Beyoncé channels ghosts of black women past

"They have come together and keep delivering messages through those of us who write, who are athletes, who heal, who reflect humanity on stage and film and those of us who sing." (Beyonce album booklet)

"They have come together and keep delivering messages through those of us who write, who are athletes, who heal, who reflect humanity on stage and film and those of us who sing." (Beyonce album booklet)

It is an ancestral intervention that Beyoncé released her new album Lemonade at the time of Prince’s death. Prince died on the same day as Nina Simone, 13 years earlier. Nina – the light and the way, the shield and the truth, the mother and the bitch, whose spirit you call on when yours is tired of black men and white people’s shit.

I picture a séance somewhere in another dimension, preparing the living for a very old and slowly returning mixture of women born on the African continent many lifetimes ago. They are performing a ritual that probably needed Prince’s spirit mixed into it to strengthen its effects on Earth. Lemonade needed us to be thirsty enough for it to quench some of us the way it did. And Prince dying left us thirsty.

This ritual, in which the past and the future are summoned and ordered to meet and embrace, is probably led by the spirits of all the dead black women who have left evidence of themselves everywhere on Earth.

They are all over the way we love, the way we fight, the way we fuck, the way we speak and don’t speak, the way we walk and the way we wear our hair. Ultimately, the way we are.

They have come together and keep delivering messages through those of us who write, who are athletes, who heal, who reflect humanity on stage and film and those of us who sing. Those like Beyoncé, who have drunk from the cups of their wisdom.

“Please, Beyoncé and Jay Z are pulling the wool over our eyes. It’s all about money. How has this changed your life?’’ asked a sceptical friend of mine on Sunday.

Annoyed that she wasn’t “in formation”, that she wasn’t understanding that something supernatural was happening, I watched Beyoncé’s visual album a second time, floating into a better part of myself, listening and watching and scrutinising the perfect fusion of music, emotion, woman, history, pain, the future, beauty, our lives and visual art, trying to find something wrong with it.

And then it hit me. This moment is too big to be about Beyoncé only. Or music. Or money. It is a collective response to a call that is coming from that other dimension, a call from Nina and all the other bad-ass ghosts in our history: Busi Mhlongo, Audre Lorde, Miriam Makeba, Queen Nzinga, Lebo Mathosa, Harriet Tubman, the Dahomey Amazons, Bi Kikude, Nehanda, Sojourner Truth, Gladys Mgudlandlu, Nefertiti, Brenda Fassie and all the women who have been written out of history and thus our memories. Women like Mamani, the 18th-century Mpondomise king who was actually a not-to-be-messed-with woman.

As if they are all speaking at the same time, through different people in different places and circumstances, they speak through the women who are currently letting the world know that they are fed up of asking the world’s permission to be beautiful and angry.

The woman who jogs with a sjambok so as to deter men’s pest-like advances. The women who carry sjamboks to protests. The women who are using their bare-breasted bodies as weapons of insurgence in response to sexual violence in our universities.

The woman Rihanna chooses to be in her new music video for the song You Need Me, where she walks up to her trifling man and shoots him square in the face. And most certainly the woman Beyoncé is in Lemonade – a woman who unapologetically occupies her most commanding self.

In the song Hold Up, she wields a baseball bat called Hot Sauce (a comical reference to the Formation lyric “I got hot sauce in my bag’’) and swings it at cars, shop windows, fire hydrants and the ghost of 2014 Jay Z, who the lyrics allege cheated on her. In this and other moments in this body of work, she joins the world’s fed-up women and fights back.

That is why it is Warsan Shire and not any other poet’s words that are spoken all over this album. When I finally responded to my friend’s text, I told her: “I don’t feel crazy or alone anymore. I feel taller and stronger. I feel seen and heard. I have met my power.”

A few moments after that, I read an interesting fact in a small book about Lesotho: the word for vagina in Lesotho is lesotho. Because vaginas are nations.

• Check out Danielle Bowler’s essay Beyoncé is an event

• Iimbali is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela


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