God Gave Us Lemons

By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

In the visual masterpiece that is Beyoncé’s newest visual album, Lemonade, there are several references to what is called “Black Religion,” “Black Diaspora Religion,” and/or “Africana Religiosity.” There was the expected presence of Christianity—as distinctly practiced by Black people (to riff off a point made at a recent talk by Dr. Jennifer Richardson). There were also, as many have noted, prominent references to African Diaspora religious traditions known as Lukumi, Santeria, La Regla de Ocha, Candomble and Ifa (what traditions are called is tied to place and practitioners). One of the most clear references was to the Orisha Oshun who Beyoncé appears to invoke in the video segment for the song “Hold Up.” Islam, as practiced within Black communities in the Diaspora, also makes appearances in the visual album.

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Screen shot from music video “Formation” by Beyoncé

Most notably, the visual album features an excerpt of a speech by Malcolm X in which he describes the Black woman as the most “disrespected,” “unprotected,” and “neglected” person in the United States. Malcolm X is cherished in Black communities for his unflinching commitment to global Black liberation, yet his Muslim identity is often forgotten or evacuated of its spiritual significance. Yet it was precisely Malcolm’s dedication to Islam and the forms of enlightenment he experienced both during and after his time with the Nation of Islam (NOI) that defined his approach and motivated his work toward Black liberation. Speaking of the NOI, in the video for “Formation” we see a clip of a bow tie-wearing Muslim brother selling a bean pie and The Final Call, the NOI’s newspaper. Also in “Formation,” one of the brothers who flank Beyoncé while she sings on a porch is a Muslim (in real life-my sources tell me) who dons the red fez of the Moors. There is also a more subtle reference to Islam in the album’s visual references to the film Daughters of the Dust. One of that film’s characters is a devout Muslim man named Bilal Muhammad whose presence is a reminder that Islam is also a religious tradition brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans.

The more explicit references to Islam, Malcolm, the Brother with the pie and the Moor, are what I call classic tropes of Black Muslimness in popular culture—ways Black Islam and Black Muslims typically appear in popular media. It must be noted that these classic tropes all center on the figure of the Black Muslim male—making the Black Muslim man the stand-in for all Black Muslims. This is a problem that scholars and activists are critical of in broader Black cultural representations. Therefore, Lemonade does not portray, unlike, for example, the video for Rapsody’s song “Betty Shabazz,” unambiguous visual representations of Black Muslim women. Outside of Warsan Shire’s unbelievably haunting words, which are not easily read as “Muslim” because, like Malcolm, her own Muslimness seems insignificant to most commentators, there are no sisters in khimars draped over afros, with their scarves in buns with large hoop earrings or in geles wrapped high, all of which we could consider classic, but not exhaustive, representations of Black Muslim women.


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Screen shots from music video “Betty Shabazz” by Rapsody

References to multiple Black religious traditions in Lemonade are reflective of syncretism, which occurs in many religious traditions and is characteristic of the Black religious experience in Diaspora. Syncretism refers to ways in which practices, symbols and beliefs of one or multiple religious traditions are borrowed, incorporated and/or shared, in whole or part, by other religions.[1] I see syncretism in Lemonade because the story of the album is told through drawing on a range of Black spiritualties. Beyoncé as Oshun comes through over waves, which immediately reminded me of depictions of Yemaya, also an Orisha, rising from the ocean. Water is also significant for Black Christians—baptism, by water, brings purification and forgiveness. Likewise, in Muslim tradition water is the source for ritual purification. Before each salat (prayer) and many other acts of spiritual significance and even before being lowered into the grave, the body (specific parts or in its entirety) must be washed with water to prepare the soul to meet with its Creator. Other key instances of syncretism took form in the words of Shire. Beyoncé recites: Got on my knees and said Amen and said Ameen  (not “I mean” as per the HBO subtitles). These lines juxtapose Amen and Ameen, and to that we might add, Ashe. All are phrases that prompt prayerful call and response between a congregation and a prayer leader. Likewise, she speaks of wearing white—the color worn by initiates and guides in African Diaspora religions and worn for Christian baptism. White is also the color of the pilgrim’s dress at hajj, which foretells the Islamic death shroud that is also white.


Screen shot from music video “Hold Up” by Beyoncé

There are, of course, Black people who are “not here” for all this syncretism. They adhere to very specific notions of orthodoxy. I have found this to be true among Black Muslims in the United States, even though many argue that it was the early “heterodoxy” of the NOI that prepared Black folks for the Sunni and Shi’a orthodoxy they practice today—and yet and still, they often find themselves accused of not doing Islam right. I can appreciate the impulse yet the historical record seems to imply that it is precisely the ability to be syncretic—to adapt, to improvise, to create, to reinterpret—in all forms of life, including spiritual life, that has been key to Black survival on our side of the Atlantic. As questions of Black survival once again come to the fore, perhaps there is an unintended lesson in Lemonade, as we say in Muslim tradition, “for those who reflect.”

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Screen shot from music video “Don’t Hurt Yourself” by Beyoncé

[1] I know syncretism is a contentious term, precisely because it can be used to mark a tradition or practice as “inauthentic.” I do not use the term with that meaning in mind.

Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist. She is Senior Editor of Sapelo Square and assistant professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Purdue University.

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  • May Allah (swt) reward you for your insight with this cogent analysis, Dr. Suad!

  • Very enjoyable read! Appreciate the critique on lack of black Muslim women and connecting us to identify classic tropes in black Muslim identity found in pop culture.

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