Beyoncé has been known to throw people for a loop. She did it in February when she released a music video for her song “Formation” on the eve of performing it at the Super Bowl. And this weekend, she dropped her new album, “Lemonade,” along with an hour-long short film on HBO.
Beyoncé's “Formation” video evokes the Black Lives Matter movement and the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and her Super Bowl performance utilized dancers dressed as Black Panthers. But Beyoncé was criticized for using chic imagery rather than authentically making a protest.
The "Lemonade" film is cast almost exclusively with black women, including the tennis player Serena Williams and the young actress Quvenzhane Wallis. And the overarching theme seems to be about the black female experience, yet the talk has focused on Beyoncé's marriage to Jay Z.
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Julianne Escobedo Shepherd — culture editor at Jezebel and a professor of music writing at New York University — about the message behind Beyoncé's music, lyrics and video.
Beyoncé's new album, features collaborations with The Weeknd, Jack White, James Blake and Kendrick Lamar, among others. But in her hour-long special on HBO, there was a quote from Malcolm X that was used that states: "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman, the most unprotected woman in America is the black woman, the most neglected person in America is the woman." How did that fit into what Beyoncé was trying to do musically and politically with "Lemonade"?
Well, I think the entire thing was very plain. She populated the video with entirely black women, with the exception of Jay Z and her father. The narrative, a lot of people thought it was about drama, cheating and Jay Z. Perhaps it was about that, but her whole goal was to uplift black women.
What did you take away lyrically from this album? What was surprising to you and what do you think was meaningful lyrically from the album?
The surprising part was that Beyoncé was cursing, and it was very powerful because she hasn't done that before. It said to me that she's really coming into her own as an adult woman, as a grown-ass woman. She's really taken control of her image. That — accompanied with the poetry and spoken word, and just the depth and the vehemence of her lyrics — is just so powerful and heartening.
Throughout the video, Beyoncé quoted the poetry of the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. What's your take on that relationship?
She's obviously interested in poetry and words of strength. I think it's fabulous that she reached out to a young black woman poet and used her words, which are incredibly powerful. They're words that really move if you listen to them, but it's wonderful that she's reaching out and lifting up this accomplished, very young Somali-British poet.
If you have followed Beyoncé's career, from Destiny's Child, she has gone from talking and singing about things that were superficial to things that are probably the most important topics that we're talking about culturally right now. Does this feel like a natural evolution for her politically?
As she's gained more power and agency over her own work over the past few years, she's such a boss. She runs Parkwood Entertainment, she has utter control, makes real power moves in the music industry and other industries. I think maybe she's just feeling a little more artistically free to be more explicit about these things.
So in that way, it feels to you more organic than calculated?
Yeah, I don't think it's calculated. It feels so heartfelt — the act of collaboration, the amount of people she collaborated [with], the amount of powerful black women artists in the video. She's got Ibeyi, Zendaya, Chloe and Halle, who she signed to her label, and Amandla Stenberg. That's real. I don't think it's about getting famous faces in there. I think it's [more about], Look at these really strong, awesome, artistic black women.