to-black-women-and-black-men/ Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.

Knowles-Carter, Beyonce. “Lemonade.” Rough Trade Publishing Ltd, Apr. 23, 2016. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.

Okoroafor, Cynthia. “All the African Influences in Beyonce’s Visual Album, Lemonade,    Explained.” Ventures Africa, 26 Apr. 2016. www.venturesafrica.com/features/the-africa n-influences-in-beyonces-lemonade-album-explained/. Accessed 04 Oct. 2017.

Pinderhughes, Elaine B. “African American Marriage in the 20th Century.” ProQuest, vol. 41, no. 2, Family Process, June 2002. pp. 269-282. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.

Further Readings

Francisco, Celine. “Pop Music’s Evolution: From the 1800s to the Present.” Bright Hub Education, 22 Aug. 2012. w.ww.brighthubeducation.com/social-studies-help/12326 0-studying-pop-culture-music-evolution/ Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Rist, Pipilotti. Ever is Over All. 1997. Accessed 16 Nov. 2016.

Rogers, Holly, et al. “Beyoncé’s Lemonade: She Dreams in Both Worlds.” Film International, 08 Jun 2016. www.filmint.nu/?p=18413. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.

Vernallis, Carol. “Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Avant-Garde Aesthetics, and Music Video: the Past and the Future Merge to Meet Us here.” ProQuest vol. 40, no. 3, Film Criticism, 2016. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.

Vernallis, Carol. “Beyoncé’s Overwhelming Opus; Or, the Past and Future of Music Video.” ProQuest vol. 41, no. 1, 2017. Film Criticism. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.

Keywords

  1. Beyonce’s Lemonade
  2. Modern slavery
  3. African-American women
  4. Black love and marriage
  5. Feminist empowerment
  6. African culture
  7. Visual albums
  8. Jay-Z
  9. Affair
  10. Rita Ora
  11. LIV