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The Mothers

Marking the next chapter of her narrative, Beyoncé's Grammys performance glowed with spirituality

The older women in your life advise you to eat cassava to increase your chances. They say that there is a venerable and fortifying effect to be found in the pulp of the tuber, a nutrient that will persuade your body to choose twins. That curious knowledge originates with the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The country's southwestern areas, where the Yoruba live, have the highest twinning rates in the world. One town boasts a sign upon entrance: "The Land of Twins." The older women in your life, mothers themselves, know about the potency of the yam because educations about diet, spirituality, and maternal wisdom seemed to survive the unspeakable violence of the slave routes. Regardless of which side of the Atlantic a daughter ended up on, she knows about yams; she's likely heard whispers about Oshun, the coy idol of fertility, and other goddesses.

The rupture of ethnic inheritance shapes what the diaspora knows about itself, but there are things women always remember, because they cannot forget. Tina Lawson's introduction of her daughter at the 2017 Grammys, "with a mother's pride," signaled that Beyoncé would be returning to what mothers know.

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In the Lemonade phase of her career, Beyoncé is remembering the intricacies of Oshun. First, she channeled her intemperance. The video for "Hold Up," the most trenchant scene from the visual album besides "Formation," presents the singer in a canary-yellow Roberto Cavalli gown. When the video premiered, women across the diaspora immediately remarked that the singer was wearing the goddess's signature saturated color. Then, as the video went on, she started behaving like Oshun does when human potential bankrupts and she is driven to anger. Using a bat to destroy the property around her, she wreaked havoc, all with a crazed smile on her face.

But Oshun is complex. She's associated with the whole range of sensuality. She loves bodies of water and the feminine body; if you pray to her, she will give you children; she desires offerings of sweet foods, like honey and mead. At the 2017 Grammys, Beyoncé invoked her plushness and her power. She remembered, coalescing discrete ethnic memories into a fabulist picture of black continuity. The lyrics to "Love Drought" melded into the iconography, as did the liquidity of the serene sound: "You, you, you, you and me could calm a war down." "Sandcastles," the ballad that always seemed a bit mismatched to the rest of the album, finally made sense in this fertile, golden space.

Against the dour blue and black stage sets of most of the performances, Beyoncé's emergence, in delicately draped gold chains, gold bracelets, and a glinting gold headpiece, warmed the Staples Center. The week prior, she had announced her pregnancy, with twins, via a photo shoot. Many of the pictures showed her floating in water, cradling her new health, wrapped in colorful silks. Lined up in a row beside her at this year's show, Beyoncé's black female dancers swayed and bobbed like waves. Oshun is a woman of the water. Her iconography traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, and she began to live in other women: Erzulie, a loving and vengeful siren from Caribbean vodou; Our Lady of Charity (the patron saint of Cuba); the Virgin Mary, whose images the enslaved used to prevent overseers from understanding that they were still worshiping their religion.

Beyoncé's performance placed the varying Oshun iconographies in the context of her own personal narrative. She consulted all the ways we've seen or heard about the goddess, bearing witness to broken history and awful optimism. Posing with a tilted hip and a long veil, she looked like The Virgin. In a gold gown, she was Oshun. Beyoncé also honored the earthbound women who are guides to her, specifically her sister. Guided by disciple-like figures, she walked to the head of a long table and sat down, a gorgeous visual nod to Solange's A Seat at the Table.

"Do you remember being born? Are you thankful for the hips that cracked?" Beyoncé's recitation of Warsan Shire's poetry, which also formed the bridges for the Lemonade film, inevitably carried new significance considering her pregnancy. The singer is unfailingly private, averse to interviews and speaking extemporaneously. (When Lemonade won the Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album, Beyoncé read her acceptance speech from a gold card.) And yet she is drawn to narrative. She aestheticizes the agonies and joys of her personal life so that they might become sharable. Through Oshun, Beyoncé telegraphs a few ideas of herself.

The Grammys performance was a gentle display of maternal vanity and a celebration of the sort of spirituality that converges with aesthetics. Much has happened to Beyoncé since she last performed at the ceremony: In 2015, she wore all white and sang "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" along with a choir. Since then, Beyoncé has expanded her public spirituality beyond Christianity, expressing interest in the ethnicity and animist spirituality that arrived to Louisiana centuries before. She is placing herself in a lineage — an act that takes vulnerability, humility, haughtiness. She's doing this for her children.


VMAs 2017