Lemonade, an album by Beyonce, is arguably among her most multi-layered works. While primarily associated with black women empowerment, it also takes on the celebration of the black culture and the awe of femininity to the new level. The album is most strongly associated with the song “Formation” and an accompanying video, noteworthy for its powerful imagery and apparent political context. Nevertheless, several other compositions throughout the album develop the black feminism ideas further by the inclusion of historical references and commenting on the recent examples of inequality and injustice. Overall, the album can be considered as a shift from the empowerment of the ideas of black feminism towards the proactive action, with “Formation” serving as its central persuasive device.
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“Formation” is arguably a centerpiece of the album, both in terms of content that aligns with the rest of the songs and in terms of media coverage. The song displays several themes pertinent to the contemporary female hip-hop scene, namely the empowering messages to women and the call to action. In fact, despite the largely peaceful and non-aggressive nature, the song is reminiscent of a call to arms as Beyonce continuously uses the phrase “get information” throughout the song, which evokes the imagery of the military formations and brings up the association with the revolution. This impression is further strengthened by the tempo and beat chosen for the song, which resembles a military march and is merged with the stomping of the performers closer to the end of the song. Marching is a strong symbol commonly used to depict the aggressive stance and, in some cases, the revolutionary attitudes (Neumeyer 2013).
It is also worth pointing out that the song contains numerous references to the hip-hop culture of the early nineties in the form of short interludes in a male voice. This period in hip hop is characterized by extreme disrespect for women, explicit sexual themes, high level of vulgarity, and sexist motives (Rose 2008). The Beyonce’s song does not directly target these issues but includes short snippets (about ten words each) which allude to the era with the characteristic male voice and the use of derogatory statements dense with explicit lyrics. Later in the song, Beyonce turns the situation around in a move popular in the contemporary female hip-hop scene by displaying the derogatory attitude towards the male sexual partner (Clay 2008). Specifically, she promises to look into the possibility of giving her lover a ride in her private helicopter in case he pleases her. While certainly well-represented in the male-centric hip-hop culture, such statements have only recently become popular from the female perspective and are usually meant to take advantage of the perceived contrast between the expectations of the male and female population. These inclusions do not alter the main focus of the song but instead provide additional context to the concerns expressed in the song. Those familiar with the hip-hop scene of the previous decade will likely immediately recognize the reference, which is expected to substantiate the call to action present in the song.
The music video for the song is closely related to its contents and provides many more references to the history of the black culture and its modern environment. Most prominently, the video contains numerous depictions of Louisiana Creole culture. It famously opens with sceneries of the aftermath of Katrina, which, in addition to the apparent direct impact on the lives of Louisiana residents, can be considered an allegory to the devastation caused by the white supremacy. The first half of the video contains recognizable images of Antebellum America, with characteristic costumes, interiors, and architecture which, given the context of the song, is more reminiscent of the history of slave labor on Southern plantations rather than the luxury and welfare depicted in the video. Other references to Creole culture include the portrayal of traditional meals and, in one short instance at the beginning, a twerking session. The latter has become a staple mark of the black culture both due to its roots in the dance-drum continuum, relevant for the African population and through its connection to the contemporary dancing scene (Gaunt 2015). Simply put, Beyonce utilized all the references associated with the black femininity to deliver the message and make its impact stronger.
Another important aspect of the album that is visible in the discussed song is the high level of political context, largely unusual for Beyonce’s works. This can be observed most prominently in the ending sequence of the video, where the fully equipped riot squad can be seen in formation. Closer to the end, it becomes apparent that the squad is facing a single black child. After the camera changes the angle, the graffiti that reads “stop shooting us” becomes visible on the wall. This is an apparent reference to the controversial shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, and the subsequent public outcry that included the “hands up campaign” (the squad in the video is seen with their hands up) (Tolliver et al. 2016).
Such imagery further emphasizes the oppression of the black population and solidifies the singer’s message of “getting in formation.” Another apparent political reference is the newspaper that can be seen in one of the scenes with the image of Martin Luther King Jr. and the headline that reads “the truth.” This particular theme was taken to a new level during The Formation World Tour, where Beyonce was seen wearing clothing with the silhouette of a black panther. This was most likely a reference to the Black Panther Party, a radical organization that fought for the rights of the black people and received much criticism for its nationalist attitudes. This assertion can be corroborated by the Beyonce’s Super Bowl 50 performance, where she and her dancing team were wearing black berets and leather outfits reminiscent of the Black Panthers’ iconic appearance, and posed for the photographers with the raised fists – a clear reference to the cultural phenomenon initiated by Carlos and Smith following their victory at the Olympic Games (Harvey, Horne, and Safai 2013).
It should be acknowledged that on the overall, neither the song nor the accompanying video is nearly as aggressive or radical as some of the sources it cites. Rather, all the references analyzed above make it more persuasive and provide the substance behind Beyonce’s empowering message. Other songs from the album, such as, “Freedom” and “Forward,” are much less dense with political allusions and bitter tones, and instead, encourage empowerment through the promotion of feminine beauty and the uniqueness of black culture.
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Lemonade is a logical continuation of the development of ideas of black femininity in contemporary popular music. However, it also marks a shift towards a more proactive stance with the inclusion of recognizable political imagery and a greater emphasis on the cultural loss associated with white supremacy. In this context, “Formation” can be considered a flagship song that marks the new direction while the rest of the compositions on the album serve to empower black women to take action.
Clay, Andreana. 2008. “Like an Old Soul Record: Black Feminism, Queer Sexuality, and the Hip-Hop Generation.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8 (1): 53-73.
Gaunt, Kyra. 2015. “YouTube, Twerking & You: Context Collapse and the Handheld Co‐Presence of Black Girls and Miley Cyrus.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 27 (3): 244-273.
Harvey, Jean, John Horne, and Parissa Safai. 2013. Sport and Social Movements: From the Local to the Global. New York: A&C Black.
Neumeyer, David. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rose, Tricia. 2008. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop – And Why It Matters. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
Tolliver, Willie, Bernadette Hadden, Fabienne Snowden, and Robyn Brown-Manning. 2016. “Police Killings of Unarmed Black People: Centering Race and Racism in Human Behavior and the Social Environment Content.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 26 (3-4): 279-286.