Rebecca Bodenheimer: Adele's speech focused on "Lemonade's" importance for black women
It doesn't take a genius to see that "Lemonade" was ghettoized by the Grammy voters, she writes
Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and scholar with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She writes on Cuban music and society, and race and identity politics in American popular culture. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
Upon accepting the award for album of the year at the 2017 Grammy Awards on Sunday night, Adele did the right thing: She said that she couldn’t accept it because she knew that it was Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” and not her own album, that truly deserved to win. Her speech was gracious and passionate, highlighting the monumental importance of Queen Bey’s creation, and Bey seemed genuinely moved by Adele’s gesture.
Unfortunately, this mutual love fest has been marred by some negative reactions to Adele’s comment about her “black friends” feeling particularly empowered by “Lemonade,” with some on Twitter expressing their discomfort right away with Adele’s choice of words.
However, the reactions on what is affectionately known as “black Twitter” were far from unanimous, and many actually appreciated Adele’s gesture. Renowned black author and blogger Luvvie Ajayi said in her Grammys recap: “I don’t find anything wrong with Adele calling out what LEMONADE meant to her Black friends.” To Ajayi and also to noted critic Brittney Cooper, Adele’s recognition that, as a white woman, her experience of “Lemonade” was different, mattered a good deal. As Cooper wrote for Cosmopolitan: “She acknowledged that she had a different experience of the music than her black friends.
“That is incredibly important, because it gives lie to the myth of universalism. Though it is rarely ever a good idea for a white woman to invoke her black friends as proof of anything, Adele’s remarks seemed to come from a genuine place of understanding the power of particularity.”
Indeed, although as a white woman it’s not my place to weigh in on whether Adele’s comment was offensive, I had much the same reaction as Ajayi and Cooper. I think the whole “controversy” is really not a controversy at all, but rather a red herring that distracts from the real polemic: the fact that a superior album did not win the Grammys’ top prize because it represents a black woman’s perspective.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that “Lemonade” was ghettoized by the Grammy voters, recognized as one of the top achievements within black music, but not within music writ large. This, despite the fact that Beyoncé put in double the work of all the other nominees by essentially creating two albums, one audio and one visual (there were significant differences in the versions of each song on the two albums). “Lemonade” was not only Bey’s most ambitious project to date, but also her most diverse in terms of genre. From rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to country (“Daddy Lessons”) to ballad ("Sandcastles”), to her trademark contemporary and hip-hop influenced R&B, the Queen covered virtually every major genre of contemporary American popular music on “Lemonade.”
If one considers Adele’s comment about “black friends” in context, it should be quite clear that she was not invoking this phrase to ghettoize them, or use them to counter charges of racism, as it is sometimes used. Instead, she was highlighting the particularity of Beyoncé’s objectives with “Lemonade,” i.e., to empower black women. This does not mean, as some people have claimed about Black Lives Matter (and responded, “All Lives Matter“), that Bey ONLY wants black women to feel empowered, at the expense of non-black women; it simply means that she’s speaking specifically from the subject position of a black woman modelling self-love to other black women. I’m quite sure she welcomes non-black women also viewing her as a role model.
In this sense, I think Adele completely understood Bey’s intentions when she said that “Lemonade” had empowered her black friends in a particularly meaningful way. Although Adele felt a very deep connection with “Lemonade” (as do I and countless other non-black women), her comment suggests she understands who this album was made for. She could have treated “Lemonade” as a generically feminist statement, but she decentered herself and focused on the album’s importance for black women.
In doing so, Adele displayed precisely the type of intersectional feminism that women of color have been advocating for decades, one that decenters white subjectivity and recognizes that traditional “white” feminism often excludes and/or discounts the experiences of non-white, queer, transgender and disabled people.
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This is the type of feminism that is desperately necessary in our contemporary moment if we are to create true solidarity and build a resistance movement against a reactionary Trump administration that espouses misogynist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic views. So, instead of nitpicking what was a beautiful and genuine moment of admiration between the two most talented female singers currently working, let’s applaud her inclusive, intersectional feminism and, for us white people, follow Adele’s lead and understand that it’s not about us.