Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade addresses both the public battle for recognition and the personal journey young Black women take to reach self-acceptance. Admittedly, in 2020, Black Is King would be a more recent subject to discuss and dissect. However, beyond the election-year parallel, I would suggest that Lemonade is particularly relevant in that it stems from a clearly problematic setting – one that happens to be the societal context we’re still living in.
The film’s recognises the judgement and oppression that Black bodies have been subject to for centuries. Proof of this, if needed, is that to this day, white beauty standards still dictate what is beautiful and feminine, leaving those whose bodies don’t fit the norm at the margins. One of the most prominent signifiers of feminine beauty is hair – it is, for women throughout history, at the intersection of public and private spheres. With styling a matter of personal choice, natural Black hair especially has been at the centre of public and political debates. Much of the oppression Black women are subjected to regarding their bodies and sexuality can be read in hair. The rise of the natural hair movement is one of the ways in which Black women have consciously risen against beauty norms that seek to contain our kinks, coils and curls. The lengths to which most Black women, at some point in their lives, have gone to hide their natural hair is a testament to the internalised judgement that weighs on all our heads.
Back in 2016, streaming service Tidal pitched Lemonade as a “journey of self-knowledge and healing”, and I suggest that as such, it serves an educational purpose. It addresses the foundational steps towards self-acceptance and the refusal of shame. In its role as an initiatory narrative, several facets of womanhood are illustrated and investigated. The film aims to demonstrate how no stage of womanhood should be reduced to a stereotype, that the full breadth of expression of humanity and femininity is worthy of a voice. Society reminds us of this through the common stereotypes of the Mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire –destructively reductive images that condemn women who dare to experience devotion, anger or sensuality. Beyoncé counters these stereotypes through pieces such as “Forward”, “6 Inch”, and the all-powerful “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. By embodying powerful emotions, the Queen herself grants us permission to live unashamed, and to stand tall. This is still so brutally valid in 2020 when justice for women, even Breonna Taylor, slain while sleeping in her bed, is still not a given. The call to revolution, the anger and disappointment at being cheated on by the system are all still today emotions that drive the movement. Yes, we insiders know that Black is King, but unfortunately, we’re still having to convince others that we matter in the first place.
From the very first time I watched Lemonade, the freedom of hair stood out. The film shows a diversity of styles I had never seen before in mainstream media, making sure that the dancers, extras and famous figures the film is peppered with feel representative of the intended audience. As a whole, Lemonade is a text that allows for the expression of many facets of womanhood and of hair, calling on women today to find and/or create the spaces beneficial to their emancipation. From Oshun’s golden mane in Denial and “Hold Up” to the intricate ancestral hairstyles on the women in Apathy or “Love Drought”, hair in the film speaks of the sacred and the brutally colonised – borrowing from less-known text and traditions to tell the story of those who have been silenced. And, from standing contorted in the underground passage of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” to owning the space in the reclaimed plantation of “Freedom”, Lemonade shows us how to command attention. Black is King, it could be argued, seems to pick up the narrative from the reclaimed space – one where individuality (in hair too!) is constantly represented and celebrated.
Without announcing that she’s talking directly to young African-Americans with Lemonade and extending the Beehive to include more woke subjects, Black is King might not have struck Disney as such a sellable project. Starting in 2016, Beyoncé invites us to follow her lead and take our positions. Neither Lemonade nor Black Is King are 3 -and-a-half-minute music videos released alongside singles – they’re hour-long films, and the former was broadcast before the album was even released. Beyoncé has now consistently delivered cultural phenomena that, to their intended audience, are much, much more than commercial coup-de-forces – they’re a call to arms. And crowns.