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Beyoncé’s Lemonade: A Lesson on Appreciating Art That Wasn’t Made for You

on April 27, 2016, 4:33pm

In the short time it has been out in the world, Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade, has already become a rare kind of artifact: a piece of art that is both expansive and exclusive. The entertainment world has been talking about little else but the film and the album since the former debuted Saturday night as an HBO special. The buzz about the identity of “Becky with the good hair” — an unfolding saga that has so far involved two possible Beckys, Instagram innuendo, and a deluge of bee and lemon emojis — has arguably reached more people than the album itself.

At the same time, Lemonade was not made for everyone. Everything about the hour-long film’s cast, aesthetic, setting, collaborators, and inspirations point to who it intended to affirm and uplift: black women, specifically black women who hail from the American South. The music video and Super Bowl halftime performance of “Formation” foreshadowed this specificity, and the joyful ferocity with which black women have claimed and celebrated “Formation”, and now Lemonade, as their own has been startling for non-black viewers who want to join the party.

White people in particular have been confused about how to react to such a masterfully crafted piece of art. It’s an album that many of them greatly enjoy, even in the face of articles telling them to rein in their takes and stop asking to be included. Some have struggled to grasp (or flat-out rejected) the idea that popular art can be made for a specific audience in the first place, especially in an internet age where you can watch or listen to anything for free or cheap, where Genius annotations can explain the most obscure references, and where the wider the audience, supposedly the better. In this context, it seems futile and unrealistic to demand restrictions on who gets to watch or discuss what.

Lemonade was not made for me, either. As a Singaporean Chinese woman, I would be lying if I said I was familiar with the complex, myriad ways Beyoncé explores black female personhood, sexuality, and spirituality in the film. But as a non-American, non-white woman, what I am familiar with is appreciating art that is not and will never be made with me in mind.

This is a process that white people are now struggling with more publicly than ever. It seems to me that much of the pain in this process comes from entitlement, which often stems from ignorance. I wonder: Do white people in the Western world understand just how much of global popular culture is tailored to their tastes and their histories? Do white people in the Western world know that, for non-white people who wish to participate in and discuss global popular culture, being well-versed in white cultural and musical history is almost compulsory? Do white people in the Western world know how laughable it is that they feel excluded just because a popular work of art dares to be less culturally legible to them?

We’ve already seen white entitlement play out this year in the reactions to Rihanna’s use of Barbadian patois in her hit song “Work”, which can be summed up in a single question: “But what is she singing?” Many didn’t stop at expressions of confusion or ignorance, which are natural reactions to art that is foreign or unfamiliar. Some derided her “indecipherable” lyrics and joked about her apparent inability to sing “properly.” More egregiously, numerous white amateurs took it upon themselves to “fix” her enunciation in a series of bloodless, soulless covers. Whitewashed and straightened to the point of corniness, these covers strip the song of its loose, carefree energy and erase the Caribbean culture “Work” is a proud product of. They also show that sometimes white people should just, you know, stop.

In Lemonade’s case, the idea that white people should just restrain themselves appears to be more hurtful to them than the rich, unapologetic blackness of the film itself. People (with some notable, backwards exceptions) have long accepted the fact that Beyoncé can and does do whatever she wants. Beyoncé crafts her own narrative, and she is a master at it. But entitled whites bristle when other black women — her fiercely protective fans — try to wield that same power. They chafe under the terms of engagement these fans have laid out: Stay out of the conversation and give up your platform to black women who can speak on Lemonade with more credibility than you can.

For non-black people, keeping our thoughts on the meaning of Lemonade to ourselves can only be a good thing. More likely to lack context and knowledge, our thoughts are simply less useful to everyone else. Why pretend to be an authority on something you have a much higher chance of misinterpreting or interpreting poorly? Why take up the cultural space that Beyoncé has cleared for black women to shine? We have our own spaces; we can open our own. White people: You already control most of the space. Withholding your thoughts is easier for you than for anyone else.

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The Internet and well-meaning ideas of multiculturalism have led people to believe that our cultural landscape is limitless, with more than enough room for different kinds of art by different kinds of people. But racist hierarchies still control and apportion cultural space. A white person with an opinion may not necessarily silence a person of color, but they will take up more space. Their opinion becomes authority far more easily. They squeeze out smaller voices, and they will be paid more for their trouble.

In a world where art from the margins is so easily consumed and appropriated, allowing marginalized artists control over how that art is received barely seems like just recompense. Being asked to step aside every once in awhile does not mean a lifelong moratorium on your opinion. In fact, why not celebrate the intelligence and insight of others? Thoughts take time to gestate, but Lemonade, as rich and textured as it is, has already inspired some incredible writing. There is no better time to listen and learn from lively, insightful conversations by more well-qualified commentators (such as this one, this one, or this one) or to read up so you might see the art in a more informed context. It is a chance for you to discover new ideas about cultures and practices you are not familiar with and share those perspectives widely. There will come a time when your knowledge and lived experience will come in handy. Lemonade just isn’t it.

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