/ 25 April 2016

‘Beyoncé is an event’, helping us decide a new way of being

Shanghai maths teaching works because it is meticulous. No pupil understanding is left to chance or accident.
Shanghai maths teaching works because it is meticulous. No pupil understanding is left to chance or accident.

Six hours have past. This morning is a blur. Time morphs into a whirlwind of status updates. Text messages to respond to. Inboxes that require urgent attention. Downloads to process, unpack and convert into 140 character form. Links to follow and share. Images to post and comment on. 

Six hours have passed. Everything has shifted.  

For some, it is a regular Sunday morning. They will go about their business in the slow haze of the day. Perhaps go to church. Perhaps cook Sunday lunch. Perhaps stay in bed all day. The light in Johannesburg is bright, a memory of summer that we’ll bask in before winter takes its place. The sounds of cars animate the streets in a city symphony. 

For those of us who sit, across continents, locked to our screens. Phones and computers. iPads and televisions. Those of us who are engaged in a digital dance with this moment: nothing is quite the same. 

Lemonade has arrived. 

Beyoncé’s new addition to her visual-culture archive is a near hour-long collection of songs that takes the form of a film. A near hour that dives into the history of black womanhood, pulling universal experiences through time, and wrestling with their effects in her life. A near hour that is a dialogue with history in a direct conversation with patriarchy told through a symphony of songs.  


At the centre of the narrative is exploring how we come to know ourselves — as black women – our connections to each other, and how we reconcile with the men in our lives – our fathers, grandfathers, sons, cousins, uncles and husbands. 

Maneo Mohale emails me as she sits at Heathrow Airport. She writes that Lemonade “spans generations of patriarchy and its failed dents in femme power”. Profound. It could be described as search for an identity untethered to masculinity, yet connected to it. 

Beyoncé’s visual album probes the limitations, pain and violence of the most intimate and personal kind. They are laid bare, exposed and investigated — all their textures unfurling before our eyes, in stark high-definition.  The title plays off the adage that “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade”. Here, Beyoncé takes struggle, and turns it into breathtaking art. High art. Her name has long been joined to the very greatest in music and visual history. Here, though, it is undeniable. 

Growing up is a head-trip 
This is the singular, defining moment in music’s evolution in the digital age. Beyoncé, as she promised, has upgraded us. Audemars Piguet-ed us. Switched our mp3s to visual albums. Everyone else will not have to play catch-up. She is streets ahead. 

Fezokuhle Mthonti and I dialogue across provinces. She, in Grahamstown. I, wrestling against the day’s demands to go outside. Through voice notes, status updates and texts, we use every medium simultaneously – trying to make sense of this moment in time. Trying to understand what it means personally. What it means politically. 

How do we understand ourselves? How do we come to know ourselves? How do the fragments of who we are slowly come into formation and realign with every shift, every break, every collision with time, history, space, event? These are the questions Beyoncé seems to ask in Lemonade. But this are also the questions we ask of ourselves, as we try to make sense of our identity. Growing up is a head-trip. And it is constant. 

Fezokuhle and I understand Beyoncé as the clearest realisation of the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory of “event” — which she points out in this brilliant and incisive piece, and I allude to here. She writes: “But the point about Beyoncé for most of us, is that she exists. Beyoncé acts as a reminder that women have been running kingdoms for decades. She allows us to think about both contemporary and ancient histories of women who ran entire empires. Through her, we can think of a lineage of beautiful, black, brilliant women who have been rigorous about usurping power in an antiblack, antifemale world.”

Every song, video, album and performance by Beyoncé is for so many black women a “point of rupture” with our understanding of ourselves. For Badiou, events were moments that compel “us to decide a new way of being”. To understand ourselves a little differently. To know ourselves more intimately. If we allow them to, they shift everything. Events are transformative experiences that make us anew. We are both reformed and ever evolving in our fidelity to them, in our constant search for a personal truth in response to these moments in our lives.

We see these women through ‘Lemonade’
It is not strange to find echoes of a French philosopher in Beyoncé’s work. The oeuvre that she is expertly creating is politics in its most dense form — every music video, song, documentary and image that she puts out there a part of a rich archive, ready for theorising — like Mthonti and so many others do.  An archive that connects to Toni Morrison, Zora Neale-Hurston, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ntozake Shange, bell hooks (yes, lower case is how she spells her name), Zadie Smith, Melissa Harris-Perry, Pumla Gqola, Claudia Rankine, Koleka Putuma and so many more. 

