On Lemonade, or the Art of Constructed Exclusion

Beyoncé in the HBO special for “Lemonade.”

The beauty of diversity in almost all realms of the popular consciousness is that it inherently welcomes dissonant and divergent narratives. In a truly diverse space, no one story possesses all the same characteristics, and the varying elements that make up one story can impact someone else in a particular way that doesn’t quite resonate with others. I wrote a bit about this when parsing Ghost in the Shell a bit ago. Art, like anything worth its salt, can only thrive when allowed to be as eclectic, diverse, and multifaceted as the people it aims to affect. So why has everyone said that Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade is not for you (you being either a male, a white person, or a critic with some negative comments about the album)?

The answer to this is very simple, but gets marred in the specific nature of the project itself. Because of the multifaceted nature of art, it’s reasonable to say that some pieces of art are highly specialized. Look, for example, at one of my favorite poems, “Incident” by Countee Cullen:

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

The intended audience of this piece is relatively clear. It was written by a black man about an experience of racism that he had as a child. It’s very obvious that it’s meant to speak to a specific experience that only Black people can identify with (I doubt any white person has been called “nigger” unless they were specifically trying to pass as black). If it were released today and became popular, undoubtedly people would say that it was “for Black people.” And it is. The simple answer to the above question is simply this: art has an intended audience. People write and create with the intention of their work meaning something to someone, and that someone informs the whole process of creation. Musicians and musical artists like Beyoncé create music with the goal of that music appealing to certain people in certain ways (no one can say that Beyoncé’s music is meant to solely appeal to a metalhead or a ska music fan).

But just because a piece of art is intended for a certain audience doesn’t exclude other people from engaging it. In fact, the specificity of that experience almost makes it imperative that people not privy to the experience read it. One of the purest goals of art is to communicate experiences, to lend voice to something that has gone unarticulated. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” took the anger boiling beneath the surface of Black America and made it overt and accessible. When people in Selma or Montgomery or Baltimore were asked why they were mad, they didn’t have to explain whiteness or racism to an uninterested audience of whites. They had a common touchstone. And in that, communication of the grievances of the Civil Rights Movement became not only easier, but it became more open.

Noted academic, cultural critic, and winner of 2016’s “Best Person To Run For President Unsuccessfully” Award Larry Lessig once said that “the hardest task for social or political activists is to find a way to get people to wonder again about what we all believe is true. The challenge is to sow doubt.” And one of the brilliant things about art is that it can create that doubt in a way that’s not overly smug or preachy. It makes doubt cool.

HBO’s promotional image for Lemonade. It’s also the image that adorns the album’s cover.

And doubt is where Lemonade excels. Whether it’s an individualized doubt about the strength of your own relationships (“If Jay Z could cheat on Beyoncé of all people, what’s keeping my significant other in check?”) or doubt about the lot of black women in a nation built off systematically depriving them of humanity, the beauty of Lemonade is that it inspires that doubt in everyone, regardless of race.

But the true problem with this is that this doubt only really exists in an ideal context. In Lemonade’s case, the salaciousness of Jay Z’s infidelity became more important than the reconciliation that ends the project or the project’s overall message of racial unity. No one heeded Beyoncé’s call to get into formation, and instead took up arms against no-name boogeyman “Becky with the Good Hair.” The political purpose of the project, the galvanizing uncertainty, had turned into something ugly. Instead of learning to appreciate our relationships and seeing them as integral pieces of the struggle against racism and sexism, we as a people turned on each other.

As the message lost its potency on its intended audience, people from the outside looked to scrub the message away all together. Piers Morgan, who to date stands as the worst thing CNN has ever lent airtime to, wrote a horrendous article about how Beyoncé’s politics had made her work worse for people like him, that is to say, white men who simply want Beyoncé to soundtrack their parties and keep singing about pleasing men and upgrading to DirecTV. Reviews at noted music publications like Pitchfork and The Guardian didn’t even attempt to unpack the political aspects of the album, instead only engaging its surface level narrative of coping with infidelity. In this we can see why black people would want to protect Lemonade. For thousands of people on Instagram and Twitter, the message of the album was lost in an avalanche of projected anger. “How dare anyone make Queen Bey unhappy?!”

So ultimately, the issues Beyoncé hoped to create discussion around were either scrubbed away by liberal white publications afraid to even try or by loudmouths on the right who see Beyoncé’s acknowledgments of race as somehow threatening or violent (anytime a Black woman voices an unpopular opinion, it’s “violent” or “attitudinal” in the eyes of white media). Ironically enough, the racism and sexism that Bey put on blast with Lemonade came to define the album in the eyes of a people unwilling to sit down with it for fear that it wasn’t for them or they’d miss the substance of it. In a twist better and worse than any movie, Beyoncé loudly and succinctly declared her independence, only for millions of columns to see her only in the context of her man. She called attention to the racism she and other women of color regularly face, only for that racism to color every criticism of the work (and make no mistake, Morgan’s piece is just the tip of an iceberg of racist and sexist bullshit written about this album). It’s enough to make anyone approach commentary or criticism of the album with extreme ire and caution.

But even in all this, it’s important that art remain an open enterprise. The solution to the misreading or dismissal of Black art isn’t to limit that art to an echo chamber of Black people. Forcing people to confront their own assumptions, to sow the seeds of doubt, to regularly and forcefully push the envelope, is the ultimate purpose of art as a political and social performance. To limit that, or to do away with it altogether, would make art nothing more than a commercial enterprise, one that reifies the systems of power and knowledge production that subjugates people in the first place.

Constructed exclusion only serves to limit the reach and effect of the art you’re protecting. People can’t fall into formation without hearing their marching orders. Men can’t possible comprehend the experiences of women without being allowed some discussion of those experiences. And white people will never see how Blackness operates if they hit a wall when they try to access Black arts more popular forms. In allowing access to these experiences, art has the ability to radically reshape someone’s view of the world and lend them insight into experiences that they’d never be able to experience from their subject position. That’s the power of something like Lemonade. And no fanatical Beyoncé stan or racist Brit can take that away. Art has always had an audience. The best art both reaches that audience, and transcends it.

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