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Beyoncé - Lemonade (The Visual Album) 12
Still from Beyonce's Lemonade (The Visual Album)

Beyoncé: a perfectly flawed role model for young black women

Lemonade shows how difficult it can be to love men, and why it’s important to love yourself. She might not be flawless, but she’s honest

On Lemonade, Beyoncé’s new visual album and unashamed exploration of black womanhood, it’s interesting that, on a record which inevitably looks at masculinity through the female lens, the most resounding words come from the mouth of Malcolm X. “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman,” his voice intones on the most angry, rock-inspired song of the album, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”.

Although some critics have said that Beyoncé’s latest offering is “more preoccupied with the state of her marriage than it (is) the state of the world”, taken as a package with the visuals, I believe Lemonade sees Beyoncé examining more than her own emotions. This is an album for and about black women – and that, in the current climate, is overtly political. With Lemonade, she has become role model for young black women, elevating them with her esteemed status as Queen B. Clearly, like her sister Solange, she believes in the power of Black Girl Magic, and importantly, she gives space to young black people to shine.

Amandla Stenberg, the teen star who has spent the year being carefree, making short films, exploring their gender identity and championing racial diversity, makes an appearance, as does 19-year-old Disney actress Zendaya Coleman and 12-year-old Beasts of the Southern Wild Oscar winner Quvenzhané Wallis. Twenty-one-year-old model Winnie Harlow, known for proudly showing her vitiligo, is also caught on camera, along with a fabulous cameo from fellow vitiligo-‘afflicted’ Michaela DePrince (also 21), a ballet dancer who was orphaned in Sierra Leone and adopted by at US family when she was four. By featuring all of these talented, beautiful young women, Beyoncé is making a few things clear – at this stage, she wants her legacy, perhaps to her daughter, perhaps to the world, to be one of continuity and collaboration among black women.

The most powerful continuity comes from the spoken word segments used as interludes throughout Lemonade, written by 27-year-old British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. Beyoncé has never been afraid of supporting literary figures – author and academic Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was heard reading her essay We Should All Be Feminists on 2014’s “***Flawless” – and Shire is no exception. I’ve loved her work since she first popped up as young poet laureate for London in 2013, and the delicacy of her work complements Beyoncé’s music perfectly. She has been able to channel Shire’s words, speaking for the women left behind, betrayed and broken, and, most potently, the words adapted from perhaps Shire’s most well-known work, “For Girls Who Are Difficult to Love”: “You are terrifying / And strange and beautiful / Something not everyone knows how to love”.

Shire’s words on feminine individuality also help to highlight how Beyoncé’s feminism is developing. While within Lemonade she does tend to conflate womanhood with the way men feel about her, ultimately a lot of the album seems to be about how difficult it can be to love men and therefore why it is so important to love yourself and have strong bonds with other women. With someone as intensely private as Beyoncé, who hadn’t given a face-to-face interview for a fair few years until Elle spoke to her this month, it’s difficult to know how honest the album is. It was released on Jay Z’s streaming service, Tidal, and despite the numerous allusions to his infidelity, most prominently in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (“If you try this shit again / You gon’ lose your wife”), he’s also featured in the video for “All Night”. But the reaction it’s getting from other women is its reality. I’ve already seen so many affecting posts from my female peers, revealing how they can relate to the emotions Lemonade portrays.

Lemonade is an album packed with iconic black imagery: Beyoncé with her hair piled into a Nefertiti-style headdress in “Sorry”, southern gothic scenes where black women and girls roam in the interlude after “Freedom”, and nods to the Black Lives Matter movement threaded throughout the video. There’s a heartbreaking moment when we see the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown holding up photographs of their sons to the camera in “Forward”.

I wrote before on “Formation” – the last song on Lemonade but the first to be released, two months ago – saying that it reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel about the plight of the African American woman in reconstruction-era masculinised and racist American south. With Lemonade, that feeling is solidified. Much of the footage, especially in the latter half of the video and during “Freedom” – which is already being called an “African American anthem for empowerment” – looks like Morrison’s books come to life. The themes of love, witchery and rage are all there. Consequently, I’m down to keep “dranking” that Lemonade for at least a month (or at least until my free Tidal subscription runs out). Beyoncé is a role model for me, flaws and all.