ACI Artist Leader Stephen Hamilton
Project: "Yoruba Empowerment in Nigeria" 2015-16
Placement: Osogbo, Nigeria
Hometown: Boston, USA
Due to where I am in the world and at the suggestion of a friend, I wanted to express my thoughts on Beyonce's visual album "Lemonade," and the poignant references to Yoruba religion and philosophy encoded within it. This perspective is my own and I do not claim to be an expert or intend to dismiss or to devalue other perspectives. I am simply drawn to comment due to the nature of my work, and the fact that I have been living in Nigeria (Yorubaland to be more specific) for the last seven months.
I want to start off by saying that Beyonce is not the first artist to incorporate these (Yoruba) themes sonically and visually into their work. Angelique Kidjo, Ibeyi, Oshun NYC, Azaelia Banks, and others have also delved into this realm. Beyonce is simply the latest and arguably the most well-known (within the realm of pop music) to do so.
Throughout “Lemonade,” there are numerous references to the many facets of Oshun, one of the most prominent Orishas in the Yoruba Pantheon. Like the other female Orishas, Oshun is representative of Yoruba concepts of womanhood and the feminine powers of the universe. She is the embodiment of fertility, love, coolness, patience and wealth.
She is the spirit of the Oshun river and the sacred mother of Osogbo, a town built along its banks. As recorded in Oshetura, one of the sacred corpus of Yoruba poetry, she was among the first Orisha (Irunmole) to descend from Orun (Sky, Heaven, abode of Olorun the creator and sustainer of all things) into the universe to create the physical realm. She is the only female among them. It is in this Ese (poem within the Odu) that both the creative and destructive powers of Oshun are demonstrated. When the Orisha attempted to form the world they excluded her, devaluing the awesome and essential power that she contained. Their heads fell into chaos, and life on earth failed to prosper. When they returned to Olorun they asked why they had failed. Olorun (who is far beyond gender) responded by asking "What of Oshun? What of the woman that I sent with you?” They responded by saying that she was but a woman. Then, Olorun told them that they are knowing what that did not know before. The other Orishas returned to her and begged her forgiveness. Only then could creation resume unabated and the male and female forces could be in equilibrium. It is said by some Babalawo/Iyanifa (Ifa priests and priestesses) that failure of the first attempt at creation was due to Oshun forming the Iyami (the witches or more accurately our powerful mothers). The Iyami are the powerful unseen feminine forces that can work both for and against mankind. They demand recognition, inclusion, and respect. They wreak havoc on societies, on families, and on individuals that ignore their relevance, their importance, and their essential function of balancing creation. The Iyami are addressed and respected each time a babalawo/Iyanifa casts the divination chain and in the numerous prayers and blessings associated with Ifa. The Orisha all possess contradictory aspects to their nature. Oshun is love, beauty, fertility, coolness and abundance, but when pushed to extremes, ignored, or disrespected, she can be wrathful. Her anger and her sadness can bringchaos and destruction. In Yoruba lore, the Orisha are the manifestation of nature, art, and creative and destructive forces as well as the deified ancestors who came to embody these forces on earth. They are the manifestation of the Yoruba perception of the visible and unseenforces personified in human forms— in Black forms.
Throughout “Lemonade,” there are numerous references to not only Oshun, but also the Iyami. In the visual album, Beyonce emerges from a door in a rush of water and is dressed in yellow. Yellow is Oshun's color representative of the sweetness of honey and the glimmer of brass.
Beyonce is smiling as she smashes windows, pipes, and signs. She has been betrayed, excluded, devalued and disrespected by her husband. The family and by extension the world reams in the chaos that ensues.
The visual album also includes the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, two women who have faced unimaginable loss, pain, and sadness. Their pain and their narratives as well as the narratives of the countless other black mothers—our mothers—have been ignored, disregarded and dismissed. They have been told through the injustices of our legal system that the lives of their children as well as their pain as mothers don't matter. Such is the dilemma of the Black woman. As stated by Malcolm X (who is quoted in “Lemonade”), no one in America today is as disrespected as the Black woman. This is an unfortunate reality faced by Black women in the Americas, both within and outside of the Black community. Their beauty, strength, intelligence, and essential value to our society are constantly disregarded. They face continuous disrespect not only from society as a whole, but also from some Black men who unabashedly spit some of the most vile and hateful vitriol at women—women who are our own sisters and our own mothers.
Oshun as well as Oya, Yemoja, Oba, Iya Mapo, and the countless other female Orisha represent the power of the feminine forces of the universe as embodied in women, as embodied in Black women. To me, Beyonce’s visual album is a visual ode to the Black Woman, her power, her pain, and society's need to respect and to include her.
It is about the chaos that ensues when she has been denigrated and the prosperity that comes only from her inclusion, reconciliation, and healing. I am not a Beyonce fanatic, however, I can appreciate the symbolism artfully used in this work. She may not be the first artist to explore these issues of Blackness and womanhood, by any means. However, she explores these issues and gets us thinking at a very important time. I hope at this very crucial time in history, we begin to question and explore this issues of identity, history, and social activism by giving attention to all artists, listening to their social messages, and pondering these issues ourselves.