How Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Reclaims Rock’s Black Female Legacy
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” Malcolm X says in a sample used on Beyoncé‘s Lemonade. “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” He was talking about society in general, but the same is true of popular art, specifically rock. The female artists who helped build rock are often forgotten, but the re-imagination of what rock can be and who can sing it by Beyoncé and her superstar peers is giving the genre a second life – and may be what can save it.
On Lemonade, Beyoncé’s choice to include both a raucous blues-rock track — “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” featuring Jack White — as well as an Americana romp — “Daddy Lessons” — is as political as the poetry she intertwines with her songs on her visual album. Lemonade is, in part, an album about black legacy, and her choice to tap more fully into rock, a genre she has touched lightly upon before, is an important nod to the often forgotten place black women had in inspiring and forming the genre. Seen in this light, the fierce and vengeful tone of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” takes on a broader cultural meaning.
Black women, particularly black female blues singers, are part of the foundation from which rock & roll was built. The raw, unhinged vocal style and sexual ambiguity of Big Mama Thornton, the innovative guitar playing of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the frenetic stage presence of Tina Turner shaped our ideas of what it means to not only play but embody rock music. Yet our conception of what the rock musician looks like has become starkly white, boxing black performers into R&B and soul categories no matter how genre-bending they are. During Prince’s lifetime, for example, his music was often labeled as R&B, though his style and guitar playing comes from the rock tradition. One of rock’s biggest innovators, Prince just happened to fuse R&B, funk and pop into his sound as well.
Beyoncé’s own rock moment follows up Rihanna covering Tame Impala on Anti, an album that trades in the EDM production of her biggest hits for funk and psychedelic rock. Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard has become the new face of Southern rock, and her band has been given its due with the success of sophomore album Sound & Color, which took home three Grammy Awards at this year’s ceremony as well as a coveted nomination for Album of the Year. The Shakes’ win for Best Rock Song was the first time a black woman had been nominated — and won — in the category since Tracy Chapman in 1997.
The presence of black women in the mainstream performing rock is an act of reclamation, especially at a time when the genre’s clout on radio and the charts is severely diminished. Beyoncé’s choice to not only work with White, a forerunner of the movement to bring back blues-rock in the new millennium, as well as sample Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which was itself a reworked version of a song by black Delta blues artists Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, is a shrewd statement on the genre’s complex lineage. She re-appropriates a hard-rock version of a blues classic that gained more traction and recognition than the original, while teaming up with the new standard bearer for the intermingling of blues and rock.