Get in Formation

Ash Sarkar · Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’

It was 9 o'clock on Sunday morning when my best friend called: ‘Girl, wake up. It’s happened.’ In the days since, Beyoncé’s 12-track visual album Lemonade – ostensibly about her husband Jay Z’s adultery – has smashed records (she’s the only female artist to have all six of her studio albums debut at number one), put freelance journalists in clover and generated a hunt across six continents for ‘Becky with the good hair’. ‘This is Beyoncé’s world,’ Anderson Cooper said in 2013, ‘and we are just living in it.’

In less than 24 hours, Lemonade transformed my social landscape: first came the all-caps texts: ‘I DON'T WANNA LOSE MY PRIDE BUT IMMA FUCK ME UP A BITCH’; ‘YOU KNOW I GIVE YOU LIFE’; ‘GIRL IT’S YOUR SECOND AMENDMENT’; ‘HER TEETH AS CONFETTI’. Then I found myself checking a man with the line ‘when you play me, you play yourself,’ from ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’. By Wednesday evening, Sisters Uncut were singing ‘Formation’ outside Holloway Prison, in a joyous display of unity with the women detained inside.

How has this happened? How has Beyoncé engendered such a deep sense of solidarity among women and the marginalised? Most reviewers have pointed out that Lemonade is Beyoncé’s most personal and political work to date, but few have interrogated how the album moves between the two. Lemonade is about adultery in the way that Moby-Dick is about fishing. As Ijeoma Olua has written, Beyoncé uses the pain of personal betrayal to highlight the political marginalisation of black women. I gasped as she summoned Malcolm X (‘The most disrespected person in America is the black woman’) to excoriate her cheating spouse.

Beyoncé’s heartbreak is her own, but Lemonade speaks to the experience of black women everywhere. She draws on and subverts the imagery of the antebellum South, corrals a bevy of unrepentant black women to vamp at the camera, recites the poetry of Warsan Shire and samples the words of Jay Z’s grandmother, Hattie White. Lemonade doesn’t argue that the political is merely personal. Two-thirds through the film, Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden and Gwen Carr hold up photos of their dead sons Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In sharing her anguish, Beyoncé shows that it’s only in black women’s abject subjectivity, personal and political, that the bonds of solidarity needed for liberation can be forged.

Lemonade has prompted many to hail Beyoncé as Prince’s successor. And yes, the album is genre-bending and unapologetically odd in its aesthetics. But I’d go further, and say that Lemonade places Beyoncé alongside Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson. As a creative, curatorial and collaborative force, Beyoncé has fashioned a powerful sense of community. Lemonade isn’t the story of Jay Z’s redemption. It’s a call to arms for women of colour everywhere. From ‘Pray You’ll Catch Me’ to ‘Freedom’ to ‘Formation’ she’s rousing us to action. ‘Girl,’ she’s saying. ‘Wake up. It’s happening.’

Read more in the London Review of Books

Jenny Diski: Nina Simone · 25 June 2009

Adam Shatz: Ornette Coleman · 16 July 2015

Lidija Haas: Amy Winehouse · 16 July 2015


  • 29 April 2016 at 9:03pm
    Marcus Dowel says:
    It's very welcome to see Beyonce willing to use her music in a political way. However, as a musician and singer she is not even in the same league as Mahalia Jackson or Nina Simone.

    • 30 April 2016 at 10:08pm
      Colin says: @ Marcus Dowel
      I agree with the above comment, and would simply add that I am getting tired of being told to line up behind this particular diva.

  • 2 May 2016 at 4:20am
    Ubique says:
    Thanks for the passionate conspectus of Lemonade.

    I was surprised to be so affected by Bey's album. I think it's a great work, visually, musically and politically. Sure there's probably a thousand wranglers behind the frame but she has clearly put herself into it and out front of it.

    Comparing Bey to Mahalia or Nina or Jessye or whoever is just a way of creating context. It's not a competition. To misquote Keef misquoting Muddy: "You don't have to be the best, you just have to be a good 'un."

    PS Serena rocks.

  • 4 May 2016 at 11:43am
    3graces says:
    A powerfully written blog. How, though, one wonders, is it, that Beyonce's experience only speaks to the experience of black women everywhere? Are they the only victims of adultery?
    Second, why doesn't anyone discuss the link between being a sex symbol and being discarded for that, for a change, or despite that? I think that is equally very interesting.

    After all, the very thing that made Beyonce rich and independent enough to walk out of a marriage that does not work any more, is often not what happens to the average black woman. Not even to the average white woman. Quite irrespective of Beyonce's personal suffering, does her work actually refer to the deeper question of women's condition or is it just a passionate gloss over them? Making lemonade is not the only possible thing, you know. Sometimes, it is also a good idea to send the lemons back or add them to the recycling bin. I would be curious to investigate Lemonade along this line as well.