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Beyonce and Laura Mvula Tap the Power of Poetry

The music stars use the work of a literary legend and a reigning poetry superstar to convey their messages.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy

Thanks to Beyonce’s interpolation of Warsan Shire’s poetry in the global cultural juggernaut Lemonade, the Somali-British poet’s work is reaching audiences on a scale most writers can only fantasize about. By the time the recent HBO broadcast of Lemonade had ended, almost 750,000 people had been exposed to Shire’s work, most for the first time. She clearly made a powerful impression; her book Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is currently out of stock on Amazon. Bracketing original songs with the poet’s words, Beyonce mostly quoted from the poem “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love”:

“…you can’t make homes out of human beings

someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.”

A week or so before Beyonce poured Lemonade, her British music peer across the pond, Laura Mvula, released a video for her new single “Phenomenal Woman.” Inspired by the poem of the same name by Maya Angelou, it – like Lemonade – is a work of empowerment in which the artist who made the work is counseling herself and, by extension, other women – specifically Black women. Given that Mvula, whose sophomore album The Dreaming Room is due in June, recently opened up to the press about her ongoing battles with depression and anxiety, her song has immediacy and urgency in its defiant pride. Below is an excerpt from Ms. Angelou’s poem:

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

Laura Mvula. Photograph by Julian Broad for the Observer.

Laura Mvula. Photograph by Julian Broad for the Observer.

A billion and one think pieces (a handful of them actually thoughtful) have been written about Lemonade, while Mvula is more quietly racking up press coverage (albeit in major British media outlets.) Her 2014 debut album Sing to the Moon, with its raw, emotional, political lyrics and intricately layered music, made a fan of no less than Prince, but she hasn’t made quite the splash stateside she deserves. Based on the first two singles from Dreaming, even her moves toward more pop accessibility might still be too conceptually dense and artistically experimental for mainstream pop consumption. That’s pop’s loss.

In tandem, Lemonade and “Phenomenal Woman” do a lot of cross cultural heavy lifting, creating a core conversation between Beyonce and Mvula about what it is to be black, women, and artists in the 21st century, with centuries of violently raced and gendered history on your back and in your veins. In tandem, the two works pull a seat up to the table for Shire and Ms. Angelou to join that conversation, exploring the co-mingled bloodlines of music and poetry, with the conversation spanning experiences, generations, disciplines, and practices. The conversation spans oceans.

Top photo is a still from Beyonce’s “Formation” video.