Black people have great imaginations, not just in the arts but in everyday life. We imagined ourselves as family when we were treated as property. We imagine equity and freedom when we seldom get to experience them. We imagine a generous and loving God when it often seems that if there is a God, he does not love black folks nearly as much as we love him on Sunday mornings.
In her performance at the Grammys, which had people across the country talking all Sunday night and into Monday, Beyoncé showcased her imagination. She appropriated European images of the Madonna and conjured other images of African Orishas like Oshun. She celebrated her pregnancy and gathered countless black women on stage as words by the poet Warsan Shire filled the air. The performance concluded with many black hands greeting Beyoncé as she smiled into the camera like a black Mona Lisa. It was not just the smile of a satisfied performer, but the smile of someone who knew she had just won.
When the Grammy for album of the year was awarded to Adele, I was surprised that so many people were disappointed. I thought of my mother telling me countless times that I must work twice as hard to get half as much as a white peer would get. I thought of Beyoncé’s candid remarks on losing the popular talent competition show “Star Search,” which could have given her mainstream stardom when she was still a child.
“You can actually work super hard and give everything you have, and lose. It was the best message for me,” she said. “The reality is, sometimes, you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens and it happens when it needs to happen.”
Black people who do transgressive or radical work must redefine and reimagine what winning is in a white supremacist capitalist culture. The music industry is largely run by white men, and they are the ones who decide which artists, genres and topics should be validated and funded, and which should be erased or othered. Work that gets funding and support is often work that caters to a white audience. If you create a work that does not do so, you are not simply creating a risky product. You are positioning yourself as an opponent to white institutions and business models. If you are a black person who does not try to be palatable for a white audience, but instead focuses on your own culture and experience, this is seen as a transgressive act. If you are a woman who does not try to make work that is appealing to a male audience, this is also seen as a transgressive act. Being awarded for your art is nice, but when you center radical black female thoughts and aesthetics as Beyoncé did with “Lemonade,” you’re not going to be rewarded by the same system you are subverting. “Lemonade” did not translate black womanhood for a white audience. It told a story about a black woman to other black women, and did not explain these experiences to make white people more comfortable.
Historically, whiteness does not reward black defiance. Surely we know that a culture that forgot Zora Neale Hurston until Alice Walker returned her to glory in her work wouldn’t reward Beyoncé. American culture has long punished black people who make work that explores black narratives without considering the gaze of a white consumer. Surely we know that a culture that forgot the director Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”) before Beyoncé preserved her imagery in “Lemonade” would not reward Beyoncé.
And I suspect we know that a radical black person will never be rewarded if there is safer, whiter, more apolitical choices. Beyoncé did not lose; she was punished for a radical black feminist imagination that was more than white people in the music industry could handle, or were interested in consuming. She was not going to get an award for an album that white Grammy voters could not sing along to.
Moments after the Grammys ended, DJ Khaled released a song called “Shining,” featuring Beyoncé and Jay-Z. In it, Beyoncé sings, “All of this winning. I’ve been losing my mind.” Listening to these words, I remember Beyoncé’s acceptance speech for the ‘Best Urban Contemporary Album’ Grammy. Delivered well before “Album of the Year” was announced, it was a speech Beyoncé probably would have saved if she believed she had a fighting chance to win the biggest award of the night. It was a speech that read as the ultimate thesis of “Lemonade,” and as a sociopolitical commentary about her artistic intention and the status of the world.
“My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that will give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history,” she said. “To confront issues that make us uncomfortable. It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror — first through their own families, as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House, and The Grammys, and see themselves.” Beyoncé read these words and smiled. She knew how these things work. Perhaps she had already reimagined winning for herself as a black woman. Perhaps she knew the win was in the fact that when all eyes were on her, she didn’t decide to make herself more palatable to white viewers. Instead, she let her imagination serve her goals, her child and her community.
In doing that, she changed the lives of countless black viewers, and subverted a tradition too long dominated by white executives and white taste. That is a victory that does not sit on a shelf. It is a victory an artist can enjoy for the rest of her career, knowing that her art has changed the world.