By Stephanie Shonekan, Contributing Editor, Art, Music, and Pop Culture
This year’s Grammy Awards show was one of the best I have seen in the last few years. Almost every performance was spectacular–Bruno Mars as himself and then as Prince; Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and their fiercely political statement; Adele and her beautifully vulnerable moment when she bravely revised her tribute to George Michael on live TV; Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin merging hip hop and gospel like never before; and then, of course, Beyoncé’s highly anticipated appearance satisfied our collective curiosity about her ability to perform while pregnant. She killed it.
It was mostly an enjoyable show all the way until the last five minutes when Album of the Year went to Adele’s 25 and not to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Though both albums were worthy of recognition, this was a serious blow to fans who not only enjoyed listening to Lemonade but understood its revolutionary impact on so many. Lemonade is a masterful musical offering of American music – as is Adele’s 25 – but that’s not why I think it should have won Album of the Year. Lemonade also offered something else. In this moment of Black Lives Matter, the album provided a meaningful and indelible space for my children and me to engage in deep discussion about history, feminism, blackness, love, and identity. So when Adele’s name was called for the most prestigious award that night, my heart went out to my daughter and to the scores of fans who felt that Beyoncé deserved this particular award. In that instance, I knew that we would be talking more about this award – who it went to and why – than any of the wonderful performances that night.
That night, the hashtag #BeyonceAndAdele began trending and in the days following as I followed the comments and posts on social media, I found scores of people defending Adele’s win to disappointed Beyoncé fans. These explanations ranged from pointing out that Adele, who also won Song and Record of the Year, had delivered an excellent album to commenting on how she had even been gracious enough to acknowledge the importance of Beyoncé and Lemonade in her acceptance speech. Another popular rebuttal was that Beyoncé fans should be content with the “Best Urban/Contemporary” award it received. This disingenuous and patronizing line of thinking is partly why fans were so bewildered by the “Best Album” snub. Lemonade is an expression of Beyoncé’s growth as she found her way to a more assured and proud position as a black woman. The public was more than ready for it, and perhaps even needed it. With the release of Lemonade, her fan base grew, expanding to include a wide range of people, across race, generation, nationality, and sexual orientation.
What is truly significant about Lemonade is how Beyoncé skillfully infused powerful messages of revolution, freedom, and emancipation with an Afrocentric tone. Though she may be too preachy for some, she is preaching to a choir who needs to hear these liberatory messages, and her choir is growing steadily to include people far and wide who typically turn away from message music. It jolted fans and pundits into important discussions that most pop albums don’t touch. This is why I thought it should have won the award for Album of the Year. But it seems that the Grammys’ voting members wanted to send their own message to Beyoncé, one reminiscent of the response from the country music establishment when the Dixie Chicks waded into political waters by criticizing George W. Bush several days before the invasion of Iraq: “Shut up and sing!” Despite this snub by the Academy, Beyoncé’s reach is as strong as ever. Here, I share the words of five fans, as varied in their identities as what they have to say, on why Beyoncé deserved to win Best Album of the Year.
Tanner, a 24-year-old gay white man, who identified himself in one of my classes a few years ago as the biggest Beyoncé fan I would ever meet, wrote to me the day after the Grammys. For him, her performance that night reminded him why Lemonade was so impactful: “I took notes each time I rewatched Bey’s performance and her acceptance speech. I was awestruck by the visuals, which pushed the boundaries of digital imagery and performance art. Her song choice being ‘Love Drought’ instantly struck a chord within me in a more literal sense of a drought of love in this country and in this world. I am a word person, I love lyrics and words. Words matter, like black lives. Her poetic recitation [of the track ‘Forgiveness’] was so beautiful: ‘Why are you afraid of love?’ ‘One thousand girls raise their arms,’ ‘if we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious,’ ‘so we’re gonna heal, we’re gonna start again.’ She also performed ‘Sandcastles,’ with lyrics that express restoration and rebuilding.”
