It was October 2008: Barack Obama was about to be elected president, Bill Cosby was still America’s dad, and Oscar Grant would be alive for another year. Beyoncé had been married to Jay Z for six months when she released a song celebrating the single woman…sort of. At first glance, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” is an independence anthem: “All the single ladies/Now put your hands up,” she sings, rallying the unwedded, self-reliant gals of the universe.
But the message isn’t a clarion call for single women staying single and being fabulous. It’s an indictment on a man who didn’t “put a ring on it,” to lock her down as his. “I’m not that kind of girl,” she tells this man. “Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve”—and that’s blessing her ring finger with a diamond ring. The traditional message wasn’t lost on her fans. “Beyoncé is my choice poison,” wrote Soltrane, a blogger at PostBourgie, a few days after the song’s release. But she is “like the feds when it comes to promoting a conservative social agenda.”
That all changed on April 22, 2016, when Beyoncé dropped the strikingly honest “Lemonade.”
In every song on the nearly hour-long visual album, Beyoncé not only challenges white perceptions of the black family but says “nigga, nah” to a black respectability she once personified. She makes a point of unraveling myths surrounding black families—myths like “most black fathers are absent” and “most black mothers are on welfare,” myths like the flawless, ascendant black couple without anything resembling marital disputes.
The first close-up of Beyoncé’s face shows her noticeably pared down from the perfectly made-up megastar we’re used to. Engulfed by blades of grass, she’s in a black hoodie, one that invokes Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. Certain news outlets portrayed Martin, a 17-year-old high school student, as a thug, criticized for having the typical teen habits of smoking pot and popping off on texts with his friends. President Obama famously said the slain black boy “could have been my son.” At the time, Beyoncé attended a rally in support of Trayvon Martin and posed for a photograph with his mother, Sybrina Fulton. But the singer declined to comment on the shooting and wasn’t one of the celebrities who donned black hoodies in solidarity.
Until now. “Lemonade” is a much more explicit announcement of where her allegiance lies—and it’s not with the “upstanding” black families of “The Cosby Show” or “Family Matters.” After “Formation,” dropped, the internet took notice of Beyonce's newfound black power and black woman pride. With the release of “Lemonade,” it’s now on full display.
She has picked up on the sea change brought on by Black Lives Matter, a movement founded by three black queer women that stands in opposition to black respectability. Her version of family isn’t so neatly tied up in a bow. It’s one that includes a lovable cheater and unarmed black Americans who have been been killed by police. Imagery throughout “Lemonade” suggests that Beyoncé sees the slain and their survivors as kin.
Her ultimate enemy isn’t her philandering husband, but ugly stereotypes about black people. Black men have been characterized as brutes since slavery’s end, and black women have been seen as overly sexual jezebels. The only option many of them had was to present as pious as priests and nuns, without any traces of sexuality or fallibility. “Lemonade” does away with all of that. The world of “Lemonade” is messy and human, a melange of voices and influences.
Take, for instance, the interlude between “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry”: Beyoncé’s voice comes in, standing in for an unfaithful husband eulogizing his wife and her broken heart. A row of black girls appear in white face paint inspired by a Nigerian Yoruba ritual. They dance together in unison, usurping any traces of “Swan Lake”’s lily-white dance in an instant. “Here lies the mother of my children both living and dead,” her voiceover says, “Rest in peace, my true love, who I took for granted, most bomb pussy, who because of me sleep evaded.” Beyoncé: wife, mother, sex goddess, and scorned woman all at once.
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a cabinet member in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, released a report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Moynihan wrote that black cultural and economic failures were directly linked to the absence of black men and the patriarchy. “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure,” he wrote, “which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.”
Moynihan’s report failed to acknowledge the ways in which black families might never look like white ones. “Striving for a notion of black respectability in a narrow way doesn’t do justice to talking about how black families have really functioned in America,” says Waldo E. Johnson Jr., an associate professor at the University of Chicago who studies black families. “It puts all the responsibility on the individual without putting the responsibility on structures.”
