Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' resonates in Baltimore

The raging Beyoncé we witness on the first half of her latest album and hour-long film "Lemonade" expresses The Crazy Bitch in a way that we rarely get to see from a black woman. She smashes cars, she tosses a wedding ring, and she throws up her middle finger (while underappreciated tennis goddess Serena Williams bounces next to her, no less).

For me, this is freeing.

"You ain't married to no average bitch, boy," she says. "You interrupting my grinding," she yells. And then: "I'd rather be crazy."

Me too, Bey.

I love it because it's all that I'm not supposed to be: loud, angry, demanding, entitled.

On 'Don't Hurt Yourself,' Malcolm X's voice tells us why her anger, my anger, all black women's anger isn't just acceptable—it's overdue: "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman," Malcolm says. "The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman."

The album is like a love letter to the black woman. As such, Beyoncé pulls from a range of mythologies, places, languages, and stories for material.

In her essay "How Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' Exposes Inner Lives of Black Women," Zandria F. Robinson writes, "The film signifies on 'Eve's Bayou' and Julie Dash's 'Daughters of the Dust,' centers sacred Nigerian body art practices, draws on the words of Warsan Shire and grandmothers' reflections and returns again and again to Louisiana plantation spaces where black women become both the hoodoo man and the conjure woman, setting things ablaze from their very depths and surviving and healing."

And while anger is my favorite part of "Lemonade," it'd be wrong to paint the album as just angry. After the anger comes redemption, reflection, and love (self-love and love for others), born again. Beyoncé creates space for herself and the other black women to channel a whole landscape of feelings and to be seen a variety of different ways.

In the "Lemonade" film, we see women occupying roles that are traditionally held by men, Leah Donnella notes in a piece for NPR's Code Switch: "Beyoncé's decision to feature a young, female Mardi Gras Indian in 'Lemonade' serves several purposes. It's a shout-out to her family's Louisiana heritage and another example of her centering black women throughout the video," she writes. "Like so much of 'Lemonade,' the Mardi Gras Indian's appearance is a nod to inheritances, both political and personal, of womanhood and heritage and history and race."

Throughout, we see women holding hands, gathering together and we see the mothers of police brutality victims—Trayvon Martin's mother Sybrina Fulton, Michael Brown's mother Lezley McSpadden, and Eric Garner's mother Gwen Carr—lit in a flattering golden light, beautiful and solemn.

Even though "Lemonade" feels super black, there are things about it that attract people who identify as women from all cultural backgrounds. That's one of the reasons Jenny Ferretti, who works as a Digital Initiatives Librarian at MICA, became interested in it. Ferretti created a literary reference guide that provides greater context for the things seen and heard in the album. It's been making its rounds at MICA and online.

"I wasn't a really big Beyoncé fan before. I was more of a fan of hers than of her music," Ferretti says. "But 'Lemonade' has completely changed my view of her work. I feel like, compare that to some of her other songs and they're so mature and so well-developed and so interesting. Every time I listen to it, I hear something different or I'm paying attention to her musical collaborators and hearing what they've added."

She says she created the guide in part to help students at MICA learn how to seamlessly weave different influences and cultural touchstones into their own work.

"Watching 'Formation' alone and the Super Bowl performance, my first thought was, 'Who did research [on] the Black Panthers and what they looked like?' I just thought about our fiber [arts majors] and how, if they want to nod to an iconic image, how would they go about doing it without making it look ridiculous or making fun of it?"

She says that she had hoped that it would initiate some kind of instructional session for students, something that the library was able to make happen not too long ago.

"It occurred to me that our students might not be as familiar with the Black Panthers as they are with Beyoncé so it's a really great opportunity to take something like Beyoncé and base an instruction session on that, but really get into the research process."

"After 'Lemonade,' I started seeing all of these articles pop up and I was like, 'Man, I just want these in one place,'" she says. "It's not even that Beyoncé has come out and said directly, 'This is what I was thinking about when I did this.' I mean, that's the great thing about art is that you watch it with different people and they have different perspectives on what it reminds them of because of their own experiences and what they've seen."

Ferretti had previously created a guide for the Baltimore Uprising based on research about civil rights history here in Baltimore—focusing on the 1930s on through to the riot of 1968.

"I said maybe there should be a lib[rary] guide on understanding civic unrest because it's not like this is an isolated incident in this city. It's something that has a long history here," she says.

Getting back to Beyoncé, Ferretti has answers to some of the criticisms the singer has faced. There are the accusations "Lemonade" copies the work of other artists. Ferretti argues that great art always borrows from what comes before.

