Trigger/content warnings: N-word in original source.
Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d’une négresse 1800, Musée du Louvre.
New Zealand singer Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” appeared to be a critique of conspicuous consumption:
My friends and I – we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We didn’t come from money.
But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.
The New York Times’s pop music critic wrote:
[Lorde has] emerged from the far side of the planet with something smarter and deeper [than most pop music]: a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that’s so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single.
Other critics, however, heard racism in Lorde’s lyrics. Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote:
Holy. Shit. What did this white girl just say? . . . While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.
Do you think “Royals” is racist?
How do you think Flores might respond to the new Beyoncé/Jay-Z song “Apeshit”? The lyrics can safely be called the exact opposite of a “critique of wealth accumulation.”
Gimme my check, put some respeck on my check
Or pay me in equity, pay me in equity
Or watch me reverse out the dick
He got a bad bitch, bad bitch
We live it lavish, lavish
I got expensive fabrics
I got expensive habits
On the other hand, the video introduces issues not present in the lyrics. While the song celebrates wealth and excess, the video explores the juxtaposition of black bodies and the traditions of European art-making, with black dancers in flesh-toned leotards performing in lines in the Louvre Museum and re-enacting some of the paintings, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z take in the art and rap about their success as artists. As Jason Fargo notes:
As so often, the couple here present themselves as both outsiders in an elite institution and as heirs to it; as people excluded from its narratives but now possessors of it by virtue of their talent, their taste and, well, their money.
The Carters also seem to be making an intentional reference to the iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood.
The song and the video raise the questions once again:
Who owns music?
Who owns art?
What does it mean to be an artist — specifically, a black artist?
What does it mean to be the audience for black art and music?
In the act of listening and/or viewing, does the audience participate in the work of art?
As well as the questions:
Are success and the ability to consume luxury goods and services the same things?
Is the pursuit of wealth an objectively good thing for an individual? For the community?
Is art that celebrates consumerism on the same artistic level as art that has a more explicit message of community/social engagement?
In the song “Boss,” when Beyoncé says, “My great-great-grandchildren already rich, that’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list,” is she actually making a political statement?
Can such statements go beyond the personal circumstances of the artist and inspire change in the community?
Finally: SHOULD art have a higher message?
The Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (1930-2017, above) grappled with similar issues in his book-length poem Omeros. In this section of the epic poem, he describes going to the Metropolitan Museum and seeing the painting The Gulf Stream by American artist Winslow Homer, which shows a black man in a foundering fishing boat in the Caribbean Sea. The Museum explains the painting’s subject as a “dramatic scene of imminent disaster.”
A man faces his demise on a dismasted, rudderless fishing boat, sustained by only a few stalks of sugarcane and threatened by sharks and a distant waterspout. He is oblivious to the schooner on the left horizon, which Homer later added to the canvas as a sign of hopeful rescue. Some art historians have read The Gulf Stream as symbolic, connecting it with the period’s heightened racial tensions. The painting has also been interpreted as an expression of Homer’s presumed sense of mortality and vulnerability following the death of his father.
What does it mean, as a black artist, to receive the legacy of Western culture? What position does the black artist assume in the history of art and culture?
From the “visual album” of Lemonade:
Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.
Update, June 2019: the portrait of a black model that is featured in the video for “Apeshit” is also discussed in greater detail in this essay, about an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse.”