The divine imagery in Beyoncé’s new visual album goes all the way back to Lemonade.
“I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter,” sings Beyoncé in “Mood 4 Eva,” one of the tracks on her just-released visual album Black Is King. But that’s not all she is: “I am the Nala, sister of Naruba, Osun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.”
Some of those names are self-explanatory. Beyoncé is Nala because she played Nala in last year’s Lion King remake, for which Black Is King is a companion piece. But by calling out Osun, Beyoncé is once again positioning herself with the Yoruba deity Osun, or more commonly Oshun, and making explicit the visual parallels she draws between herself and Oshun throughout the film.
Oshun’s not Beyoncé’s first alter ego. Early in her solo career, Beyoncé introduced audiences to an identity she called Sasha Fierce, whom she described as “the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I’m working and when I’m on the stage.” After releasing an album titled I Am … Sasha Fierce in 2008, Beyoncé officially killed her alter ego off in 2010, saying, “I’ve grown, and now I’m able to merge the two.”
But lately, Beyoncé has seemed interested in playing with a new and different persona. She incorporated Oshun imagery into her 2016 visual album Lemonade, and she has returned again and again to Oshun iconography in photo essays and videos since then.
Here’s an overview of Beyoncé’s Oshun connection and what makes Oshun such a powerful fit for Queen Bey.
Oshun is a goddess of love and beauty. Beyoncé’s been identifying with her for years.
In the Yoruba cosmology of southwestern Nigeria and Benin, Oshun is the goddess, or orisha, of love, sensuality, and femininity. She is a river goddess, and one of her attributes is to bring forth sweet and fertile waters. Oshun is a mother: Her waters were central to the creation of humanity, and she looks after small children before they can speak. She’s also associated with wealth and is said to love shiny things. She’s often represented draped in yellow.
“Oshun exudes sensuality and all the qualities associated with fresh, flowing river water,” wrote Oshun follower Valerie Mesa for Vice in 2018. “Her sparkling charisma can light up a room, and her lush womanly figure suggests fertility and eroticism. Oshun’s favorite thing to eat is honey, and her contagious laugh can either put you under her spell or send shivers down your spine.” And Oshun, who is said to be jealous, can be vengeful when she is crossed: “Oshun is as sweet as honey,” Mesa writes, “but her honey can also turn sour.”
In Lemonade (not so coincidentally, a form of sweet water), Beyoncé spends a long interlude submerged in a dreamlike state underwater. As “Hold Up” starts playing, she pushes open a set of doors and emerges in a great flood of water, dressed in a flowing yellow gown, and starts to wreak her vengeance on her cheating man. This moment, Africana studies professor Amy Yeboah told PBS in 2016, is “her emergence as an orisha.” It’s the point where Beyoncé is reborn as Oshun.
In 2017, Beyoncé returned to Oshun imagery in a photo essay announcing that she was pregnant with twins. The maternity announcement was laced with goddess imagery pulling from different religious traditions, so that at some points in the shoot, Beyoncé is recognizably the Virgin Mary, and in others, she’s Venus. But she also drapes herself in yellow and submerges herself in sparkling water, becoming Oshun once again.
At the 2017 Grammys, Beyoncé continued to play with divine imagery from different traditions. In her performance of Lemonade’s “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles,” she donned a beaded gold gown and headdress and yellow silk, and as she posed with her dancers, she became variously Mary, Jesus, Venus, the Hindu goddess Kali, and — once again — Oshun.
In Black Is King, Beyoncé ditches any Western references. Black Is King is a love letter to the African diaspora, and while Beyoncé is, as always, representing herself as a goddess in this album, she’s specifically and solely the Yoruba goddess Oshun. She wears Oshun’s yellow and shining beads and cowrie shells; she emerges from the sweet water; she surrounds herself with flowers of fertility; she watches over children. She makes her connection to the goddess as explicit as possible: “I am Osun,” she sings.
In associating herself with Oshun, Beyoncé is highlighting certain key parts of her image. She’s always been an untouchable goddess, and she’s always been sexy, but now she is maintaining that her beauty is divine and so is her motherhood, and that they are inextricably linked. She’s connecting herself to a cosmology in which beauty and love and prosperity all come from the same source, and she’s naming herself as that source.
And she is very firmly, pointedly saying that none of these wonderful things — love, beauty, divinity, prosperity — have to come from the West. They have a source in Africa. Throughout all of Black is King, Beyoncé is putting that source at the center of her work.
We always knew she was a goddess. Now she’s telling us exactly which one she is.
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Author: Constance Grady