"Of course, everything has been redone," Ferretti says. "Art is recycled."

Note that the car windows-smashing scene in "Lemonade" nods to the 1997 experimental film "Ever Is Over All" by Pipilotti Rist (as well as Michael Jackson's 'Black Or White' video). Typically, there has been a backlash with some claiming "Lemonade" has "ripped-off" Rist, but that's a misunderstanding of "Lemonade's" uses of the past (not to mention, it ignores the hundreds of male rap videos that "rip-off" movies such as "Scarface" and never endure criticism).

And she doesn't simply copy—Beyoncé modernizes classic works with her own feminist and anti-racist remixes. She has always done this: exploring Bob Fosse dance moves for the 'Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)' music video, playing with "crazy black woman" imagery in the video for 'Ring the Alarm,' exploring antebellum South locations at least as far back as 'Deja Vu.'

It's just never been as concentrated and powerful as it is in "Lemonade." This ridiculous non-controversy is why something like Ferretti's work on "Lemonade" is so important.

"I try to set my personal feelings about her music aside, even though I love 'Lemonade,' and really look at it from an information professional's perspective, so that's what I was trying to do and not say, 'Beyoncé's great, buy her album,'" Ferretti says. "But really, could you look at that guide not having seen 'Lemonade' and find it interesting? Could you use it, could you understand it? That's what I was hoping to do with it."

Also important to Ferretti is how she approaches "Lemonade" as a non-black woman: "For me it was like everything I thought as a woman in relationships. I thought it spoke to me perfectly, what you're thinking when you think 'Is my man cheating, what's going on here?' and you have an intuition or looking crazy. I really responded to it in that way first, and then being a lover of film and movies and constantly looking for films by women of color, looking for films with people of color in it to make up most of the cast is kind of rare."

 

It's been a long, dreary Monday, but there is a crowd gathering in Station North bar and club The Crown's Red Room. People are here for a Balti Gurls-organized screening of "Lemonade." DJ Trillnatured, a member of the group, plays a mix of hip-hop and R&B and there are two Beyoncé-inspired drink specials (the Jealous or Crazy, which features spiced rum, lemonade, iced tea; and the I Ain't Sorry, made with Hennessy, lemonade, and plum bitters).

"It was actually Jessica [DJ Trillnatured]'s idea," to do screenings says Balti Gurls member Alejandra Nuñez, better known as DJ Genie. "She approached us saying, 'Hey guys we can do something every Monday night at the Crown, like screen something every Monday.' We were thinking more like longer movies but 'Lemonade' just dropped and we thought there was a lot of hype around it and we liked the message in it. So we thought, why not screen this for our first one?"

Nuñez, who has already seen 'Lemonade' twice, says that there's a message there that most women can identify with.

"I'm Hispanic but…this definitely speaks to a lot of women about how they love and how they are taught to love by society. I think that speaks to a lot of different issues that everybody is going through," she says. "I think a lot of women from all parts of the world, all women of color, Latina, Indian, black, anyone can kind of pull that message from here, but especially black woman."

By the time "Lemonade" starts to play on a large screen set up on The Crown's stage, the room's full of about 50 people. It's a testament to how good "Lemonade" is that, once it begins, hardly anybody has their cell phones out.

A large part of the audience here is white, but there are clusters of black women.

You can tell where we are because we respond the most enthusiastically. At one point, when Beyoncé throws her ring at the end of 'Don't Hurt Yourself,' someone lets out a "Yes, Bey!" and I know it's one of us.

As for the black women I am sitting with, activist Makayla Gilliam-Price of City Bloc (in March, the group held a week long Beyoncé-inspired protest focused on feminism and culturally important signifiers like headwraps and clothing) and Tuesday Barnes, a Baltimore-born, Ph.D. candidate at University of Maryland—we seat-dance and laugh. Isn't that what Beyoncé gave us this music for after all?

Barnes, who had already seen "Lemonade" several times, says that she feels a strong attachment to it: "I believe that Lemonade is a black, feminist critique not only on trauma but also perseverance."

What was her reaction the first time she saw it?

"Yassss. The first time I was just like yaaaasssss," she says, laughing. "That was the feeling. It was an affirmation. There was this sense of this collective sorrow that we could all be liberated by. Yes, we feel hurt and yeah, we've been through this but especially at the end when Beyoncé is at the table and all the mothers, it's like, we heal together. We're coming here and we're just being us."

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