clock menu more-arrow no yes

6 black women Beyoncé channels in Lemonade — from Warsan Shire to Zora Neale Hurston

One thing is clear from Beyoncé's new visual album Lemonade: Beyoncé is for black women.

The white people featured are few and far between. A "Becky with the good hair" mistress is mentioned to be dismissed. Black men are present, but only receive a close-up to the extent that they are useful to the story Bey is telling us of herself. This applies to everyone, from a young man riding a four-wheeler in the middle of the street to her husband to her father to Malcolm X.

Black women are centered at all times. Bey is alone in her introductory ballad, "Pray You Catch Me," and later joined by black women stationed around a Southern Gothic mansion after seeking confirmation of the feeling that her lover's been unfaithful: "Praying to catch you whispering. I'm praying you catch me listening."

Later scenes include cameos from celebrities: Serena Williams; singers Ibeyi and Chloe x Halle; young actresses Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Zendaya; and model Winnie Harlow. We also see the mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner: Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton, Gwen Carr. Bey also includes New Orleans' Queen of Creole Cuisine, Leah Chase.

HBO

And yet for all of the black women we see, there are many unseen black women whose work directly or indirectly influenced the visual album, helping Bey weave together a story of her own self-discovery through black sisterhood in Lemonade. Here are six of them.

1) Warsan Shire

For anyone who thought "poetry is dead," Beyoncé has set the record straight that it is very much alive. Poetry connects each sequence of Lemonade, specifically the work of 27-year-old Somali-British poet Warsan Shire.

Shire gained notoriety on Tumblr and Twitter, posting beautiful, gut-wrenching poems meditating on home, womanhood, and the immigrant experience.

Her chapbook, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, was published in 2011. In 2013, she became London's inaugural Young Poet Laureate and was the first recipient of Brunel University's African Poetry Prize. She was chosen as Queensland, Australia's poet-in-residence in 2014. She is currently the poetry editor for Spook.

Lemonade features a number of Shire's poems, including her most famous one, "For Women Who Are Difficult to Love," which you can watch below:


You can read a profile of Shire in the New Yorker and listen to some of her poetry here.

2) Nina Simone

Another Shire poem introduces the "Forgiveness" sequence in Lemonade. But underneath, we also hear the powerful voice of beloved pianist, singer, and activist Nina Simone singing "The Look of Love" to usher in Beyoncé's ballad "Sandcastles."

3) Toni Morrison

Despite Beyoncé's mainstream appeal, she let the world know in "Formation" and solidified in Lemonade that she is providing a layer of vulnerability that is inextricably linked to her identity as a black woman, a move that has drawn comparisons to novelist Toni Morrison.

Morrison is a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose critically acclaimed works like The Bluest Eye and Beloved, and her social commentary, stand out for her fierce unwillingness to privilege white people in the stories she tells.

Beyoncé takes this quite literally in Lemonade: The few white people in the background in "Hold Up" get no face time with the camera.

Morrison has been a vehement critic of the idea that black writers must aspire to appeal to mainstream, white audiences to be recognized.

In an interview in Conversations with Toni Morrison, Morrison said:

There is a level of appreciation that might be available only to people who understand the context of the language. The analogy that occurs to me is jazz: it is open on the one hand and both complicated and inaccessible on the other. I never asked [Leo] Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them.

4) Nefertiti

Beyoncé's visuals in "Sorry" draw heavily from African influences: Dancers on a bus are covered in white body paint by Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo. Beyoncé and her dancers are wearing outfits made of African wax print.

And yet she stands out when her braided hair is wrapped in homage to one of the most iconic former queens of Egypt: Nefertiti.

Queen Bey channels the Queen of Egypt.
Queen Bey channels the queen of Egypt.
HBO

5) Zora Neale Hurston

Surrealism and the supernatural are key to Lemonade. Black and white filters make the women, including Beyoncé, look like ghosts. She channels the Yoruba river goddess Oshun. At one point, a Mardi Gras Indian walks around the dining room table as the mothers of the movement for black lives hold pictures of their slain children before a newborn baby appears on an empty bed.

Without a doubt, these images are tied to African diasporic spiritual practices of New Orleans. But one woman who made a career collecting these stories was Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston is best known as a Harlem Renaissance novelist who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. But she was also an anthropologist who stood out for studying her own culture.

Her work included collecting African-African folklore in the South and hoodoo spiritual practices in the late 1920s and 1930s.

6) Solange

Solange — Beyoncé's younger sister, and musician and style icon in her own right — does not make a cameo in Lemonade, but you see and feel her presence everywhere.

In the first turn to the gothic mansion in "Intuition," the camera pans to black women in a similar formation to Solange's iconic 2014 wedding photo:

Beyoncé pays tribute to Solange.
Beyoncé pays tribute to Solange.
HBO

But you can also feel Solange in Beyoncé's steadfastness, a trait she has admired Solange. In an interview with Essence, Bey said:

I'm very proud of my sister and protective of her. Solange is the one person I will fight for. Don't talk about my sister; don't play with me about my sister. If you do, you'll see another side of me. I admire her, and though she's five years younger than me, I strive to be like her. She's so smart and secure. She's sensitive to people's feelings, but not afraid of what they think.

Ultimately, Lemonade is as much about Beyoncé's journey of self-affirmation as it is a tribute to black women in general. We learn at the end of the film that her grandmother inspired Lemonade, and Beyoncé transformed that inspiration into an hour-long film that puts black women at the forefront.

The ties are generational. The bonds are unwavering. And through a visual and audio love note, Beyoncé offers to black women who have passed away, who live today, and who are yet to come, a gift: the assurance that in a world where society neglects to see black women or say their names, black women recognize each other.