A few years ago I was co-hosting a weekend retreat for a group of black womyn. At some point in the evening we were drinking wine, listening to music and chatting when someone brought up Beyoncé. I remember remarking that although I love dancing to her music when I’m out at a club or party, I wasn’t a fan of her music in particular, mainly because I prefer to listen to music that is consciously trying to say something about the state of the world. One of the participants disagreed with me, arguing that she didn’t see anything wrong with a musician who wants to sing about her personal experiences and that not everyone has to make music that is political. I agreed, but told her while musicians have every right to choose what type of music they make, I also have a right to listen to the music which speaks to me.
Fast forward a few years and I was sitting in front of the tv watching the 2016 superbowl with my sister-in-law and my partner, when Beyoncé debuted Formation. As soon as I saw the back-up dancers and Queen Bey in their black, militaristic outfits I got chills. My first thought was that the outfits reminded me of Michael Jackson’s epic superbowl performance in the 90s. I had already heard the song (which had debuted the night before) and my sister-in-law and I excitedly watched to see if they would censor some of the language (specifically the word “negroes”). When the performance was over we were both grinning and started talking excitedly. We realized that we had just witnessed what felt like a turning point in Beyoncé’s music career. After decades of singing about love and relationships, she had finally made a song which we recognized as completely pro-black and pro-feminine, and we were ecstatic.
Then yesterday I got four text messages from my sister-in-law in quick succession. “I don’t know if you have seen it yet…”, “since you liked Formation I think you’ll like this even more…”, and finally a link to watch Lemonade, Beyoncé’s newly released video album. I told my partner, and we agreed that we would watch it after the kids were asleep. And we did. All 65 minutes of glorious, pro-black, pro-womyn/feminine fabulousness. I was mesmerized from the first minute, taking note of every detail possible…what did the tattoo on that womyn’s shoulder say? what kind of trees are those interspersed throughout? the titles/words during the transitions (intuition, denial, anger, apathy, and so on…). Occasionally one of us would comment on something such as the beat sampled from an old song, or the images of the many young black lives lost too soon. For the first few songs I thought the album was about her relationship with her husband, but soon began to see, hear and FEEL something more, something deeper. By the time we got to “forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection” I knew that Beyoncé had captured so much more than her own experiences. I recognized something in the message that was meant for black womyn like myself. My partner on the other hand became perplexed, he told me at the end of the video that he felt like he “had been lead somewhere and then left to figure it out”. I realized that he was looking for a resolution, a nice clean ending that explained what it all meant. And after some reflection I realized that is why this video spoke to me.
Because my existence as a black womyn in a world where the black womyn is “the most disrespected person” can not be tied up in a nice clean story. Our stories are nuanced, complex, and intertwined. We can not be expressed in words, or through music. Our essence can not be captured by the media portrayals of black womyn which often depict us as one dimensional. By speaking and sharing her truth, without worrying about whether (white) people would get it, Beyoncé had managed to weave an intricate story, one of betrayal, hurt, anger, sadness, loneliness, strength, confidence, growth, feminine energy, birth, love, rebirth, reconciliation, forgiveness, family, intergenerational trauma, pain, and freedom. A story told by a black womyn, with the help of other black womyn, for black womyn.
I know that there will be a lot of dialogue about the album. I have already seen the media portray it as the story of an angry black womyn scorned. On CNN this morning they were discussing it in a two minute clip that included the scene where Beyoncé is smashing cars with a bat while a fireball explodes in the background. It did not surprise me that they chose to focus on the scenes from “Anger”. It did not surprise me that they gave airtime to some tweets by (one of) the side chicks that is thought to be referenced in the song. That they reduced this one hour album to the story of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and their marital strife demonstrates how womyn’s agency and experience is erased as we are reduced to being wives and mothers. That they failed to mention any of the pro-black feminine imagery (the video features black feminine folks, with almost no white people, and no men in the entire 65 minutes) demonstrates the way that black agency is ignored and our attempts to tell our own stories ignored and erased. As someone who is repeatedly called an angry black womyn I was not surprised to see mainstream media interpreting this album in such a manner. And it really doesn’t matter, because I know that there is so much that they are missing and because I know that the point is not what they think of it. I know what I see when I watch this one hour long tribute to the resiliency, power and truth of the black feminine experience. I look forward to watching it again and again to absorb the story and message which Beyoncé has created for black womyn like myself, without needing to explain it or share it. Because this is our story, and we are not here for anyone else’s viewing pleasure. After decades of following Beyoncé’s career develop I feel honoured to be occupying this space with her. This is one album and one artist that speaks to me, and I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.