The moment when Beyoncé opened the giant wooden doors in her visual album Lemonade, releasing a torrent of water and almost symbolically allowing herself (and us) to breathe, many viewers knew that magic was happening.
“I remember distinctly whispering ‘Maferefun Ochún’ when I saw the doors and the waterfalls coming down the stairs,” says Ynanna Djehuty, an Afro-Dominican doula and author of the blog These Waters Run Deep. She has been a devotee of ancestral spiritual practices for several years. “Ochún is often simplified to just sweetness and honey.” Djehuty continues, “To see a haunting representation of Ochún as both beautiful goddess and scorned hateful woman is to see her in her entirety.”
Oshun (or Ochún) is one of many Orishas celebrated in the Yoruba tradition, which originated from Nigeria, Benin and Togo, and Afro-Latinx spiritual practices that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This culture arrived in the Americas specifically because enslaved black people were stolen from what is now Southwest Nigeria and Benin in West Africa. Oshun is particularly popular in Brazil through the religion of Candomblé, and in Cuba through Santería. As Afro-Latinxs continue fighting for visibility and racial justice, the visual album and its inclusion of Ibeyi gives us Afro-Latinxs a sense of validation as part of the larger African diaspora. Furthermore, it reminds us of the strength of Yoruba in black culture.
Maximiliano Goiz, whose Facebook post on Oshun and the aesthetics of the song “Hold Up” was widely shared across social media, told us that the imagery was surreal. Goiz is a brown, queer, half-Cuban half-Mexican priest initiated into the tradition 13 years ago.
“I honestly just feel so privileged that although #Lemonade is not necessarily directed at me [but rather at black women], it still [somehow] connected to my Cuban roots and the Afro-Diaspora at large and that I was able to see myself reflected in it, even in the simplest way,” Goiz says. He grew up surrounded by Lucumí and Santería. “You have to remember that the only reasons why these traditions are alive is because they have been able to survive centuries of enslavement, oppression, criminalization, scrutiny, and basically everything under the sun.”
As a non-practitioner who often prays to Oshun, I felt it was necessary to ask devotees how they feel about Beyoncé’s use of Yoruba tradition. Goiz views the imagery not as appropriation, but as an allusion to the tradition, specifically because Beyoncé didn’t perform any sacred ceremonies or don religious adornments.
Lemonade reminds us that we’re in the midst of an Afro-Diasporic art renaissance.
Goiz and Djehuty both agree that seeing Oshun represented in all her fullness and complexity was powerful – particularly the side of her that is “scorned” in Beyoncé’s free-for-all bat rampage.
The Roberto Cavalli yellow dress, which Beyoncé wears, was picked because Jonas Akerlund, the director of “Hold Up,” insisted her gown be yellow. We don’t know the reasoning behind that choice, but the connection is undeniable. Some suggest that this particular moment borrows from Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All, an audiovisual installation from 1997. While these aspects may be true, it doesn’t negate that the aesthetics do allude to Oshun, even coincidentally. That visual depth enriches this scene with what Goiz and Djehuty describe.
Still, the decision to include explicit Yoruba aesthetics in Lemonade is notable. The video also featured the work of Laolu Senbanjo, a Brooklyn-based Nigerian artist, who added his sacred Yoruba practice to the visual album.
Another element to consider in Lemonade’s tribute to Oshun is the Carters’ controversial 2013 trip to Cuba. While Beyoncé and Jay-Z were on the island, they met with two renowned Afro-Cuban female artists, Haila María Mompié and Juana Bacallao. Mompié specializes in son and timba, two rhythms that have ties to sacred Santería hymns. Juana Bacallao, whose birth name is Neris Amelia Martínez Salazar, is known as “la diosa negra de los cabarets cubanos.” Her breakout role was actually in a play titled El Milagro de Ochún (Oshun’s Miracle). Bacallao has not only had a huge influence on Cuban culture, she’s even performed with high-profile artists like Nat King Cole. While in Cuba, the Carters also watched a performance by the children’s theatre troupe La Colmenita, where, according to local reports, Beyoncé couldn’t help but get up and dance to conga.
The cameo from French-Cuban duo Ibeyi represents another shout out to Yoruba tradition. The twin sisters sing in English, Spanish, and Yoruba, and both have been very open about the importance of Afro-spirituality in their music. The song “River,” which Beyoncé featured in an Instagram post last summer, draws inspiration from Oshun.
Although it has its shortcomings, the visual album portrays blackness as diverse.
The truth is that traditional Yoruba concepts permeate our culture beyond the immediately visible. Renowned scholar Robert Farris Thompson attributes the concept of “cool” and even the importance of aesthetics in the larger African diaspora to Yoruba. In his generative text Flash of the Spirit (1983), the art historian states, “Yoruba assess everything aesthetically.”
Thompson claims that the concept of “cool” emerged from the Yoruba tradition of itutu. In this excerpt from Fred Iseman’s piece on Thompson in Rolling Stone, “cool” is tied to the etymology of “get down.” Iseman writes, “It moves to the Yoruba concepts of cool (itutu) and command (àshe); lateral versus sagittal walking; the aesthetics of drumming; the significance of offbeat phrasing; call-and-response; and finally Muhammad Ali.” He continues to explain how much of African-American vernacular has roots in Yoruba and Ki-Kongo. Nonetheless, Robert Farris Thompson’s work hasn’t been void of critique, especially for its tendency to center this connection rather than looking at the art as autonomous.
Lemonade is a powerful ode to black women. Indeed, it is an artwork that encompasses more than a story about cheating. From the collaboration with Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, to the visual aesthetics of “Hold Up, ” Beyoncé uses a story of heartbreak and betrayal to shed a light on some of the deepest issues that black women face. Although it has its shortcomings, the visual album portrays blackness as diverse, without diluting the specific reality of black women in the United States, as well as Beyoncé’s own story.
With the current climate of race relations and the surge of Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, Beyoncé may be feeling pressure to create more conscious works of art. Lemonade reminds us that we’re in the midst of what seems to be an Afro-Diasporic art renaissance, one where she and many of the other powerful black women featured in her album will continue to speak out about racial justice. This latest work of art by Queen Bey essentially ends silences around many aspects of our culture, centering black women and potentially daring to acknowledge neglected spiritual practices that have femme deities. What a time to be alive.
Update, 4/29/16, 10:27 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Maximiliano Goiz was initiated as a Yoruba priest nine years ago. He was initiated 13 years ago.