The performance, hailed by some as an ode to motherhood and by others as a call to black America, is also a continuation of Beyonce’s use of African spirituality, specifically traditions that have spread across the world through the African diaspora. Yoruba culture and religion spread from West Africa to the Americas through the Atlantic slave trade and today are part of religious traditions in South America and the Caribbean.
Oshun, one of more than 400 orisha, deities of the Yoruba pantheon, is known as Ochún or Oxúm in Latin America. The goddess makes an appearance in Lemonade.
Another orisha, Yemoja, features in Beyonce’s recent photo shoot announcing her pregnancy. Yemoja, (also referred to as Yemaya in Santeria and Mami Wata in other traditions), is a water goddess and patron saint for expecting mothers. Historians believe slaves combined the concepts of Yemoja and the Virgin Mary in the New World. Some have noted that representations of her cropped up during the Atlantic journey, with slaves calling on her for protection at sea.
Beyonce ended her performance with a line from the Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire, whose words have become a rallying call for another diaspora—refugees from the Middle East and parts of Africa, banned by US president Donald Trump. Beyonce said, “If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious. One thousand girls raise their arms.”
|High concept. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)|
The African, Hindu and Roman goddesses who inspired Beyoncé’s stunning Grammy performance
She emerged onstage at the Grammys on Sunday wearing little more than her pregnant belly, a statement in itself, even for Beyoncé, as society continues to grapple with what maternity looks like for working women.
“They never showed my pregnant belly when I sang my nominated ‘Save the Best for Last,’ ” Vanessa Williams tweeted, referring to her 1993 Grammy performance in a far more modest black billowing dress. “Oh how times have changed! Kudos Beyoncé!”
Her proudly and prominently displayed pregnancy wasn’t Beyoncé’s only nod to maternal empowerment, however. Ebbing between live shots of the singer standing on stage were pre-recorded projections of Beyoncé with her mother, Tina Lawson, who introduced her performance, and her 5-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy — three generations adorned in yellow.
The whole lady lovefest lasted nearly 10 minutes and featured a fully flanked female cast, Beyoncé portrayed as the Virgin Mary (and possibly Jesus?) and some creatively precarious chair choreography.
It was described as “ethereal,” a “sci-fi fertility ritual” and just plain “weird.”
But what those unfamiliar with her Grammy-nominated album Lemonade may have missed was that the gold and glitz on display were serving a greater purpose.
Beyoncé was teaching.
As in Lemonade and her pregnancy announcement photos released earlier this month, the singer’s Grammy performance was packed with artistic nods to African, Hindu and Roman goddesses who signify the womanhood Beyoncé has been reflecting in her most recent work.
It was a projection image of Beyoncé that first appeared Sunday night, the singer barefoot and dressed in a gold string bikini, a long yellow-gold silk drape behind her — as if she were in water, like in the early scenes of her visual album and in her maternity photos.
This is a nod to the African water spirit Mami Wata, or Mother Water, who is often portrayed as half-human and half-fish with long, flowing hair, according to Smithsonian magazine. Joseph Caputo writes:
“Mami Wata is known for her beauty. But she is as seductive as she is dangerous. Those who pay tribute to her know her as a ‘capitalist’ deity because she can bring good (or bad) fortune in the form of money. This relationship between currency and water makes sense. Her persona developed between the 15th and 20th centuries, as Africa became more present in global trade. The fact that the name Mami Wata is in pidgen English, the language used to facilitate this trade, shows the influence on foreign cultures on the spirit’s image and identity.”
Perhaps more obvious, though, is her embodiment of Oshun, a Yoruba water goddess of “female sensuality, love and fertility,” PBS reported when Lemonade first dropped last year. Oshun, also spelled Osun, is the love goddess of the Yoruba people, who inhabit the southwestern region of what is now modern day Nigeria and the southern part of Benin, according to Ancient Origins, and is often depicted wearing yellow and surrounded by fresh water.
Oshun reigns over the waters of the Osun Sacred Grove in Nigeria, a UNESCO World Heritage site nestled in a dense forest on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo.
Worshipers come to the grove with offerings and prayers.
“When you come here and tell Osun ‘I am looking for a baby,’ you get a baby; ‘I’m looking for a husband,’ you get a husband; ‘I am looking for money,’ you get money,” priestess Osafunke Iworo Oshun told CNN last year. “Whatever someone asks, Osun will always give the person because it’s important for the society.”