In his email, Tanner added, “I needed that message during her performance and those words last night! I was near tears as I soaked up what I believe to be one of the Grammys’ best performances. I loved the visuals of the women that played behind and around Bey. Those visuals of those women of all hues reminded me of the women’s march and how awesome, beautiful, magical, and empowering women are!”
He also commented on the symbolism of her appearance: “What the Queen was wearing during her performance was inspired by the goddess, Oshun. I also loved the crown she wore. It reminded me of Lady Liberty. And I love that Beyoncé can embody the American woman and use herself as a mirror for so many women in this country and in the world. This theme to me also occurred when she accepted her 2nd Grammy of the evening for best urban contemporary album when she spoke about representation and seeing people of all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations. She used her global platform to showcase the beauty that is her heritage and her love.”
I was so struck by Tanner’s response, especially his reference to Oshun and the significance and power of traditional African belief systems. Where else would a white man learn this outside a traditional classroom?
— billboard (@billboard) February 14, 2017
My 16-year-old black daughter Ojurere*, who perhaps is as distinct from Tanner’s identity as is possible, was equally affected by the album and by what happened at the Grammys. Extremely disappointed that the album did not win, she explained: “For me, Beyoncé not winning album of the year was a snub. There is no doubt in my mind that she should have won that award. Don’t get me wrong, Adele had a wonderful album. But Beyoncé went above and beyond. It was provocative, honest, haunting, emotional, and proud. There are so many different ways to describe her album. One of them would be that it was totally comprehensive. She led us on a journey through her life; let us in on a side of her that we’d never seen before. Her album featured, pop, rock, R&B, even country. In the words of Adele, ‘What the f**k does she have to do to win album of the year?’ She’s tried commercial and happy. Lost that to Taylor Swift. She’s tried sexy and different. Lost that to Beck. Now she’s elevated her game, giving us pure art. Lost that to Adele. This is one album that was made for us. For black women. In the words of Malcolm X, ‘the most disrespected person in America is the black woman.’ Unfortunately, Queen Bey is not exempt from this, and unfortunately that’s what this felt like.”
Ojurere continued, “There are no two songs on Lemonade that sound the same or have the same message. Every single song tells a different story, letting us in on a different slice of her life. Her album is a completely different direction than any in her past. I want to slap people that say they liked old Beyoncé better because it’s like they want her to just sing and not have an opinion on anything. This new Beyoncé is more than a pretty face and a show stopping performer.”
I have to say, I agree with my daughter’s insights. But, here again, I see the power of Lemonade. I am gratified to see this teenager reach for the words of a historical figure like Malcolm X to explain the significance of Lemonade and Beyonce.
New background. pic.twitter.com/f8CQeZ3cLF
— Ti Vakabon ☆ (@christelleSTM) February 13, 2017
For Symone Lenoir, a 24-year-old black woman already secure in her black feminine identity, it wasn’t so much about Beyoncé’s political stance as it was her talent: “My argument isn’t really dependent on whether I believe one is better than the other or even that it should win on the grounds of the politics or cultural relevance of it all. I think both albums are great, but I think the matter of who stretched themselves out of their own comfort zone is what should be considered. The award isn’t about which album ‘jammed’ the most. If that was the case there’s no way Beck would’ve won against her in the past. I’m simply saying that Lemonade had an activist anthem, love ballads, a rock song, a country song, and spoken word. The production was immaculate and the range of her own personal vocal ability was demonstrated tenfold.”
Symone then compared the two albums. “Adele had a fantastic album…of ballads…which is what she always does. Lemonade is not only different for Beyonce, but it is different from virtually any other artist’s album out right now. I get that it isn’t everyone’s preference, but the award itself isn’t a People’s Choice award, it’s a critical compilation of production, packaging, vocals, instrumental, industry impact etc. Her range on the album was not only great but unique, there’s a reason why the album found nomination in such a wide range of categories. I love Adele and I enjoyed her album, but the production and sound was very much the same as her previous recordings. The difference from a musical range perspective is very clear. The award should go to the album that challenged standards and explored musicality, this year that was Beyonce.”
