At the end of 2015 the Brooklyn Museum opened an exhibit entitled Agitprop! The name is a blend of the terms agitation and propaganda used as tactics by artists to engage the public on social issues. The mission of the exhibit was to showcase “key moments in history, where artists have reached beyond galleries and museums, using their work as a call to action to create political and social change.”
Beyoncé has made a deliberate shift from entertainer to agitator extraordinaire.
True art should provoke emotion and with over 2 million tweets in just 48 hours following the release—let’s just say her message was received— with many still reeling from what they experienced last Saturday night, myself included.
LEMONADE as I described in an earlier essay is Beyoncé’s lyrical and visual dissertation on the soul of a black woman. The context of her latest body of work is raw, painful, complex, and celebratory - and dare I say revolutionary. All from an artist who has created a global brand which had worked to transcend race—an often binding construct for many artists especially ones of color who find themselves hitting the ceiling and floor of a whitewashed industry.
LEMONADE is Agitprop art at the most mainstream level ever imagined. And this brand of unapologetically conscious and political art isn’t for (or about) everyone. Beyoncé’s art, this Formation movement, is instead specifically for black women. Consequently, it’s this direct message to black women that has left some white people upset.
Piers Morgan, a white male TV personality wrote in the Daily Mail:
“But I have to be honest, I preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one. The one who didn’t use grieving mothers to shift records and further fill her already massively enriched purse. The one who didn’t play the race card so deliberately and to my mind, unnecessarily. The one who wanted to be judged on her stupendous talent not her skin color, and wanted us all to do the same.”
Morgan isn’t the only one to feel this way about black empowerment and ownership especially coming from the mouth of a black woman. Do you remember when the white mainstream media, namely Fox news and Sean Hannity, attacked First Lady Michelle Obama for her statements about being proud of her country for the first time? Do you remember the Obama girls being attacked for their style? What about the indictment on Serena Williams’s passion on the tennis court or her body type and strength?
Each of these instances is guided by white expectations of black agitation. As Blue Telusma stated beautifully, “Being a black woman means you are sentenced to a lifetime of apologies. Quiet, deeply ingrained ones that you eventually stop noticing.”
The white expectations of black emotion, is for us, especially black women, to remain docile, tamed and obedient—to know our place and stay in our lane. For Piers Morgan and others like him—Beyoncé should be grateful that inherent racism didn’t cap her career and that she has been allowed to “soar and enrich her purse.”
“She is a global brand, the best in the business, and has generally steered studiously clear of saying or doing anything too contentious which might polarize her audience,” Morgan also wrote.
I don’t think it ever dawned on Morgan or Hannity that it’s habitually white expectations of what black excellence should look like that steers black success. That to remain “clear of controversy,” in their minds is to not acknowledge your blackness and womaness at the same time, as well as the scars this nation has left on our bodies and our souls.
This type of audacious Agitprop has been a career ender for so many, because black artists are commonly only expected to dance and sing provided white comfort isn’t disrupted.
Disruption however is exactly the point of LEMONADE, #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackGirlMagic, #PrettyPeriod and other forms of black liberation. It’s to disrupt the notion that our lives don’t matter, that black women aren’t beautiful, that our pain is irrelevant. Beyoncé isn’t changing her tune to (as Piers alluded) use black pain to sell records. Rather, as an artist she has decided not to sit back and remain unaffected by the racialized chaos that is happening around her.
Beyoncé has created such an enormous brand that she no longer needs the media or white approval to sustain her. And for an industry that is so used to packaging and selling black bodies without any consideration for black lives they are terrified.
If friction is where change occurs, then Beyoncé’s LEMONADE is stoking the sparks of a fire that has been brewing from quite some time. I suggest Morgan and others pour themselves a nice tall glass of that sweet tangy goodness and stay away from the flames before they get burnt -- and wouldn’t that be the last thing they expected?