On her new self-titled album, released Friday, Beyonce enlisted a number of collaborators, including Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Adichie, who published the novel Americanah this year, gave a TED talk this year titled “We Should All Be Feminists”; a portion of that speech is interpolated with portions of the previously existing song “Bow Down” to make a new song called “***Flawless.” The portions of “***Flawless” that Beyonce sings focus largely on her appearance and material wealth, with the singer repeating “I woke up like this” and citing “diamonds” and “this rock,” but the presence of Adichie’s speech adds some pleasing dissonance.
Beyonce’s feminism, or lack thereof, has been grist for controversy for years, never more so than in 2013, when she performed at the Super Bowl and toured the world, husband and daughter in tow. When asked if she considered herself a feminist, the singer replied: “That word can be very extreme . . . But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are?”
Her music, though, is feminist in precisely the manner Adichie’s speech is. As sampled on the new song by Beyonce, Adichie says: “A marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?” Beyonce’s past single “If I Were a Boy” is entirely about how men ought to act in relationships — no woman, she conveys, ought to be subject to a relationship that isn’t supportive.
And Adichie’s point about how women are taught to be competitive with one another chimes well with Beyonce’s utopian all-female touring band and her welcoming back her Destiny’s Child band mates to the stage with her at this year’s Super Bowl. Though competitiveness is often imputed to Beyonce, her desire to succeed is healthy. Any girl-on-girl crimes on her part, though (like a theory on Twitter that she dropped the album purposefully on Taylor Swift’s birthday as a mean joke, or that she planned the album’s release as a statement about weak albums like Lady Gaga’s “Artpop”), are just conspiracy theories.
“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are,” Adichie says. Beyonce’s onstage persona is sexually aggressive and much of her music, including on her new album, deals with her own pleasure. For someone with a traditionally conservative interest in marriage, Beyonce is not shy about expressing her desires — consider the fairly graphic lyrics to her song “Drunk in Love.” And Beyonce’s equating her success with how she looks when she wakes up or with material wealth isn’t anti-feminist — it’s peacocking like male artists do all the time, unremarkably.
Though Beyonce’s relationship with feminism has been somewhat tortured in the past — that not-quite-denial-not-quite-full-throated-embrace of feminism in press interviews — placing Adichie’s definition of feminism (“a person who believes in the economic, social and political equality of the sexes”) on her track doesn’t merely make a strong statement. It clarifies the work that has come before.
Beyonce has, in deed, always been a feminist; her words have now caught up.
Daniel D’Addario is a staff reporter for Salon’s entertainment section.