By Si’ahl Williams @siahlhearall
I am no priest and hardly a practitioner and I do not claim be an authority on West African religion and culture. Hell, I wasn’t even raised in the South. But from these here eyes and ears, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” is inherently African as f*** and clearly made with Black divinity.
I’m CERTAIN that I am missing some references and spirits but let’s connect some dots, shall we?
Besides the obvious things, like Beyonce being a Black woman (which is ridiculously important to the execution of this album and film) and the West African body-paintings done by Nigerian-born artist Laolu Senbanjo, 98.9% (yes, I made up this percentage) of the visuals in Lemonade are set in rural spaces in the American South or meant to represent the American South. The audience is transported to the Texas grasslands, Carolina backdrops, and Louisiana home-life.
Why is it important that this Southern BLACK woman used the South as the canvas for her West African journey through womanhood? Because when we were chained and shipped, it wasn’t just our stolen bodies that traveled to this stolen land, but our gods traveled with us. The Orisha (gods and spirits) of Ifa (the traditional Yoruba religion) and Vodun (the traditional Dahomey religion) have been on this journey with Afro-Americans (Africans of the Americas) for its entirety. Whatever we faced, they faced it too and it was their strength that kept us going no matter where we were delivered; whether it be Puerto Rico (Santeria), Brazil (Condomble), Haiti (Vodou), or right here in your Big Mamma’s Alabama kitchen (*insert any given Black church that probably has a “fix the roof” fund*).
“Who are these gods and wtf do they have to do with Beyonce’s damn-good Lemonade??” you ask. Thanks for being impatient, let me get to the juice:
Elegba is God of the Crossroads (doorways, gateways, pathways, chaos & peace) and must be invoked to access the other gods. His colors are red and black and he, depending on the name he goes by that day, changes form to be young mischievous child or a mysterious old man.
Ready to catch the references?
- PRAY YOU CATCH ME
o Bey kneels in front of a red curtain (a form of a door or gate) while wearing black and saying a prayer. She jumps signifying a release.
- HOLD UP
o When Bey reaches for the bat she takes it from a child in red & black before she begins to reek havoc (chaos)
o There’s a singular man in a straw hat on the bus– in Haitian and Louisiana Vodou, Elegba (Papa Legba) is presented as a tired man in a straw hat, a neutral party to the world around him.
Oshun is God of femininity/feminine sexuality, fertility, dance and fresh water. Her colors are yellow and white. She is the wife of Shango whom she has a deep love for and a strained relationship due to his other wives/lovers.
- PRAY YOU CATCH ME
o Upon jumping from the ledge Bey transitions from earth to water.
- HOLD UP
o After a moment of seeing herself (recognizing herself) she emerges through the doors (Elegba) in yellow accompanied by rushing white water.
o She joyously dances (twirls, spins) while causing chaos, reeling over her unfaithful husband.
- DONT HURT YOURSELF
o This one is simple: Oshun is to, and demands to be worshipped. Recognizing her BLACK FEMALE DIVINITY; Bey even got that white boy, Jack White to shout-out, “Love God HERSELF.” (Let this be your daily mantra when you see a Black Femme cross your path.)
Shango is a warrior God of fire, masculinity/masculine sexuality, and dance. Red and white are his colors and the drum beats summon him.
- 6 INCH
o Beyonce (or rather, Oshun) is bathed in red lighting, in a red gown, adorned battle headdress, and surrounded by fire.
o Arguably, the most prominent drumbeats are in this track.
o If Bey is Oshun then by default, Jay-Z is Shango: her masculine, loving, and apparently unfaithful husband who she won’t leave but will make suffer. (‘Cause y’all know Bey’s ass ain’t getting’ nobody’s divorce.)
Ibeyi are the twin gods– one more masc/fem than the other– gods of youth and childhood.
- LITERALLY, the recording artists “Ibeyi” and real-life twins, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz are among the village of women present throughout the film. They are often standing next to the younger girls like Quevenzhané Wallis.
Yemoja is the water God responsible for birthing humanity. Her most notable quality is her mermaid-like form.
- PRAY YOU CATCH ME/HOLD UP
o Beyonce, after her fall from the top of a city building into dark waters takes on a flowing and corseted attire (mermaid-like) and is seen breathing in the water.
o A “random” baby is swaddled on the bed. Soon after, the “nail technician” in the spoken word prophecies Beyonce’s daughters and their daughters as a sign of the constant flow and continuation of life through birthing.
In fact, throughout the entire album, Warsan Shire’s poetry alludes to/speaks of the entire process of child-bearing from menstruation, to the womb, to possible miscarriages, C-sections, and loving birthings.
Oya is a warrior God of rebirth & new life and is represented by storms—thunder, lightning, rain, winds, and cyclones. She is invoked and present when women gather.
- DADDY LESSONS
o There is rain and storm clouds spouting lightning while Beyonce speaks directly to her audience of women who are listening to and watching this album.
- LOVE DROUGHT
o Women in white in follow Beyonce into shallow waters symbolizing a baptism (a rebirth and re-dedication to self.
And if I were to be so bold…
I’d argue that MAWU-LISA, the creator spirit– twins (masculine and feminine) fused together, first-borns of THE creator, is present in Big Freedia’s disembodied essence in Formation:
- Big Freedia, a self-proclaimed genderqueer/genderless person is the intersection of masculine and feminine energies. Here, Freedia (and Messy Mya for that matter) represent the divinity of Queer folks of color and their sacred significance to West African spirituality.
You can say that this is all one big stretch or just coincidence, but did something not stir in you as you watched a SOUTHERN BLACK FEMME capture the WORLD’S attention for exactly 1 hour, 5 minutes, and 18 seconds as she paid homage to her Black womanhood? Was that not godly to you? Was that not spiritual for you?
If you answered “no” to the questions above, practice the mantra from “Don’t Hurt Yourself” when you see your granny, your mother, your aunty, your sister, or any given femme whose presence you enter: “Love God Herself” and remember the spirits who have been with you through all your pain and sacrifice.
*I dedicate this piece, as Beyonce did, to the mothers of our fallen brothers and sisters who transitioned from this life to the next earlier than planned…and this includes 16-year-old Amy Joyner’s mother too.*
This piece is also running on Buzzfeed, here.