The Marketeers Club: The Poetry of Queen Bey

Tayler Lord is a publicist at UNP and very eager to tell you that her first concert was Destiny’s Child when she was 10.

On April 23, Beyoncé released her sixth studio album and short film Lemonade and my world blurred. As someone who will probably always be recovering from the 2013 surprise Beyoncé drop, I was a little concerned that this new album wouldn’t live up to the last. Someone will probably be by soon to revoke my Beyhive membership because I should never have doubted Queen Bey. Lemonade is an unapologetic celebration of black women; a celebration of our pain, joy, anger, love, tears, beauty, and talent. With this stunning visual album, Bey has made a major contribution to a largely underrepresented conversation about black women as artists, wives, mothers, and people.

We’ve been living in a post-Lemonade world for nearly two months now, and, while I might be verging on overkill (I’m at an average of about three listens-through per day), I’m still in awe of the artistry and masterfulness of the album, both musically and visually. I’ve read about a million think-pieces on the amazing styling and set design, Beyonce’s feminism, and whether or not Hova now sleeps on the couch. But, as the Marketing Department’s resident poetry nerd, my favorite thing about Lemonade is the use of poetry by Warsan Shire.

Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet based in London, is the embodiment of #BlackGirlMagic. She writes about her female experience living/loving/hurting/growing in the African diaspora with a rich language that even poetry haters could (and should) love. I first heard of Shire two years ago when I saw a quote of hers on Tumblr: I am a lover without a lover/I’m lovely and lonely/I belong deeply to myself. I came across Shire again here at UNP when I learned that she was the winner of the 2013 African Poetry Prize. You can read more about other African Poetry Prize winners whose books are published by UNP through the African Poetry Book Foundation on their website.  

My favorite poetry moment in Lemonade is from the scene called “Denial.” Beyoncé floats in a room filled with water as she reads Shire’s words:

I tried to change. Closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake. Fasted for 60 days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word. In that time, my hair, I grew past my ankles. I slept on a mat on the floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. Went to the basement, confessed my sins, and was baptized in a river. I got on my knees and said ‘amen’ and said ‘I mean.’

I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet. I threw myself into a volcano. I drank the blood and drank the wine. I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God. I crossed myself and thought I saw the devil. I grew thickened skin on my feet, I bathed in bleach, and plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know . . . Are you cheating on me?

Women are supposed to make themselves quiet and clean and chaste and pure to distract from (or perhaps atone for) the messiness of womanhood. This is especially true for black women, who are traditionally seen as even messier than their white counterparts. We must go to greater lengths to appear put together in the face of a society that has already deemed us less-than.

Through Shire’s words, we see how Beyoncé (better, the character she portrays here) tried to tame and contain herself to distract from the realities of her relationship, and perhaps to appeal to or appease her partner, whose best interests lie in her remaining quiet and uncurious. But nothing she does can distract her from the question she needs to ask—are you cheating on me?

The poem is perfectly coupled with the song that follows, “HOLD UP”, in which we see Beyoncé in a yellow dress, wielding a bat labeled Hot Sauce. She can’t be contained in the face of something as shattering as infidelity in the relationship. She wide-smiles at us while smashing windows and lets us know that, given the choice between jealous and crazy, she’d rather be crazy. The stereotype of the crazy black women is pervasive, and we usually write her off as ugly, overly-emotional, and distinctly unlovable. But here, Beyoncé is destructive and scary and beautiful. In this incredibly powerful (and danceable) statement, Beyoncé and Warsan Shire reclaim crazy.

There are a lot of other gorgeous poetry moments throughout Lemonade, as well as striking visuals and cameos by a number of talented and important black women, all anchored by what might be Beyoncé’s best music to date. I encourage you to watch it at least twice, and definitely seek out some more of Warsan Shire’s poetry.

I’ll be here, bracing myself for whatever magic Queen Bey brings next.