The Uncomfortable Truths Beyonce + Solange Made Us Confront in 2016
By Mae Wiskin
In a year where every norm, tradition, and expectation has been turned on its head, it has become difficult to determine how we got here, and also, how exactly we should move forward. This year has been rough, really rough, but if nothing else, 2016 has forced us all to examine who we are and what we value.
In trying to understand this brutal and confounding election cycle, I turned to Beyonce and Solange. The Knowles sisters have been cultural bombshells for well over a decade, and this year they both dropped albums, and delivered performances that almost broke the Internet. “Lemonade” and “A Seat at the Table,” are very different; however, the albums share a clear dialogic relationship. They complement one another. It is almost as if the sisters are communicating to each other and us through the tracks.
Prior to 2016, it was rare for Beyonce to conduct any interviews or speak directly to a public audience. Beyonce is arguably one of the most public private people in the game. The power of Beyoncé isn’t that she’s a spokeswoman, but that she herself is a statement and a symbol. The Knowles sisters allow their art to speak for itself and this year, they forced us to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths about 2016.
The Sisterhood is fractured
We learned after the election that the Sisterhood is not as strong as we may have thought. Americans are still deeply divided by race and gender – whereas 94 percent of African American women and 68 percent of Latino female voters chose Hillary Clinton, 53 percent of all white female voters picked Trump, a number which left many women of color feeling disheartened and betrayed. The release of “Lemonade” was striking for a number of reasons; not only was it full of strong brown and black females standing together in solidarity, but also, it showed us the shared struggle and pain of generations of women and girls. The album is a representation of all the anger, sorrow, betrayal, frustration, and Diaspora suffering women of color feel every day.
The video is an unapologetic cultural rebuke on behalf of pained women everywhere, whether they’re running for office or waiting for their partner to come home at 3am. “Lemonade” binds women of all backgrounds together. Beyonce signifies that in order to strengthen the bonds of Sisterhood, we must commit to empowering and trusting one another. Even though the notion of intersectional Sisterhood is in a fragile state, Beyonce reminds us of our resiliency, power, and moral courage. At the end of the song “Freedom,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Hattie White says, “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” We have already come a long way, but it’s still a man’s world. We have a lot of work to do so let’s keep moving forward.
We are unwilling to talk honestly about race relations in America
After this year, people can no longer lament that Beyoncé is unwilling to speak out on social justice issues. Numerous conservatives went nuts after Beyoncé’s politically charged Super Bowl 50 performance of “Formation,” where she paid tribute to not only the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X, but also the Black Lives Matter movement. In line with much of her work this year, Beyonce’s performance revolved around black pride, and also highlighted growing racial tension in America. Over 112 million people tuned in to watch the halftime show, and while many people praised her for giving black voices a platform, her critics expressed their discontent by calling her “anti-police” and spreading #BoycottBeyonce over social media.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attacked Beyonce’s performance on Fox.“I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive,” Giuliani stated, before continuing how he would have preferred “decent wholesome entertainment.” Whether you find criticism of Beyonce racially motivated is up for debate. What’s interesting here is that in true Bey form, she never commented on her performance; the imagery and unambiguous manner in which she performed speaks for itself.
What many fail to understand here, Giuliani included, is that Beyonce and Solange’s celebration and embrace of Blackness is not anti-white, anti-troop, anti-police, or anti-American. The sisters righteous indignation stems from the reality that white fragility often disrupts black affirmation. “Lemonade” and “A Seat at the Table,” are made to help people of color heal. Solange and Beyonce are inviting you to take a seat at their table; not the other way around.
Country music for only white people is a myth…and so is a white America
Beyonce’s country track “Daddy Lessons,” from “Lemonade,” which she performed with the Dixie Chicks at the 50th annual Country Music Awards, elicited a similar type of fear and rage we saw, but failed to understand, with voters all year. To many watching at home, Beyonce’s presence on stage represented an intrusion at an awards show that has traditionally been defined by a majority white audience.The backlash Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks received after the CMAs epitomized the us vs. them attitude that has come to define America today.
The online racist vitriol that followed the performance was stunning, but as usual, elicited no response from Beyonce. To many, Beyonce does not necessarily “look country” or “dress country” or align with conservative ideals; thus raising the question of what is the identity of country music in America? The politics of country music is nothing new and it’s possible that what the outrage is really about is fear of change.
The irony of the backlash is that country music has a deeply rich history that has been shaped as much by black culture and black influences as by the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Politics and music are inextricably linked; however, it cannot be claimed by any one ideology or any one viewpoint of what country music (or America) should look like. Beyonce and Solange have never stopped being Southern Black woman. And Beyonce’s work continues to highlight not only black influences on country, but also, the ever expanding definition of the genre. We cannot forget that it was Ray Charles, an African American man, who in 1962, forever changed the face of country music. His album, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” transcended racial boundaries in a way we had never seen through music before.
Our path forward must be together
Wearing a polka-dot pantsuit at the Cleveland concert for Hillary, Beyoncé attempted to inspire voter turnout among African American and millennial voters by telling a roaring crowd that she stood with Hillary, “I want my daughter to grow up seeing a woman lead our country, and know that her possibilities are limitless.” Unlike with “Lemonade,” the CMAs and the Super Bowl, Beyonce spoke freely and openly to the crowd in Ohio, imploring them to appreciate the historic significance of electing the first female president. Her message was pointed and defiant. She had finally become both spokesperson and statement.
In a year that has been defined by its divisiveness, Beyonce, and to a much subtler extent Solange, have continuously produced courageous work that is bound to the ideals of inclusivity, gender justice, and racial pride. In “A Seat At The Table,” Solange engages in a type of “call and response” and asks us (and Beyonce), “Where do we go from here?” Our path forward may be difficult to see; but Beyonce, in her song “Forward,” gives us some clarity, singing: “Forward/ Best foot first just in case/ When we made our way ‘til now/ It’s time to listen, it’s time to fight/ Forward / Now we’re going to hold doors open for a while / Now we can be open for a while/ Forward.”
It is in this light that the two albums can be understood as being in conversation with one another. In many ways, their albums are thematically unified, deeply Southern in nature, and speak to issues of black beauty, disempowerment, police brutality, and womanhood. Beyonce and Solange are trying to not only engage us, but also tell us about self-discovery and the black experience in America today. If “Lemonade” is about Sisterhood, “A Seat at the Table,” addresses communities of color at large. Solange’s album is emotionally raw, and includes interludes, which denote black affirmation and struggle in equal measure.
Black art and Black Lives Matter
This year over 223 black lives were lost at the hands of police. Solange documents bearing witness to that trauma and explores, among many things, the challenges associated with living and celebrating in a black and brown body. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the track “Mad,” which forces us to question the stereotypes linked to black female anger – “I ran into this girl, I said, “I’m tired of explaining” / Man, this shit is draining / But i’m not really allowed to be mad.” And also, beauty’s double standards, in the song, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” where Solange sings about both the politicization of the black body, and also, why it’s not OK to touch a black person’s hair.
Nothing about what Solange and Beyonce is saying is new; however, we are still not listening. In “F.U.B.U.” (For Us By Us), Solange essentially asks what would this nation be like if people valued black people as much as they valued black culture, black art and black music? It’s almost 2017 and even though a new year feels like a fresh start, a break from everything that’s happened before it, we no longer have the privilege of shielding our eyes. It’s time to get uncomfortable, folks. Now let’s get in formation.
Mae Wiskin is a writer and managing editor based in Brooklyn. After the election she was in such a state of shock that she helped found The Every Day Project, an initiative that makes activism simple, accessible, and achievable. Follow her @evrydayproject.