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What Beyoncé teaches us about the African diaspora in ‘Lemonade’

By now, countless think pieces and listicles have broken down Beyoncé’s ode to black womanhood in her latest visual album “Lemonade.” But the acclaimed 6th offering by the R&B diva does more than just pay homage to African-American women or southern culture: “Lemonade” offers fans a musical and visual journey through the African diaspora.

“[Lemonade] invokes so much of the Yoruba tradition, which is grounded in African tradition,” Dr. Amy Yeboah, associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University, said. “But it spreads across the diaspora. So you see it in Cuba, you see it in Louisiana. It’s a cultural tradition that connects women of the diaspora together.”

At its very beginning, the film takes the audience to the origin at the diaspora: images of stonewall tunnels allude to the dungeons of Elmina in Ghana, which Yeboah said was “the last place many African people were brought to before being brought to the Americas.” From Yoruba face markings to invoking the Middle Passage, Lemonade connects cultures along with the all-too-common stories of hardships and resilience in black women worldwide.

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In “Hold Up,” the album’s second single, Beyoncé appears as Oshun, a Yoruba water goddess of female sensuality, love and fertility. Oshun is often shown in yellow and surrounded by fresh water. Donning a flowing yellow Roberto Cavalli dress, gold jewelry and bare feet, Beyoncé channels the orisha, or goddess, by appearing in an underwater dreamlike state before emerging from two large golden doors with water rushing past her and down the stairs.

“There’s two things: you have to watch to watch visually and then you have to watch to listen. The first time around, yes, there’s the obvious conversation that people are having about her and her husband, just being a woman going through relationships,” Yeboah said. “But it’s also reflecting the power of women spiritually. She takes it deeper into African spirituality. We see this in the first of two baptisms and her emergence as an orisha.”

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Folktales of Oshun describe her malevolent temper and sinister smile when she has been wronged. In “Hold Up,” a smiling, laughing and dancing Beyoncé smashes store windows, cars and cameras with a baseball bat nicknamed “Hot Sauce,” letting fans know exactly what she means when she says “I got hot sauce in my bag.

In “Sorry,” Beyoncé narrates a spoken-word poem written by Somali-Brit Warsan Shire. The poem asks what her cheating spouse would say at her funeral after killing her with a broken heart. From there, Beyoncé is joined by fellow women on a bus called “Boy Bye,” their faces painted in Ori, a sacred Yoruba tradition.

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“This idea of inscribing who you are on your face and your body is seen throughout the diaspora,” Yeboah said. “And we see that in the use of Yoruba face markings and the women who join Beyoncé on the bus.”

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The women travel from civilization to an open field. The bus ride, representing Beyoncé’s spiritual journey after her “death,” leads her to a comfortable place where she is uplifted through sisterhood and unity. Throughout the visual album, the use of natural hairstyles and clothing, neck jewelry and beading draws inspiration from Nigeria and the Maasai of Kenya.

Beyoncé is briefly joined by Serena Williams and together, the women assert their unapologetic blackness and womanhood. Williams moves seductively and carefree in a black bodysuit, giving off a sense of sisterhood as she dances near Beyoncé, who sits in a queen-like throne.

“It’s a song for everyone who isn’t sorry for being who they are,” Yeboah said. “But there’s a part where she points to a Nina Simone record, essentially channeling how Simone would say her music is for everyone but she’s really speaking to black women. With ‘Lemonade,’ we all can hear it, but this is for a specific audience.”

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In classic African art, some of the most recognized paintings and sculptures are of women without arms, emphasizing the beauty of their faces and crowns of their hair. And toward the end of “Sorry,” Beyoncé mimics this pose as the music stops and she sits like royalty in a Nefertiti-inspired hairstyle. Her reference to “Becky with the good hair,” paired with imagery of Beyoncé embracing African beauty is a message for black women everywhere who feel the pressure to Westernize their look.

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Eventually, Beyoncé leads a line of black women dressed in white along a shoreline. They stand, unified, looking out into the water as they hold hands and lift them one by one. This second reference to baptism is heavy in this scene along with messages of faith and love, which are, the lyrics say, “strong enough to move a mountain” or “end a drought.”

This second baptism of faith and fidelity coincides with a larger narrative of a feminine journey through the diaspora, Yeboah said.

“She talks about being reborn,” Yeboah said. “As an African woman, I am born but as an African-American woman and this spiritual rebirth and what does that look like? She shows you in through the videos.”

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Finally, in “All Night,” Beyoncé sings of hope for the future. The collection of short home videos is a light and happy contrast to the rest of “Lemonade.” The playful clip emphasizes there is a light at the end of a tunnel, tying back to the dark tunnels that began the journey.

One thing that cannot be ignored is the absence of men. But their limited inclusion is purposeful. Beyoncé uses few images of men and voices such as Malcolm X talking about the plight of black women to convey their roles in the uplifting of their female counterparts. “Oftentimes we condemn black males for not speaking up or not being a part of the conversation,” Yeboah said. “But [Beyoncé] tried her best to try to pull them and let them speak in conversation with women.”

What does an-hour long visual album rich in African and southern African-American tradition do, beyond get people talking? Yeboah said it sends a message to young women of color to continue to strive and move forward.

“There’s some things in the film that just aren’t that deep but are still powerful. Whether you’re 21, 31 or 12, this empowers a woman,” she said. “If she’s trying to use those things to speak to us, we caught it. So keep talking.”

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