For a long time, affluent black families have felt an obligation to resist the stereotype Moynihan put forth. Their patron saint was Bill Cosby. Both Cosby the man and Cosby the show—about a well-to-do black doctor and his family—defined modern “black respectability.” In a 2004 speech he gave to the NAACP famously called “The Pound Cake Speech,” he said that conditions in poor black communities were primarily the fault of black people. “We cannot blame white people,” Cosby said to clapping. “White people, white people don’t live over there.”
Barack Obama seemed like the logical conclusion of respectability. He went to Ivy League schools, married a Harvard law graduate, and became president of the United States. He wears suits, kisses Michelle in public, and has two pretty, smart teenage daughters.
Of course, black respectability and gentility is expected but never wholly believed. Since the 2008 campaign, Obama has been depicted as an unhinged radical and a primitive witch doctor. Fox News has labeled Michelle as “Obama’s baby mama,” the late Christopher Hitchens, writing for Slate, claimed black separatism once influenced her, and the National Review featured her on the cover of their magazine as an angry “Mrs. Grievance.”
“Lemonade” both flies in the face of all these negative stereotypes and exposes the futility of trying to attain black perfection. She replaces those two narrow roles with images of black women and the matriarchy, with flawed but still honorable men. On 2013’s self-titled album, Beyoncé was already taking certain steps to challenge respectability—songs like “Drunk in Love” and “Partition” placed her sexuality front and center, and it was the first time the singer really embraced her sexuality as a black woman. But she didn’t reject respectability whole hog. Her sexual proclivities were all framed within the confines of her marriage, and the album upheld the sanctity of the nuclear family: Jay Z even makes a cameo in Beyoncé’s ode to her daughter and motherhood. Here he’s a saint, a symbol of family harmony.
The black men of “Lemonade” are complicated and human—neither brute nor gentleman. Her husband cheated on her, yes, but he’s also seen playing with their daughter, Blue Ivy, on the New Orleans’ Superdome football field, a symbolic gesture to another extended family—those black New Orleanians impacted by Hurricane Katrina. In “Sorry,” a synthy and breathy dismissal of her cheating man, Beyoncé stands up, and while dancing playfully, surrounded by her girls, she offers a blithe “fuck you.” But during a later chapter, “Reformation,” her tone shifts: “Why are you afraid of love?” she asks her philanderer. “You think it’s not possible for someone like you.”
Her black father is complicated, too. In “Daddy Lessons” there is footage of Beyoncé’s father laughing with Blue Ivy, even though earlier in “Lemonade” she refers to her father as a cheater: “In the tradition of men in my blood you come home at 3 a.m. and lie to me.” Yet he also steps into the paternal role in “Daddy Lessons,” when cautioning against her man: “My daddy warned me about men like you, he said baby girl he’s playing you.”
The black women of “Lemonade” get equal leeway to be nuanced beings. Beyoncé has never been less afraid to be an angry black woman. “Who the fuck do you think I is?/ You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy,” she screams in the curse-laden “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a track Brittany Spanos called “raucous, shivering new-blues” in Rolling Stone. Beyoncé has tackled feelings of anger in songs like “Jealous” and “Ring the Alarm,” but the blame was never before so squarely placed on her man.
But the anger directed at her husband isn’t isolated or caricatured. It’s part of a larger, more complex anger, an anger that comes from centuries of mistreatment and devaluing. It isn’t a mistake that in this moment of pure rage she features a voiceover of Malcolm X. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” he says in a 1962 speech. “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman."
Beyoncé is flanked by black girls and women in every scene of “Lemonade.” They’re in the saggy trees of the south, in close-ups on city streets, in regal portraits of mothers who have lost their sons to police violence. Beyoncé re-centers the matriarchy, personifies it, and bolsters it at every turn. She calls upon black girls and women, past and present, to remember their bond. “You look nothing like your mother,” she says of how divergent the lives of black girls are with their mothers. “You look everything like your mother,” she says of how similar they can be at the same time. Her daughter, Blue Ivy, isn’t a symbol of hearth and home like she was in 2013’s Beyoncé. This time around, she’s held up as a black girl among other black girls, part of a giant black-girl clan.
Black respectability has always been inextricably linked to Christianity. A respectable black woman is often referred to as a good, god-fearing Christian woman. Not a loose woman, a heathen, “not that kind of girl” from Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Beyoncé, not at all shy about growing up in the black church, was never loose. Like many female black singers before her, she sang in the church choir. In 2002, she donated more than $1.5 million to her childhood church in Houston.
