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