By Ben Jett
Food comes in many varieties, much like people do. Also like people, food has power. Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016) speaks to humanity and life through music while also utilizing the power of poetry through Warsan Shire’s verse. Aside from the album name, not much of the music and media utilizes food in ways or forms outside of the poem, “Redemption” and its use in the video and song, “All Night.” As Beyoncé reads Shire’s lyrical lines tying food to matrilineal, generational knowledge, she links this track to the title of the album, Lemonade, giving it, and the struggles told through each video and song, further meaning.
To start, the video begins with Beyoncé reading from Shire’s words: “Take one pint of water, add a half pound of sugar, the juice of 8 lemons, the zest of half lemon. Pour the water from one jug then into the other several times. Strain through a clean napkin. Grandmother, the alchemist” (Shire). This cements the poem as a recipe described through the lens of the reader’s grandmother, named an alchemist in a way to paint her as someone who creates gold out of lead. She strains a hard life through a clean napkin to produce the gold from her work. Food in this instance is a drink, something as simple as lemonade, spoken into a family recipe crafted by the reader’s alchemist grandmother. It is knowledge provided in step-by-step instructions.
Image from Wikipedia.
Lemonade attributed to gold seems natural in its coloration and, in this case, in its connection towards building a better life out of rubble. The construction of food comes to mean more than just literal in this case: It is the process of taking the scraps of what lies there and toiling over them until beauty comes to provide life and sustenance. As Shire describes, “You spun gold out of this hard life. Conjured beauty from the things left behind.” “Redemption” goes even further to suggest that the speaker “discovered the antidote in your own kitchen. Broke the curse with your own two hands.” Watching “All Night” and reading “Redemption” and “Intuition” in conjunction, it becomes clear that the broken curse is cheating, lying, and the betrayal by the “men in my blood” (Shire, “Intuition”). So, the instructions and the food are a process: the work laid into each strain of a lemon is arduous in the life each of these women face, breaking curses over lemonade.
All of this painstaking work and the compilations of instructions to produce the lemonade, the golden life that must be spun and worked for, does not end with the grandmother. The passing of recipes becomes generational knowledge both in a literal sense of passing a recipe down, as well as knowledge beyond food. It is the idea that these instructions become an idea of the road ahead from eldest to youngest, from mother to daughter. Strength comes from within, but it can also find itself in the helping hands of our ancestors who have walked many paths that intersect and diverge from each other. “You passed these instructions down to your daughter, who then passed it down to her daughter,” Shire writes. Beyoncé, who now faces the curse that plagues the women in her family, gives voice to these historical struggles in order to begin anew. Food attains sacredness in the recipes woven with knowledge of those who came before. These recipes provide context to the situations that previous generations have faced, allow for revisions and alterations, and, ultimately, empower current and future women.
Food and drink provide sustenance, but we seldom think of those who squeeze the fruit or press their hands through the dough and what keepsakes they leave behind. We see the literal meaning of generational recipes, but we rarely think of the truths imbued by the alchemy of our elders. Warsan Shire and Beyoncé utilize lemonade to mean more than just a drink to quench; rather it provides a nourishment beyond the physical. It is the grandmother and her example, her knowledge that is squeezed from the lemons of her labor and strained into a pitcher from which her daughters and their daughters derive meaning. It is guidance and unconditional love passed through generations to build upon the foundation of a hard life until each daughter can spin gold from their own tribulations.
“Beyoncé – All Night (Video)” Youtube, uploaded by Beyoncé, 30 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM89Q5Eng_M.
Shire, Warsan. “Redemption.” Lemonade.
Shire, Warsan. “Intuition.” Lemonade.