Yep. That’s the truth.
After a few days mulling it over, I’ve figured out that what I “get” the most from Beyonce’s latest offering, a visual album titled #Lemonade released on HBO/Tidal this past weekend, has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the work. Yes, I think it’s a brilliant, creative, and transparent exploration of pain, transgenerational trauma (and blessing), reconciliation, redemption, the ever-elusive ideal of freedom, Black womanhood, and the stages one goes through when redefining personal and collective narratives. But to tell the truth, these elements have been contemplated and pontificated by some the best writers and journalists out there—so much so that I feel like I’d just be repeating what has already been so eloquently said by folks like Austin Channing Brown over HERE and Melissa Harris-Perry over HERE.
My contribution to the conversation is really an observation of how people are responding to the work. And particularly how artists of all stripes could use #Lemonade as a catalyst for a more authentic approach to our own work. As I wrestle with perfecting my own craft, these #lemonade revelations will likely serve as my own sweet and sour guiding principles from now on.
#1 – Some people JUST DON’T LIKE YOU.
Let me say it again for the folks on the back pew.
SOME PEOPLE JUST DON’T LIKE YOU
As I observed the response to Beyonce’s work, I noticed that, for real, there are some folks who will never, ever, ever give her any credit. Props denied. They just don’t like her. She could find the cure for cancer in the back of her wig closet, and they would douse the news with baseless criticism and doubt (“Oh how convenient that the cure was found behind the blond wigs and not her Afro ones. Told you she was part of the oppressive white supremacist agenda that brought cancer into the black community in the first place.”)
NOTE: Please know that I’m not talking about those who have valid and nuanced critiques of the work or those who offer sound words that challenge her as an artist to be and do better. I’m talking about the folks who just don’t get it. And the ones who don’t care to get it. For whatever reason.
But the same goes for all of us who consider ourselves artists in some form. As hard as it is to swallow sometimes, there are some folks who will never, ever, ever buy my books or read my work. I could be a bestseller in 35 countries and win a Pulitzer and they will say I suck. No amount of validation will ever matter. They may or may not even offer a reason for their disdain. Yep, I could (figuratively) open a vein and share the most intimate details of my life on the page and there will ALWAYS be someone waiting to question it.
And that’s totally OK.
It’s gotta be OK.
No matter what, I must create anyway.
#2 – Some people WILL like you but only if you remain the same as the day they met you.
Talk show host, Piers Morgan, was quoted recently as saying, “I preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one … The one who didn’t play the race card so deliberately and to my mind, unnecessarily.”
So the truth is, as an artist, my evolution will be an affront to people who are made uncomfortable by my changes. These are the people who have placed me in a nice, neat box and labeled me in a way that works for THEM. I know this firsthand. Those who wanted me to continue writing these formulaic (in hindsight) Christian fiction novels with only just the right amount of Mary Mary-ish “edginess” that THEY still deemed Christian enough, felt some kind of way about my latest novel, The Search for Susu where my co-author and I dug our feet into themes that weren’t as desireable for the super-saved crowd.
But yo, if they were mad about THAT, this work in progress is probably going to turn them off altogether.
And I’m good with that.
Because, it’s gotta be OK.
No matter what, I must create anyway.
#3 – Those who DO like you and ARE ok with you evolving, will often expect said evolution to be flawless otherwise they will place parameters on what YOUR evolution should look like—all based on very limited information.
These are the people who frustrate artists the most, I think. We kind of get #1 and #2. But then you come across these folks who, on the surface, “love your stuff” but want to dictate what you say/sing/write/paint and how you say/sing/write/paint it. How much more feminist, womanist, blackity-black should Beyonce’ have been? These folks have the answer to that. They also have a predetermined timeline for both your pain and your healing and specific expectations as to how that pain and healing should manifest in YOUR work.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, said it perfectly in a recent FB post:
Artists change and grow. That is what makes them an artist. Also, artists are human. Art is, at its core, problematic. It has to be, to engage with the weird, twisted, morally compromised world we live in. An artist will never live up to or embody the perfect, morally responsible, always socially conscious, always saying or doing the right thing vision you have in your head. You can wish an artist would take a photo with your favorite activist. It may or may not happen, but the fact that it did not happen is not a valid criticism of that artist. We can hold our ideals of equality, love, and fierce intelligence while also acknowledging that these are IDEALS, i.e. ways we aspire to live and create. And we and the artists we love or engage with, will often fall short, sometimes in heartbreaking, sometimes in fascinating, sometimes in uninteresting ways. The work is figuring out how and where the artist enters this conversation and what they contribute. The work is not in demonizing or deifying an artist into a rigid outline of something that no one actually can live up to.
Vulnerability is beyond hard in today’s voyeuristic, everybody-has-an-opinion, everyone-thinks-their-opinion-actually-matters, culture. While I have always believed that most of our healing is predicated on our ability to share our stories in some way (not always publicly), doing so is not without risk. As much as we are willing to succeed, we must be willing to fail. We must be willing to crash and burn.
We must be fearless.
Being fearless doesn’t mean we won’t be scared to put that story, book, blog, song, painting out into the world where it’s inevitably, especially in this day and age, going to be dissected at best, devoured at worst.
It simply means we fear less.
The quaking we feel in our hearts and souls when we expose ourselves through art is actually a perfectly designed mechanism to help us create our best work. We press that anxiety into the oil that makes, as the church elders might say, our “anointin’” run. A person with truly no fear is a sociopath. They feel nothing. That’s not who we are as makers; as creators. We learn to live with that pit in our gut not because we are trying to appeal to any particular audience but because we are humans who realize that with the release of every essay, book, song, photograph, etc. we turn our skin inside out for public consumption and…
It’s gotta be ok.
We must create always.
#4 – None of the folks mentioned in numbers 1-3 really matter.
I mean, I appreciate anyone who decides to take a chance on me and my writing. As both artists and brand-builders, I’m sure Bey and Jay feel the same way multiplied by a million. But at the end of the day, folks who don’t like me or them don’t matter. Those who don’t want us to grow, don’t matter. Those who want to tell us HOW to grow, don’t matter. Money and the ability to make a living aside, we—and I’m including every artist alive here—don’t answer to any man or woman for our work ultimately. We answer to that still voice inside of us. Only we know what’s true. What’s real.
Truth is funny like that, you know. You start telling it and you never know what the outcome will be. Will our intentions manifest? Will folks get it? Will it resonate? But if you–we–are called to this wondrous thing called creating, there is one thing that is especially true if we want to sustain ourselves and remain authentic:
We must be ready to bleed.
We must be ready to pour ourselves out again and again without any guarantees of love. Most of us don’t have a Bey-hive of any kind. We’re still building our platforms and trying to figure out how to tell the stories we’ve been given AND eat daily. But know this: if, in 2016, Beyonce’ was still talking about “Bugaboos” and how much of a “Survivor” she is (as opposed to sharing her lived experiences of survival) then it’s quite possible that what we call the Bey-hive would not exist. Because real talk, people, even those who are resistant, can’t help but to be drawn to transformation. Like a moth to a flame…
The Bottom Line:
If you are going to tell a story–yours or imagined, do the unexpected. Push yourself to the brink creatively. Learn from the masters in your field. Forget all them folks I mentioned before. Give your naysayers a front row seat next to Jesus on your artistic journey.
Blow your own mind.