To tell a story (even your own), in a way, is to tell someone else’s–if it were only hers, how could we connect? How could we expect her to own every word? Why must it be debunked or defined at all?
BY LISA MARIE BASILE
Lemonade emerged from darkness at a time of political unrest and volatile racism. For many, I’m sure, it also comes about as a Spring story of rebirth and the divine self; Lemonade’s grief is collective and personal–the story she weaves is everyone’s story, an eternal hurt, the story of mothers who broke at the hands of men, the story of a girl who was too naive, the story of women who take back their agency.
Everyone keeps worrying about the truth; what’s the truth? Is the artist being cheated on? Did she forgive him? Why is he seen, on camera, stroking her ankles, kissing her face? What if it’s about her own mother? What if this is a machine? What if the artist is exploiting rumors about her marriage–and feeding the beast that way? What if the beast isn’t her own?
The fact is that the artist doesn’t always need to have experienced everything first-hand. Certainly, Beyoncé is building a world, one that is universally understood enough to be appreciated: the grief of lost love, the grief of being lied-to, the relentless anger, the baptismal, personal resurrection, the lover's possible forgiveness, the healing power of culture.
One of the ways she builds this world is by featuring the words of poet Warsan Shire. In a New Yorker piece that pre-dated Lemonade by several months, it is clear that even Shire doesn’t claim her work is entirely autobiographical:
“How much of the book is autobiographical is never really made clear, but beside the point. (Though Shire has said, “I either know, or I am every person I have written about, for or as. But I do imagine them in their most intimate settings.”) It’s East African storytelling and coming-of-age memoir fused into one. It’s a first-generation woman always looking backward and forward at the same time, acknowledging that to move through life without being haunted by the past lives of your forebears is impossible.”
This is how art works. As a poet, I play a character and the character plays me–always vacillating between this point in time and that point in time and heart, time owned by me or time owned by someone else, heart owned by me, and heart owned by other. It’s the million ghosts that tell the story, and they’re needed to give it dimension.
We should give artists–and I’m calling Beyoncé an artist, here, and if you don’t like that, bye–the ability to make their art into something alchemical; a little this, a little that. It’s the potion of the collective unconscious, that which is passed down by ancestors, mixed with our consciousness and our memories, our collective experiences of love and sorrow. To tell a story (even your own), in a way, is to tell someone else’s–and if it were only hers, how could we connect? How could we expect her to own every word? Why must it be debunked or defined at all? Why isn't it ok to tell the story of something bigger?
In Lemonade, Beyoncé handles the past–through her grandmother’s voice, Shire’s voice, the history of race in America, the way love has treated her–the present, and the future: a future of hope, a heaven that is a “love without betrayal,” the dissolution of racism, the reclaiming of feminine power, nature as a symbol of forward momentum.
I think we are begging for these many voices, these many moving parts she has woven; I am happy it was a collaboration. It gives me hope for art.
And don’t drink the Haterade: “It’s her producers, it’s the songwriters, it’s the people she hired.” When people reduce any artist to this, they’re reducing art, which I suspect is antithetical to their whole point. Being an artist takes knowing how to harness the power of many, it takes knowing how to build a vision, and it takes knowing how to embody that world. Nothing can be done alone.
The time you spend questioning her writing credits, her veracity, her money – is time you could be devoting to the very moving art created by Beyoncé and her team – poets and directors and the powerful Black women she features. It says something, and if you give it the space, I’m sure it will talk to you.
Lisa Marie Basile is a NYC-based poet, editor, and writer. She’s the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine, and her work has appeared in The Establishment, Bustle, Hello Giggles, The Gloss, xoJane, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and The Huffington Post, among other sites. She is the author of Apocryphal (Noctuary Press, Uni of Buffalo) and a few chapbooks. Her work as a poet and editor have been featured in Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New York Daily News, Best American Poetry, and The Rumpus, and PANK, among others. She currently works for Hearst Digital Media, where she edits for The Mix, their contributor network. Follow her on Twitter@lisamariebasile.