Throughout June 2016, U.S. Studies Online will be publishing a series of posts to mark African American Music Appreciation Month. In the first post,Juliet Williams examines and deconstructs the complicated messages of identity within Beyoncé’s latest album, Lemonade (released 23 April, 2016).
Much of Beyoncé’s career has been defined by an image that has spoken largely to notions of the form of ‘girl power’ and independence that we associate with the emergence of postfeminist popular culture in the 1990s. Largely conceptualised as a ‘non-political’ feminist discourse, manifestations of postfeminism in popular culture have been characterised by notions of choice, individualism and the re-commodification of femininity. Examples may include artists such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry, whose works speak to the complexity of female independence and hyper-femininity. These characteristics are particularly evident in Beyoncé’s work within Destiny’s Child (notably with tracks such as “Independent Woman” and “Survivor”) as well as her early solo career (which included the singles “If I Were a Boy” and “Single Ladies”). However, her growing domination of – and influence within – the popular music industry has placed Beyoncé in a seemingly unique position in popular cultural spheres, and in turn has opened the door for her engagement with more politically fuelled themes in her music. Direct references to political feminism in her 2013 visual album, Beyoncé, signified a very intentional and tangible shift in her negotiation of gender and self-image.
The release of Lemonade (2016) and its featured tracks take this further by moving beyond the often problematically white nature of postfeminism – with critics Diana Negra and Yvonne Tasker arguing that postfeminism is “white and middle class by default” – and into the much more current conceptualisations of intersectional ‘fourth wave’ feminist discourse. Delving deeper into Lemonade as an important cultural text is vital therefore if we are to understand further its political and personal constructs of race and gender, and why Beyoncé has chosen this moment to so explicitly represent her own blackness and feminist stance.
Lemonade goes beyond the semi-surface level engagement with feminist discourse in Beyoncé and delves into a much more complex and intersectional exploration of constructed racial and gendered identity and oppression. It also goes far deeper than the much debated infidelity narrative of the text, which has so far garnered much attention and speculation on social media. Beyond this, Lemonade uses distinct visual and lyrical references to transcend the strict social boundaries established by historic systems of patriarchy and racial hierarchy in the United States. It notably deconstructs and contradicts the binaries of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’, and in doing so has created a space that is not only inclusive of women of colour, but places them at the front and centre of the narrative.
Furthermore, Lemonade speaks to the challenge of defining black identity, history and heritage, while simultaneously celebrating blackness, womanhood and humanism. Beyoncé’s negotiation of her own racial and gendered identity – in the track “Formation” in particular – celebrates personal and collective black heritage whilst at the same time calling for America to rethink its strict notions of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’. References to the visual iconography of the South – notably the use of plantation houses, Live Oaks, swamplands, antebellum costume and a focus on New Orleans – alongside lyrical references to her ‘bama’ roots, construct Beyoncé’s own blackness as that which sits within a collective African American history and heritage. In consciously positioning herself within the space of ‘authentic’ blackness (despite her commercial and economic success within the whiteness of postfeminist popular culture and the ‘industry’ more widely), Beyoncé is able to unapologetically celebrate black identity and womanhood, and very publically expose issues of discrimination in the United States.
The tracks “Forward” and “Freedom” react directly to racial injustice, with reference to the Black Lives Matter movement used to represent failed promises of freedom while also suggesting the need for strength, resistance and black self-determination. It is here that the overarching infidelity narrative seems to serve more so as a metaphor, drawing on the parallels of failed promise, contradiction and subordination that have come to shape the collective experience of African Americans – and African American women in particular – through histories and legacies of slavery, segregation and discrimination in the United States. These themes are present – both overtly and subtly – throughout the text, and tend to focus on black women with the exception of the track “Daddy Lessons”, which seemingly shifts the focus to black men’s struggles with ideological and often unattainable notions of patriarchal masculinity. Calls for women to “get in formation” speak to the collective political activism of second wave and black feminist movements of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and place black women as both a means to and measure of change. There is a particular emphasis throughout the text on the need for self-determined black female excellence, with lyrics such as, “I’ma keep running, cause a winner don’t quit on themselves” in “Freedom” and, “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it” in “Formation”. Furthermore, the appearance of a number of famous black women who have succeeded within the whiteness of mainstream sport and popular culture – notably tennis star Serena Williams, the featured image and music of Nina Simone, and up and coming stars Chloe and Halle Bailey, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, and Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz – all speak to notions of black female excellence.
Throughout Lemonade Beyoncé focuses on past, present and future, using poetry from Somalie-British poet Warsan Shire, and visual iconography to tell a story of a collective black female identity as that which has long been shaped by others. She speaks to Melissa Harris-Perry’s concept of the ‘crooked room’ throughout the text, bringing into the mainstream the experience of black women and their inability to ‘stand upright’ in an America long shaped by systems of white patriarchy. Clips of black women bound together by white garments suggestive of straightjackets, and the use of narrative poetry that speaks to the challenge of negotiating ‘white’ standards of femininity – “I can wear her skin over mine; her hair over mine; her hands as gloves…” – seek to highlight the ‘double bind’ of racist and sexist oppression experienced by women of colour throughout America’s history.
In exploring constructed racial and gendered identity as a product of privileged systems of whiteness Beyoncé highlights the still very present social and political structures that shape the lives of people of colour, women and minorities around the world today. In attempting to explore and deconstruct definitions of race and gender she creates a wide-reaching dialogue that captures the zeitgeist of the current social and political moment in the United States. While not without its faults – some critics question how she constructs her own blackness within the text – Beyoncé has successfully engaged audiences in these conversations, and in doing so has simultaneously brought women of colour into the predominantly white sphere of American popular culture and music. As such, Lemonade becomes a significant and important cultural text that reacts to current political and social issues facing African American communities and women of colour in the twenty-first century. While Beyoncé remains in a uniquely influential position within the music industry and continues to negotiate issues of race, gender and feminism through her music and public persona, she will continue to engage audiences in conversations surrounding identity, inequality and representation, and in doing so becomes an important figure that cultural critics and feminist scholars must engage with.
 Beyoncé, Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia. 2016. CD.
 Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, Duke University Press, 2007. Pp2.
 Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Yale University Press; London. 2011.
 Poetry from Warsan Shire, credited with Film Adaptation and Poetry in Lemonade; Parkwood Entertainment, 2016.