When you love me, you love yourself
Love God Herself – “Don’t Hurt Yourself” by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
You may have heard that an important work of art was just revealed to the public. Or maybe you think that a pop star just released an album, but trust me on this one.
Lemonade, Beyoncé’s new “visual album,” is deep and complex. It deals ostensibly with the story of betrayal and reconciliation in a relationship, but has relevance far beyond the personal. That aspect of it is powerful enough; anyone who has prowled in the ruins of a “good love gone to waste” with a bellyful of rage and a snoot full of unshed tears will be able to relate. In telling that story Beyoncé’s point of view as a black woman is central; I will leave commentary on that to those with more knowledge than I. But there’s quite a lot of spirituality woven into the tale which makes sense when seen through the lens of Faery, and that I do have thoughts about.
Now, for all that she’s clearly well-read*, I would be shocked to learn that Beyoncé knows squat about the Faery Tradition. We are obscure. But while “God Herself” is kind of an obvious phrase in a way, it’s also our phrase and when I heard it in “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” I thought, “Huh.” I’m a witch, y’all. I don’t really believe in coincidences. As I pondered I began to see more.
God was in the room when the man said to the woman, “I love you so much, wrap your legs around me, pull me in, pull me in, pull me in.” Sometimes when he’d have her nipple in his mouth she’d whisper, “Oh my God.” That, too, is a form of worship.
This is the piece which is most easily comprehensible to a Pagan audience: “All acts of Love and pleasure are My rituals.” We are used to seeing the Divine in sex, and Lemonade‘s narrative insists on not just the value and beauty but sacredness of women’s bodies: Her hips grind, mortar and pestle, cinnamon and cloves. Or, as Beyoncé whispers much later, magic. But that transformation, that magic, begins not in sex but earlier, in rage.
There’s a connection between the Faery concept of the Godself and the Yoruba Ori, which makes an appearance in Lemonade at significant points in the narrative, signaled with the body paint art of Laolu Senbanjo. Ori is both an idea and a divinity; destiny and the particular spark of the Divine each person holds within. The Godself or Sacred Dove in Faery is both your truest, deepest self, the place were particular “you” intersects with a wider universe, and a profound mystery.
I tried to change, closed my mouth more, tried to be soft, prettier. Less awake…Fasted for sixty days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex…slept on a mat on the floor…
The woman, the protagonist, intuits that her husband is deceiving her. As the realization builds she dives off a building and into deep water, the water filling her room in which she is alone. Her voice is muffled, colors muted. She prays, incants, frets, works petitionary spells in a passage that evokes Mules and Men or The Sanctified Church in both content and style. Before long, her prayers are answered…
She bursts from her prison of denial and melancholy, water pouring out at her bare feet. The music still sounds as if it comes from underwater but her voice rings clear. She is dressed in a beautiful marigold dress, the color of Oshun, a Yoruba and Lucumi divinity of love, beauty, and the sweetness of life. She marches down the street, followed by flame, with a baseball bat in her hand and a fey glint in her eye. She smashes car windows. She wallops the top off of a fire hydrant, releasing water held underground to fountain high in the air. She gazes coyly at a surveillance camera, touches her hair as if its gaze is a mirror, smiles, then smashes it. She sings: It’s such a shame you let this good love go to waste.
This is pride, self-respect, worth, pushing back against the pressure to make herself small. Its necessary vanguard is rage. As Steven Hewell wrote, “anger is a perfectly healthy response to an attempt to disempower us in some fashion.” This explains why the reaction to justified anger (or the mere insistence by an objectified person on having and expressing an interior life) is often horrified pearl-clutching and shushing…and why it’s an absolutely necessary step. “Our life-force is the presence of the Divine within us; to respect and honor it is to respect and honor God Herself.” What you respect and honor, you are willing to defend. Been walked all over lately, I’d rather be crazy.
This is why the two songs most expressive of anger…”Sorry” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself”….are the ones where the Ori first appears and God Herself is mentioned, respectively. The protagonist’s Divine Self is awake and talking: When you lie to me, you just lie to yourself. When you love me, you love yourself. She’s not calm, serene, tidy, or “pretty.” But she is alive. The way forward isn’t smooth, and the journey isn’t close to over…it has only just begun. There will be digressions, loss, and reflections on the past, both personal and ancestral. Every fear, every nightmare anyone has ever had. But she is on the move. This state of affairs should be familiar to anyone who has ever been on a spiritual journey in the history of ever. It feels familiar to me, like a story told by someone who I didn’t realize was a friend.
The next time Ori appears, it’s in between the sections titled “Reformation” and “Forgiveness,” suggesting that while some might see the choice to reconcile with a husband who had deceived her to be a wrong or foolish choice, for her it is the correct, spiritually potent one. Ori appears again just before “Hope” and between the tracks “Forward” and “Freedom.” I take this to mean that to be viable hope and forgiveness must encompass freedom and the Deep Self; also having heard the voice of her own soul in the depths of despair, the protagonist will remember how to listen.
She speaks of the central metaphor as “alchemy” created by her grandmother…”who spun gold out of this hard life.” People generally understand “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” as optimism, making good from bad, turning bitter into sweet. But lemonade without lemons is just sugar water. The hardest thing for people to understand is that life isn’t supposed to be all sweet. Sometimes it’s as bitter as a lemon peel, and that’s life too. It’s in the nature of things. Tasting bitterness isn’t failure…it’s just life. More than that; the full expression, the depth of life, is in sorrow as well as joy, anger as well as love, bitter as well as sweet.
*Aside from sampling the works of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for “Flawless,” and incorporating adaptations of the poems of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire into the spoken word sections of Lemonade, there’s the fact that some of the characters populating the visual landscape of Lemonade look like they just wandered in from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Among other things.
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