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The African Connections in Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’

From ballerina Michaela DePrince (Sierra Leone) to artist Laolu Senbanjo (Nigeria), “Lemonade” featured a wealth of African talent.

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Beyoncé released a stunning hour-long, “visual album” this weekend, and the world gasped. Lemonade is undeniably the most personal of Bey’s projects thus far. The 11-chapter opus documents her version of the stages of grief brought on by marital strife—from intuition to redemption.

Lemonade is filled with visual references and allusions to African deities and traditions, the work of African artists, a strong African aesthetic and Beyoncé’s own emotional turmoil.

Over the years Beyonce has been accused of many things: cultural appropriation, theft (remember that Countdown video?) and being culturally neutered for visual and commercial reasons. Instead of the usual accusations of appropriation it seems Beyonce has listened and fully immersed herself in her black womanhood without apology. Lemonade strongly showcases African artists and aesthetics. Here’s how:

She reads Somali-Brit poet Warsan Shire’s poetry in the film. Shire’s work is adapted for all the spoken word interludes between songs. (Throughout the film, Beyoncé quotes from “warsan versus melancholy (the 7 stages of being lonely),” “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love,” “The unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship),” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader.”) Read more about her here.

The black ballerina in the video for “Freedom” is 21-year-old Sierra Leone-born U.S-raised Michaela DePrince. She dances with the Dutch National Ballet and is the only dancer of African origin in the company. In 2013, she gave interview with DanceTabs and spoke about ballet and race:

“I suspect that the resistance to raising black ballerinas through the ranks might be due to an old-fashioned way of looking at beauty,” said Michaela in a 2013 interview. “Our ideal of a perfect ballerina is based on Russian ballet with its willowy blondes. If a director does not appreciate the aesthetics of African beauty, he will not want to promote a black ballerina to the status of prima, because the prima is supposed to be the most beautiful dancer. She represents the aesthetics of classical ballet, which right now are Eurocentric.” DePrince is also the author of Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina.

The video for “Sorry” includes some of the film’s most visually spectacular shots of Beyoncé and her dancers in Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo’s “afromysterics” facial markings.

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The body art on the women is the sacred art of the Ori — ritual body art from the Yoruba people by Senbanjo – a lawyer turned artist. When Senbanjo’s art appears, it marks Beyoncé beginning the spiritual ascendance from anger to healing.

In an interview with OkayAfrica Senbanjo explains further, “Art can be used to translate ideas. The Sacred Art of the Ori is basically about connection between the artist and the music. What I basically did was to connect with the different people that were painted in the video, and connect with them on the art. And also on a spiritual level. The connection is what I want people to take away.”

At one point Beyonce appears to be honoring the Mangbetu tradition of Lipombo (skull elongation) achieved through head wrapping to elongate the skulls and weaving the hair into an ever lengthening basket crown—the style denoted a person of high status in the community. The Egyptians also did it and served as an inspiration for hairdresser Kim Kimble who calls it the “Nefertiti crown.” She braided onto a milliner’s cap and braided around it into this form.

“The funnel-shaped coiffure which ended in an outward halo, originally symbolic of high social status, was considered exceptionally attractive, and took a lot of time to create. Of the ornaments that embellished the hairstyles of the Mangbetu, and related ethnic groups, combs were reserved for women.” [Sieber R., Herreman F., 2000: Hair in African Art and Culture, Prestel].

In “Freedom” Amandla Stenberg wears Nigerian designer Maki Oh’s Teardrop Adiré dress. Amaka Osakwe is a Nigerian fashion designer and creator of Maki Oh. The womenswear label is housed in Lagos and has been worn by Michelle Obama and Solange.

Other times, the looks pay homage to African culture and are worn as a complement to the body art, jacquard prints or scenes in the film. The question remains though—who made the African print jacquard court dress with the high-neck? Is it a Yinka Shonibare reference or Namibia’s Herero influence here?

For the production of Lemonade Beyonce went with a variety of talent including Uzo Emenike or as you may know him – MNEK. The Grammy-nominated Nigerian-British singer (currently known for collaborating with Zara Larsson on “Never Forget You”), songwriter, and producer is of Igbo descent. He has a songwriting credit on “Hold Up”. The visuals for the “Hold Up” were produced by Nigerian Onye Anyanwu. Wielding her baseball bat (aptly-named “Hot Sauce”)on the streets of NoLa attacking cars, police surveillance cameras, and asking: “”What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? Jealous or crazy?!”

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In other words, slay on Bey!

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