While Black America was mourning the loss and celebrating the life and legacy of Prince Rogers Nelson, Beyonce simultaneously dropped a longform video and album entitled Lemonade on the masses yearning for another dose of bedazzled, radio-friendly pop-star princess hits.
After all the hubub surrounding the unannounced release, I felt obliged to take a look and listen at the HBO special. I have to admit I am not a music reviewer. I am also not one of the deifying Beyonce fans and I can neither confirm nor deny that my curiosity was fueled by reports of footage of Serena twerking. We may never know. What I saw, heard and dissected left me admittedly surprised at one little-talked about fact in all of the think pieces and reviews by mainstream media and blogs about Queen Bey’s latest work:
It is Black as fuck.
Let’s be clear: Beyonce is a pop star. She knows who her audience is, and so do we, so no one should expect her music to conjure up images of Black fists and sound like Public Enemy. Lemonade won’t become the theme music to the Black uprising. However, within the confines of popular music that teenage white girls can dance to, she delivers a personal, wide-ranging emotional piece of art that is clearly the product of a Black Woman.
As a hater of the subconscious adoption and reflexive response of groupthink phrases, I have grown to hate the term “unapologetic.” Everyone is unapologetic now. At its base, the popularity of the phrase is symbolic of the widespread narcissism that permeates culture. No one is asking you to apologize for being you, Sabrina. No one even knows who the hell Sabrina is , so stop with the #UnapologeticallySabrina nonsense. But considering her fan base, Beyonce is unapologetically Black in Lemonade. Even the title–which comes from a speech by Jay-Z’s grandmother who says “I had my ups and downs, but I always found the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade”–is rife with the pain and magic unique to Black girls. She infuses reggae, jazz and Bayou music into the tracks. She talks about “wading in the water” and “rioting through your borders” alongside Kendrick Lamar in Freedom. She refers to “Becky with the good hair…” We know what Beyonce is talking about.
Again, Bey is a pop star and moreover, she is an astute businesswoman who has always managed to latch on to the popular trends and culture, so her neo-wokeness may just be the latest marketing strategy in a career that seems to always surf the emerging popular whimsy to the top of the charts. There is no way to know. Ms. Knowles’ choices in Lemonade do highlight one inescapable fact, however:
Being Black is in now, and Beyonce wants you to know she is Black.
If you are under 30, it is possible that you believe this is a new fad. Speaking to a group of teenagers a week ago, I was told never before has the best rapper in hip hop or the biggest artist in music (she was referring to Kendrick Lamar) been so “unapologetically black.” After I cringed, I implored her to look up KRS-One. Or Marvin Gaye. Or James Brown. Or Billie Holiday. As a matter of fact, historically, Black pop stars have always written and sang about the plight of their people and what was going on around them. The rest of America (pronounced “wyt pee-pull”) just had the privilege to ignore the stinging commentary and pluck out the individual stuff that made them want to dance or make love.
It is only in the last generation that the most common Black music ceased being uplifting and became detrimental. Somewhere along the line we stopped shaking our money-makers and started popping our pussies. Gangsta rap became just rap, and the artists who talked about Blackness, positivity or simply told the truth were relegated to the bottom of the crates, back of the stores and into the subcategory of “conscious hip hop.” If Lauryn Hill tried to get a record deal in 2016, an astute record executive would probably advise her to get butt implants. Outkast would be advised to talk less about making music in the dungeon and more about “flipping birds” in the “trap.”
But everything is a circle and history always repeats itself. Kendrick Lamar is slinging his black-as-fuck lyrics all over the music industry and daring anyone to say anything. J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive (which I believe to be a greater, more mature and nuanced work of art than To Pimp a Butterfly) is still lingering at the top of hip hop charts almost 2 years after its release. The best movie of 2016 (Yes, best. Do you know a single person who saw Bridge of Spies?) was Straight Outta Compton–a movie about about a gangsta rap group whose director saw the need to infuse subplots of police brutality and race into the story. Even the semi-literate trap music pays perfunctory nods to Black Lives Matter and the movement agains police brutality. “Stay Woke” is a hashtag. Melanin be poppin’. Blackness is not just a fad, it is damn near a pre-requisite now.
Which brings us back to Prince.
Amid all the hyperbolic perspective about the life of The Purple One, it cannot be overstated how Black Prince was. Unlike Beyonce, he was not the product of a well-oiled music industry machine. His Blackness was quiet, and real, and although I can’t remake Prince’s discography into a collection of pro-Black freedom songs, perhaps he is symbolic of the possibilities of Black Music in another way: Prince was always woke. Whether strutting across stages with his ass cheeks out, defying the cultural norms of gender or writing “Slave” across his face, Prince had so few fucks to give that at the height of his powers and fame, he said “Fuck it. I’mma change my name to a heiroglyph.” A fucking symbol. He would not let music companies stream his music–until he found out Tidal was Black-owned, saying, “”Where we finally get into a position to run things — we all should help.” He went to Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray. He came up with the idea for and funded the initiative to teach computer coding to poor kids called “Yes We Code.” Even though there are hundreds of songs in his catalog that talk about Blackness, when he performed at the Super Bowl he did not herald the angels of the Black Panthers. He was not “unapologetically Black.” He was just Black.
Perhaps that is how Blackness should work in the age of “Staying Woke.” Maybe Beyonce is Black like she was once a “survivor” or Sasha Fierce. Maybe she has grown into a place where she is comfortable enough to reveal her inner self without worrying about how the masses will receive it. We also can’t overlook the possibility that having a Black child in this world might have awakened a previously undisturbed mixture of motherhood, artistic provocation and self-awareness that can’t tamped down…
Or maybe like Prince, she has quietly run out of fucks to give.