But “Lemonade” blows up this neat picture of Beyoncé’s spirituality, without abandoning the Christianity at its core. She’s promoting all kinds of black spirituality like never before.
“The first thing you’d expect to see in a black Beyoncé video before [“Lemonade”] is black women in a church,” said Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new album is “refreshing” in the way it shows “how people practice other African derived religions to increase their connection to their ancestors.” For black people, Butler says, the album “might look like Christianity on the surface, but there’s all this other stuff going on.” (If you were looking closely, you might have seen that other stuff coming: In the 2013 video for “Heaven,” her ballad about death and her miscarriage, images of rosaries and crosses abound, but in several scenes at the church, Beyoncé and the other churchgoers wear white, a staple in voodoo ceremonies.)
Even the images of black Christianity in “Lemonade” seem to summon Africa. The video for “Daddy Lessons,” a country song rife with symbolism of the south, shows a church funeral, but not just any church funeral. The casket is lifted up while the pallbearers and mourners dance around the body ritualistically—a practice that wouldn’t be out of the norm at a black Baptist funeral, but not necessarily identified as African.
For Beyoncé, confronting infidelity is a religious experience. “I fasted for 60 days / wore white / abstained from mirrors,” Beyoncé says in the beginning chapter called “Denial.” The singer is trying out the occult to deal with her unfaithful husband. “I levitated,” she continues, invoking rituals outside of the Judeo-Christian sort. “Got on my knees and said, ‘Amen’” and “I sat alone in bed and bent at the waist of God.” But still, “coiled deep was the need to know / Are you cheating on me?”
Stepping out of an imposing building, water cascading down the steps, she looks as though her water has broken, like she has birthed Baby Freedom, washing away her despair. It’s a strong invocation of Yemaya, the goddess of water in the West African and Caribbean religions of Yoruba and Santeria, said to bring fertility and cleanse the body of sorrow. “True love brought salvation back into me. With every tear came redemption,” she says of forgiving her spouse as “Lemonade” nears its end.
Yoruba, Voodoo, and Santeria were hardly featured on “The Cosby Show” or on “Family Matters,” and never positively. And there is no programming listed honoring the ways in which African religion impact black life on the website for Jack and Jill, an elite black cultural organization. These religions have no place in black respectability.
Religion, the matriarchy, the complicated black family: They’re all connected. In nearly every visual expression of religion Beyoncé is joined by other black women. And representations of religions like Yoruba and those descended from it like Santeria reinforce the matriarch and women. During “Sorry” Beyoncé is joined by a bevy of women in body paint designed by the Nigerian artist, Laolu Sanbanjo, whose work is derived from a Yoruba ritual. Warson Shire, a Somali-British poet who wrote the spoken verses on “Lemonade,” constantly looks to ritual and spirituality—framing it all within the black woman’s experience.
Religion in “Lemonade,” Butler explains, is generational. It resides in and among the generations of black women descended from Africa and takes from the past, present, and future. In “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé wears an Ankh necklace, a hieroglyph symbol from Egypt, now found in just about all of America’s Afrocentric shops. “My grandma said nothing real can be threatened,” Beyoncé says in “Redemption”, quoting Shire, reaching back to the advice of her spiritual foremother. In another scene—where the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner hold framed photos of their sons—a Mardi Gras Indian girl walks around a dining table in a grand southern room. She shakes her tambourine, clearing the space, cleansing it. Moments later black girls and women, including the mothers from the previous scene, sit around a long table together. They break bread together. They are a coven, spanning several generations, with even more generations present inside of them.
“Are you thankful for the hips that cracked/The deep velvet that cracked?” Beyoncé asks as Nina Simone, another artist who spoke out about the tribulations of black womanhood, plays in the background. Simone was never beholden to black respectability; she defied it at every turn. Simone—like Beyoncé, like all black women—is a blend of contradictions and nuance. Beyoncé has made a piece of artwork that stands on the shoulders of Simone, and of all black women who have come before her and are among her now. “Lemonade” is an angry protest against stereotypes and an aching vulnerability all at once. Like black womanhood is and has always been.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.