Everyone has been waiting for the 2017 Grammy Awards. After a crazy, volatile 2016 when so many prolific music icons died, so much politically inspired music was released and the never-been-done visual album LEMONADE was released by Beyonce, everyone was waiting for the culmination. And with that culmination came the upset of the decade when Adele won best album honors and perhaps, more importantly, Beyonce’s prolific performance.
Where to start? One thing for sure, the spiritual and religious images in LEMONADE were not incidental.
Halos, Icons and Black Madonna
We saw glowing, yellow halos galore in this performance, most notably in a holographic image of three generations of Knowles-Carter women, including Bey’s mother Tina Knowles, and daughter Blue Ivy. Each woman had a circular halo about her head, an obvious homage to traditional iconography. Beyonce was pictured in the middle, with a light yellow veil draped across her head, pregnant belly exposed. Here, we found her version of the Black Madonna. My forthcoming book is about black women and Mariology, and I find myself cursing that this imagery was not available for me to write about before I finished my manuscript.
In my womanist Mariology, light blue is to the Virgin Mary as sapphire is to the Black Madonna. With fertility and black mother being commodified and degraded in such complex ways, for me the Black Madonna is a version of Mary who represents all of the veneration black women deserve and never received. For the executions of their sons, the lack of ceremony around their births and their becoming mothers when society often thinks they shouldn’t. Here, Beyonce gave us a visual of everything the Black Madonna means to me.
Oshun, Yoruba Goddess of Fertility
Another visual nod to the feminine divine was the use of so much gold and yellow in the performance by a pregnant Beyonce, evoking images of Oshun, an ancient African goddess. Oshun is usually depicted in yellow, flowing, feminine clothing. Oshun is a goddess of rivers and fresh water, luxury and pleasure, sexuality and fertility, and beauty and love. Beyonce was not the first one to join Oshun with the Virgin Mary, as Our Lady of Charity in the Santeria church, patron saint of Cuba, and Our Lady of Aparecida, patron saint of Brazil, are often syncretized to the idea of Oshun. Beyonce’s celebration of her fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood was emphasized throughout the performance by the singer cradling her belly while walking and sitting majestically.
I believe that because of our ties to African culture during our early times in America, that connections between African religions and black Christianity have endured. That’s how we get things like New Orleans voodoo and Caribbean Santeria. Today, however, black theology tends to be conservative (as a generalization). It’s my observation that black American Christians are extremely dubious of other, mystical religions and witchcraft or occult practices. For these Christians, Beyonce has been treading into dangerous territory with her religious imagery. People took to social media to say as much, calling her performance “demonic.” Others are put off by the deification or idol worship of Beyonce. Beyonce does have the unique effect of coming off as a queen (Queen Bey, Bow Down and all of that), and also as presenting herself as larger than life, or divine. There is a quick screen flash during the LEMONADE visual album video that says “God is God, I am Not.” Not the mention that her husband Jay-Z has referred to himself as “Hov” for years, derived from Jehovah. Urban legend also attributes the couple’s massive success to their affiliation with the Illuminati, a secret society which rules the world, and is sometimes believed to involve pledging one’s soul to the devil.
This believer finds the divinization of Beyonce to be fascinating as a cultural phenomenon, but troubling religiously. For me, the idolization of any human, be it a famous evangelist or a pop star, is indeed off-putting. But what I think the root of this phenomenon regarding Beyonce and Jay-Z may be is a subconscious desire for black images of the divine. Black people have looked at white Jesus all our lives. We are subtly taught that God’s image is white, and therefore we were not created in it. Perhaps the elevation of Beyonce to divine status is caused by a social desire to relate people of color to the divine. Or maybe I should give up my amateur pop-psychology and realize that pop idols aren’t called idols for nothing
The upset of the night came when British singer Adele took home the coveted award for Album of the Year. Adele proved that she understood the magnitude of Beyonce’s contribution in LEMONADE, and also has a good handle on intersectional feminism when she used her speech time to honor her colleague Beyonce.
The people of the Internet quickly began to cite race as the reason LEMONADE didn’t win. This upset was also reminiscent of the previously most infamous Beyonce upset when she lost to Taylor Swift in 2009, and Kanye West took the stage, interrupting Taylor and shouting out that Beyonce should have won for her album I am…Sasha Fierce.
Now, I am a big fan of Adele, and I thought it was extremely gracious of her to recognize Beyonce during her time on stage. I feel no ill will toward her about her win. I’m not sure why albums win Grammys or who votes, and I also think that art is extraordinarily subjective. However, all I will point out in this piece is the irony that Beyonce took to the stage presenting black women as unrecognized goddesses, as she esteemed them in LEMONADE, and that her groundbreaking and renowned work was beat by a white woman. The optics of it all were interesting, to say the least.
Beyonce’s performance, as usual, has made people talk. I can’t remember a performer like her in recent history, and I will remain captivated by her effect on society, and theology.