The Lineage of ‘Lemonade’
From Ma Rainey to Beyoncé, here are the ladies who tell it how it is
When Beyoncé released her visual album, Lemonade, in 2016, fans were overtaken by the imagery and odes to Blackness and womanhood, but they were also intrigued by her personal story of Jay-Z’s infidelity during their eight-year marriage. Beyoncé used her music to intentionally share experiences many women face—experiences that can shake you to the core: feeling powerless, confronting the mistrust of a partner, managing the anger and sorrow of loss. Her expression would become her healing, as well as that of her fans.
But long before Beyoncé, Black women singers were laying men’s shit bare on record. They also openly sang about the experiences no one is supposed to talk about: the loss of infants, abusive husbands, and lust. This lineage of women — from the early 1900s to now — used their music to reclaim their autonomy and hold the men who caused them pain accountable. They created the whole genre of music that speaks to gender and sex politics — and awareness. Their songs have empowered other women, paved the way for today’s artists, and introduced us to the power of truth-telling.
As Beyoncé recounted to Elle in 2019, “I began to search for deeper meaning when life began to teach me lessons I didn’t know I needed… I learned that all pain and loss is, in fact, a gift.”
Lemonade went on to sell 2.5 million copies worldwide, making it one of the top-selling albums of that year. More than that, culturally it opened the door for Black women to once again have a conversation in public that many of us whispered in private. Lemonade, however, was not alone.
Named the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey is one of the the first voices ever recorded singing the blues. The lyrics to one of her more popular songs, “Trust No Man,” cut to the chase: “He’ll say that he loves you and swear that it’s true/The very next minute he’ll turn his back on you/Trust no man/No further than your eyes can see.” In another track, “Black Eye Blues,” Rainey sings about a man who beats his woman in the alley. The tune ends with the woman promising to catch this man “with his britches down.”
During the 1920s, Rainey wasn’t a woe-is-me singer. She adorned herself in jewels and tiaras, talked loudly, and lauded womanly power — sometimes before White audiences — even as the remnants of Reconstruction still rocked America. In The Queer Woman Who Reinvented the Blues, Cara Giaimo writes, “Although Rainey’s songs are full of infidelity, abandonment, and heartbreak — she sang the blues, after all — their protagonists are more likely to brandish a pistol or to cheat right back than to hang their heads and cry.”
Bessie Smith, who was 16 when she met Rainey, was even edgier. Although married with children, Smith sang about her male and female lovers and drinking gin during Prohibition when alcohol was illegal. But the first single by the “Empress of the Blues,” “Down-Hearted Blues,” chronicles her heartbreak with a man who refuses to commit to her. It was groundbreaking in that it sold millions of copies back in 1923. But again, Smith spoke her mind at a time when women were encouraged and expected to be silent.
Black feminist critics Daphne Duval Harrison and Angela Davis have both called Smith’s catalog “tales of liberated women who are not afraid to speak openly about what they want, what they need, and what they are tired of.”
And as Gwen Thompkins writes for NPR, “Smith’s protagonist presents herself as a person with power and agency, someone who can choose and refuse.”
Tyina Steptoe, PhD, an author and associate professor at the University of Arizona, says the ebbs and flows of gender and sex politics would affect the trajectory of women in music for decades, but national events and movements like the civil rights movement, which centered respectability, would cause the next hard shift.
“It’s the Black Power [movement], the Vietnam War, and all of these things were shaping a new version of the Black woman,” Steptoe says. “Out of all of this, it also brings a new expression of feminism. Your Millie Jacksons and Betty Wrights have a voice, and it’s not considered as controversial as it had been in the ’50s.”
By the 1970s, Black women were demanding even more respect and equality while continuing to push the envelope over the sound waves. One such pioneer of unfiltered, in-your-face music is Millie Jackson. The Georgia R&B and blues singer is perhaps the best-known artist of that time to infuse her music with raw truth about relationships, profanity, and blatant sex. (She would grab men’s crotches in the audience for her live performance of “Something You Can Feel.”) Her catalog includes the concept albums Caught Up and Caught Up Again, which provide WorldStarHipHop levels of juicy perspectives from both the wife and the other woman in a love triangle. Other popular songs include “Cheatin’ Is” and “Phuck You Symphony.”
Jackson has said in an interview that she received backlash from some men: “Because I spoke truth to women, I got a reputation for being rough on men.” Jackson’s daughter and singer, Keisha Jackson, calls her mother “a girl’s girl.” Women were drawn to Jackson’s honesty about her own life and love, and women left her shows feeling empowered to make a change in their own. “Women will come to mom’s shows and wait for her to advise them,” Keisha says.” She knew when she had them in the palm of her hand, and she didn’t take it lightly.”
Jackson says her mother’s influence on women and even hip-hop artists like Lil’ Kim and Nikki Minaj is sealed because her music taught women real lessons.
“Be fearless, be strong, be honest, but if you’re having a vulnerable moment, it’s okay,” Jackson says of her mother. “Her albums embodied just womanhood. Period.”
By the 1980s, the late soul singer Betty Wright had moved from singing about the double standard between men and women (in 1968’s “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do”) to her first time making love (“Tonight Is the Night”) to recognizing the woman who could take your man (“Cleanup Woman”). She moved to singing about the agony of failed relationships in 1987’s “After the Pain” and “No Pain, No Gain.”
In a recent TVOne Unsung episode, Wright said, “‘After the Pain’ was written to let people know that pain doesn’t last always. The pain songs were coming out of relationships and marriages. Every time I went through any trauma in my life, the music would be incredible.”
Women continued to become bolder in putting their relationship cards on the table in song. The late ’80s through the 2000s would bring more songs that took men to task while banding women together: Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Tramp,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” and Kelis’ “Caught Out There (I Hate You So Much Right Now),” among others. In the following years through today, women have continued to sing and rap about how they’ve made lemonade out the lemons served to them.
“What we see is the growth of certain themes that were always there from the very beginning. Sometimes they’re very vocal and loud. Sometimes they’re brushed under the rug,” Steptoe says. “What this speaks to is that Black women have used music for a very long time as expressions of our role in society, who we are, and what’s important to us.”