Symone also reflected on how bothered she was by the backlash against Adele on social media: “My disappointment is in Black folks being mad at Adele. She is such a genuine fan who gave a genuine speech, that was not a requirement and yet this insatiable need to either put the blame on her, by saying things like ‘well so what that she spoke up, she didn’t give her the award,’ or ‘she didn’t have to say her Black friends, they could just be her friends.’ This woman used her platform to tell her truth, which was that she felt Beyoncé deserved the award. I also appreciate that she invoked the Blackness of her friends as I believe the specificity matters. She recognized that the album moved her personally, but that the meaning for the Black women in her life was monumental. That’s so important and I’m just saddened to see so many folks choose anger over understanding. Beyoncé understood.”
— CNN International (@cnni) February 13, 2017
I was struck by how so many Beyoncé fans, like Symone, even in their anger, noted and praised Adele’s humility and grace.
Symone’s point was underlined by my 29-year-old niece Andrea Uku: “Some would call Adele’s wins over Beyoncé last night an upset, as the British superstar swept up Grammys for every one of the 5 categories she was nominated in. Whether you are team Adele or team Beyoncé, it is clear that the two powerhouses are ‘team each other’, and perhaps that is the takeaway from last night’s ceremony. We could all stand to learn something from the way these women support one another and build each other up. Listen, no one loves Beyoncé more than I do. Do I think she finally deserved album of the year for the monumental Lemonade? Absolutely! But guess what? Adele thought Beyoncé deserved it too, a point she made abundantly clear in her acceptance speech. It takes a special type of confidence and self-awareness to go up on a Grammy stage and humbly acknowledge that someone else deserved an award over you. Adele handled the entire situation with grace and so did Queen Bey. Instead of fans pitting the two against each other, let’s all take a page from their book and unite.”
The fact that Adele was also moved by the impact of Lemonade, as Andrea says, and was willing to publicly state that she felt that Beyoncé deserved the award invokes a sisterhood across racial boundaries. This is precisely the kind of solidarity that Lemonade evokes and why it should have won the award. Chris Rickwalder, a 50-year-old white woman explains how tense and conflicted she was watching the announcement and acceptance of the award: “I love Beyoncé! And I thought Lemonade should have won for the same reasons Adele gave in her speech. When she started talking about how the album made her feel, my ears really pricked up because I thought ‘Uh-oh, is it going to be okay that she is talking about how it makes her feel when the album wasn’t meant for her or her (presumably White) friends?’ Then she mentioned her Black friends specifically and I thought ‘okay, good’ but also ‘uh-oh’ because I knew some people wouldn’t like that she was singling out her Black friends. It was like watching someone walk a tightrope. At that point, though, she was speaking directly to Beyoncé and Beyoncé knew what she was trying to say. She knew what was in Adele’s heart and that’s the most important thing.”
I appreciate Chris’ reference to the tightrope metaphor because it conjures an image of an individual who is purposeful and careful, and that is what we need in Trump’s America. We need to be intentional and curious, and willing to cross over and meet each other where we are.
Indeed, as I reflect on the points of all these super fans, I keep coming back to something Chris said to me about Lemonade. Chris and I met about ten years ago when our daughters were in third grade and we were all in a mother-daughter book club. Ojurere and I were the only Black pair in the group. There were moments in those meetings when Ojurere and I subtly tried to raise racial awareness among the other moms and daughters. Years later, Chris and I stayed in touch. In our recent discussion of Lemonade, she said, “This all really makes me miss our mom and daughter book group. I wish we could get together with our girls and discuss Lemonade and all of this!” For all the talk about bridging the racial divide and building community across difference, Lemonade is a musical offering that does just that. For me, this sums up why Lemonade is the Album of the Year for so many of us.
*Check out the piece I wrote about my daughter Ojurere when Lemonade came out last year.