Since Beyoncé released her surprise album last
month week, it’s been widely acknowledged as one of the most explicitly feminist pieces of work by a major pop artist in quite a while. Many feminists were surprised to see Beyoncé be so open about her feminism, and though it may be imperfect, that almost makes me love it more.
However I have yet to see an analysis of the album that hits upon the references she makes to Latinidad, specifically Afro-Brazilian culture and traditions. “Blue” is a beautiful love letter to her daughter Blue Ivy, but it is contextualized through shots of daily life for residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, or urban ghettos.
One of the things I loved most about the entire album is that it not only shows Beyoncé in settings that contrast with her life of luxury but that it shows her interacting with these spaces. In “Blue,” she’s not standing in front of a favela mural with a bunch of residents dancing behind her. Instead she’s buying picolé (a popsicle) from a local vender, dancing with some young girls, playing soccer with some kids. Beyoncé is not the first person to think that Brazilian favelas are cool; in 1996 Michael Jackson filmed “They Don’t Really Care About Us” in Rio’s favelas, and the most recent Fast & Furious film was set in in the same place.
However most representations of the favelas focus on violence, sex, and drugs. Media portrayals from the Global North often place non-Brazilian actors in lead roles and leave real Brazilians to act as props, or a backdrop. It is clear in “Blue” that Beyoncé and these people are operating in an exchange. There are shots of her teaching and learning various dance steps (the video seems to be an homage to Brazilian dance, with clips of axé, samba gafiera, forró, funk–the one you probably thought was twerking–and carnaval samba), and others where favela residents become the protagonist for a second. One of my favorite moments is when the camera focuses on a young woman, holding her baby and smiling at the camera. It seems to suggest that motherhood is an experience that brings together Beyoncé, an international super star, and this woman who lives on the peripheries of a Global South country. That neither mothers better or worse than the other.
In addition, “Blue” makes various discreet references to an important symbol of motherhood in Brazil, Iemanjá,one of the most popular Afro-Brazilian Orixás (or goddesses). Every New Year’s Eve, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian dress in white and gather at the beach to throw flowers and other offerings to her. Iemanjá and the Virgin Mary are held in close syncretism; in parts of Brazil they are celebrated on the same day and both traditionally dress in blue and white. Iemanjá is considered to be the embodiment of motherhood, a fierce protector of children and very vane.
Knowing this, I found it ever more beautiful to watch Beyoncé sing about motherhood wearing blue and white as she carried her child down the beach, or dressed in full carnaval regalia as she floated among the waves. I can’t guarantee that this color choice and symbolism was purposeful, but if it was, it shows that Queen Bey did her research.
Too often, U.S. media treats favela residents like poverty porn or collateral damage for a “larger cause” (that being mega-events that benefit mostly corporations and those already in power). Seeing them happy and humanized on a platform as huge as Beyoncé’s album warmed my little Brazilian-American heart.
Instead of posing in front of colorful houses, flashing some smiling brown children and dancing on the beach, Beyoncé engaged with the part of Brazil we rarely see represented in U.S. media.
Juliana remembers the first time she wore white to the beach, jumped seven waves for luck, and left flowers in the waves for Iemanjá, making wishes for the new year.