Southern Girl: Beyoncé, Badu, and Southern Black Womanhood


Beyoncé is country as cornbread. As bamafied as okra and stewed tomatoes, watermelon with salt, grits, and gravy. She is sweet as honeysuckle nectar, as hot as the chow-chow that goes on your greens. She is boudin in the backseat. She is sweet tea and pound cake and fried catfish. One month and numberless debates after the release of her hotly anticipated visual album Lemonade, one thing is strikingly, abundantly clear: Beyoncé is black, and Southern, down to her very core.

None of the imagery of Lemonade is foreign to those of us who grew up in the South or who have Southern roots. Anyone with a Big Mama worth her salt recognized the women harvesting from a side garden, or the women in white wading in the water; the sound of cicadas and birds, or the heavy four-poster bed with white chenille blankets. These visuals felt shockingly fresh but also startlingly quotidian—everyday, country blackness normalized by one of the biggest pop stars in American history.

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

That quote, from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, is the spiritual ancestor of what Lemonade represents. Sonically this album is about the perils and pleasures of an imperfect relationship, but visually it is about black women, particularly Southern ones. Country black women. And it’s about remembering what our grandmothers showed us about surviving. They knew they wouldn’t be around forever, but they showed us the tools for turning our lemons into lemonade even when we didn’t realize that is what they were doing—communing and lamenting together in the wake of destruction, how to care for ourselves and feed our families often without the resources our communities so desperately need.

writing's on the wallLemonade feels literary, almost like the inside of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It is, at least musically, Beyoncé’s “gettin ready ta shave Mister” moment—fed up with her husband and only held together by the love of her sister-friends. The love between Celie and the women in her life is the same thick love that Beyoncé shows to her tribe of women in this film. And although Beyoncé is not ‘literary’ in a traditional sense, she’s using her power to usher in new black poetic (Warsan Shire) musical (Ibeyi, Chloe and Halley Bailey) and modeling (Jourdan Dunn, Zendaya) talent in a manner similar to that of the literary patrons of yesteryear.

There’s a popular meme often used as a source for inspiration for anyone who needs an extra boost of motivation: “You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.” Not only is this faulty because Beyoncé has a team of people who keep her operation running, but it obscures the real work she’s done to get to icon status. For those who don’t remember, she’s come a long way from Destiny’s Child, the girl group from Texas with distinctively Southern sensibilities, voices, and harmonies that were cultivated in the church. Also remember that before Beyoncé adopted her signature blonde lace front, she was known for wearing braids and cornrows—staple hairstyles for black women for centuries before the Kardashians discovered “boxer braids.”

Some people even argued that Beyoncé was nothing but a dumb pop star; in fact for years she was roundly mocked for her speaking voice, deep and syrupy thick with heavy with Southern drawl. Daytime talk show host Wendy Williams went so far as to say, “You know Beyoncé can’t talk. She sounds like she has a fifth grade education.” Perhaps derision like that explains Beyoncé’s reticence in recent years to do interviews. Why speak in public when your singing voice is the one that holds infinitely more power?

beyonceBey’s transformation from Southern belle songstress into a mega pop star has been inch by painstaking inch. She sacrificed to be where she is—her father as manager, her mother as designer, her Southern diet of rich foods, her privacy, and, to some degree, her independence. On stage she might wear a lion’s mane of weave, but when she is at home, or on vacation, she wears all cornrows, PoeticJustice-era-Janet-Jackson braids, or some other protective styling. When black women see that, we see ourselves. With Lemonade, we get cornrow Beyoncé, but with a more edge. When we see her on porches that look like those of our grandmothers, we rejoice. When we see her consoling and acknowledging the mothers of slain black children (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown among them), and later learn about her financial contributions to relevant social justice movements, we are moved to tears. It should never be a surprise when black women or the Beyhive go up for King B: she sees us.

Though I am in the prime age range of black girls who grew up with Destiny’s Child, I was not a fan of Beyoncé or her work until her solo career; Destiny’s Child holds no nostalgia or power over me. Instead, it was Erykah Badu, another light-eyed, caramel-skinned, heavy bottomed Texan, who was instrumental in how I saw myself as a Southern black girl. The release of Baduizm in 1996 offered my thirteen-year-old self a new way to look at black womanhood.

The late nineties were a time of glitz and flash in hip-hop culture—shiny suits, sunglasses with hearts encrusted on the lenses—and Badu was the antithesis of that. She was beautiful, deep, and country as all get out. This time period represented the beginning of the shift of hip-hop music from New York and LA to the southern capitals of Atlanta and New Orleans and Houston. The Deep South was still seen as the backwoods and the music and experiences we had were not held up as valid. Our accents were too thick, our clothes not flashy enough, our food and ways reminders of the past that most of the black people in this country come from: cornfields and dusty back roads of packed red clay.

mama'sgunAnd if you look closely at Lemonade, you see a lot of territory that was covered by Erykah Badu twenty years ago: the head covering in the beginning of Lemonade a throwback to the towering wrap a young Badu became known for; the backwoods and Southern shanties could be taken right out of the video for “On & On.” The ankh necklace brazenly nestled in King Bey’s bosom during “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is the very same symbol that Badu popularized throughout her singing career. Lemonade is the little sister of Mama’s Gun, Erykah Badu’s second (and honestly, most potent) album. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. The gnawing jealousy of “Green Eyes” mirrors that of “Pray You Catch Me.” Both songs poignantly capture the melancholy feeling of knowing your partner has been cheating, or even worse, has moved on. Beyoncé’s “Six Inch Heels” rivals Badu’s “Booty” in its cockiness—in different ways, both songs show a woman exploring her sexuality and power and acknowledging that without apology. Perhaps what most striking in the similarities between Lemonade and Mama’s Gun is the way in while both albums feel boundary pushing and whole and real for their respective creators; we get the best, most honest parts of Badu and Bey with these works.

To be sure, the center for blackness and womanhood has shifted, and all our faves, as they say, are problematic. For all of Badu’s perceived “wokeness,” she is still imperfect. Her hotep Twitter finger-wagging brings to light the disappointment of knowing too much about your favorite celebrities’ flawed logic. Still, I am still grateful for her musical contributions, for her ability to blaze the trail that Beyoncé has stomp-marched through in her Stuart Weitzmans and advanced with the release of Lemonade. Bey has taken to commenting, at least through song and visuals, on the plights of every day black folks. It’s taken awhile, but Beyoncé is now, at least outwardly, “deep” in a way that that only artists like Badu were before her. She doesn’t have to be a cookie-cutter girl group star anymore, nor an overly sanitized pop sensation—Bey’s past two albums are her efforts to shed the strictures and requirements for pop stardom in a way that acknowledges her roots. She is not stupid, but rather shrewd, savvy, and undeniably Southern.

Terryn Hall is a Detroit-based writer. She has written for PostBourgie, Soulbounce, and the Guardian. More from this author →