Lemonade calls out to the complex personal processes that shape us. While none of our lives perfectly mirror each other, she excavates the universal glimpses of ourselves shared with those who reflect our hair, our skin, our eyes, our features. It is like looking in a mirror, and seeing a million reflections of yourself stare back at you. Each its own. But each connected. 

We see these women throughout Lemonade. Women who look like us — who know what it means to know ourselves, know ourselves as an “us”, an “Other” and a “them”.  


I saw my family line dragged through time. I saw generational questions excavated and probed. I saw the women I know through friendships and passing connections. I saw the protests unfolding at my alma matter and across campuses, challenging the war on our bodies. And I saw, ultimately, myself. 

We create ourselves against shifting backdrops of experience. For many black women in my immediate circle and beyond it, across oceans and the imagined borders of geography, collectively bear witness to each other through Beyoncé. 

Beyoncé makes us grapple with feminism
As Mthonti writes: “Beyoncé, for many of my closest friends, operates as an axiom for us to wrestle with our feminism and all the limitations we inherently face when thinking through our praxis.”  

We grapple with her. We grapple with each other. Debate. Contest. Theorise. Invest. Dissent. We map ourselves on our complex geography, somehow knowing that in our veins runs the blood of women who have had to understand themselves through the visual milieu that she presents in Lemonade. 

Being a Beyoncé stan (super fan) often feels like standing with feet on two tectonic plates that are always on a collision course. Things must shift. Constantly. Each new artefact is an earthquake. Beyoncé is an event. 

My phone is still blowing up. I have to pause the film between songs to address the sounds that emanate from it. Everyone is freaking out. Even those who don’t claim to belong to “The Hive” — her ultimate fans. Beyoncé is allowing us to converse with each other about each other and ourselves. Beyoncé is a conduit for a critical conversation.

She offers us hope 
What does it mean that the most powerful, greatest entertainer right now is a black woman? And that she is creating work for and about black woman? These are heady questions. I’m thinking through them.  

Still, we should be wary of mapping ourselves on other people. Be wary, as Warsan Shire’s words warn of making “homes out of human beings”. They are unreliable foundations. We should see them, and the events they bring, as occasional resting places for our understandings of ourselves. Stops on our journeys, and not destinations or oracles.  

Part of doing this is to allow Beyoncé the full breath of humanity, to not be perfect, to be able to be challenged, questioned and to be wrong, occasionally. We should not seek to measure ourselves against the narrow hallways of perfectionism — or through the lens of “fictive kinship” as Melissa Harris-Perry warns in Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. 

Still, we revel in this moment. We actively practice joy as an art form. Liberation as artisans of ourselves, our history and our present. 

In the final movements of Lemonade, the songs that reveal a shift in its pace and energy, Beyoncé offers the hope for redemption and freedom. She performs the idea that we can practise and imagine release and relief from all of the Empires that tower above our existence daily. The oppressions that filter through our existences. She offers us the hope to breath past them. The resistance to push beyond them. She offers us affirmation, recognition and the possibility of peace. 

A Frank Ocean quote kept playing on a loop in my head throughout Lemonade – part of his liner notes to Channel Orange. He says: “I’m starting to think that we are all a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness, all wanting to be seen, touched, heard, payed attention to.” As Beyoncé repeated “why can’t you see me”, I heard this quote. It underscored the film, as a rallying call to see, touch, hear and pay attention to black women. In all our complexity. In all our similarities and our difference. 

I finished watching Lemonade as the day had segued into night. Hours after I had begun. And it will be rewatched extensively this week. Because it is dense. Because I am sure I missed things. A week ago, a friend had joked that we would need time off work after Lemonade. We laughed about taking vacation days, a near week-long, to process Beyoncé slaying our existences. After knowing the effects of this work — perhaps we should have heeded our own warning. 

There is still much to unpack. Lemonade will stay with us for days — sitting in our bones and blood, asking as many questions as it answers.  

Beyoncé is an event.