Beyoncé also appeared as Oshun in “Hold Up,” the second single on her album. In that video, she wears a flowing yellow dress and emerges from behind two large golden doors amid a wave of water.
Amy Yeboah, an associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University, told PBS that in “Hold Up,” the visual storytelling is as important as the lyrics.
Beyoncé is, Yeboah said, “reflecting the power of women spiritually.”
“She takes it deeper into African spirituality,” Yeboah told PBS. “We see this in the first of two baptisms and her emergence as an orisha.”
Artistic representations show Oshun draped in yellow and wearing a gold headpiece.
The gold headpiece Beyoncé wears with the bikini appeared during the live segments of her Grammy performance as well, and at one point her dancers draped the reappearing long silk cloth over the crown and extended the ends away from the singer’s body, a tribute to the many-armed Hindu goddess Kali, who is associated with death, sexuality and motherly love.
The flowers on stage — not unlike the arrangements that appeared in her maternity photos — loop in an essence of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty and fertility. Before Sunday, Beyonce’s maternity photos filled her personal website, interspersed with lines such as, “Mother has one foot in this world and one foot in the next, mother black Venus,” and “Venus has flooded me,” reports Pitchfork.
Her Grammy performance was, in many ways, a blend of the African diaspora in Lemonade with her growing motherhood.
Revealed: African goddess of water and fertility that blesses mothers with TWINS who Beyoncé paid homage to at last night's Grammy's (and in Lemonade)
In her first public performance since announcing she is pregnant with twins, Beyoncé donned a gold sequin gown and headpiece and a gold bikini.
But far from simply making a fashion statement Queen Bey was actually paying homage to an indigenous religious icon, Oshun – a Yoruba deity from West Africa for whom twins and motherhood are particularly crucial.
Oshun – called Osun in the Yoruba language – is the goddess of beauty, prosperity, love, order, fertility and motherhood and is one of the most venerated deities of the religion.
Existing since the beginning of time, she is often seen donning vibrant golden and yellow dresses and ornaments and is often compared to the Virgin Mary of the Christian faith, according to a Harvard divinity professor.
'In Nigeria, Oshun plays a very important role in the civil society and mythology as she was indirectly responsible for the creation of the Yoruba world,' said Dr Jacob Olupona professor of African Religious Traditions and Chair of the Committee on African studies at the Harvard Divinity School.
'From day one, Oshun not only showed her prominent position but also her strength in terms of her spiritual force.'
The similarities between Oshun and Beyoncé are hard to miss according to Dr Olupona and are crucial in establishing the importance of local tradition in the world..
'She is speaking to the world, she is speaking to America,' said the Nigerian professor who is a part of the Yoruba people.
'Beyoncé is educating the masses on Oshun. She is seeing how indigenous spirituality can be a powerful tool for changing the world.'
Dr Olupona drew many comparisons between Oshun and Beyoncé's dress during the performance, her pregnancy announcement photo-shoot and in Lemonade.
While watching her performance, he made note of the musician's elaborate golden chained bikini that she wore with a yellow cape and accessorized with bracelets, necklaces and a golden sun ray crown.
He said: 'Those are Oshun's symbols. The golden and yellow theme. Oshun is the goddess of these pendants and bras.'
'In her home you'll find a lot of these ornaments which we believe she possessed and are hidden in the river.'
And while the professor made a point to recognize the Hindu connections in Beyonce's golden gown, he still acknowledged that they had very close ties to the goddess as well. Dr Olupona noted the star's background dancers were also wearing garbs associated with devotees of Oshun.
In Yoruba folklore and according to Dr Olupona, during the time of creation, the male deities would not consult Oshun and in retaliation she used her spiritual power to make their changes ineffective making their plans obsolete.
In response, the gods went to the Supreme God Olorun to address their problems, not mentioning that they ignored Oshun. When he heard of their transgression against her, he laughed and told them that they needed her in order to create the universe.
'She is one of those deities that the male deities that were dominant in the traditions respected,' he said.
'They had no choice because she was in a situation to control them.'
As noted when Adele won Album of the Year for 25, Beyoncé has reached a pinnacle that not many artist can claim.
In tears, Adele thanked the academy for the award and poignantly talked about reclaiming a bit of herself after having difficulties with motherhood. Then she addressed Beyonce, praising 'Lemonade' as monumental, beautiful and soul-baring.
'The reason I felt I had to say something was my album of the year is 'Lemonade,'' Adele said backstage later. 'She is my icon of my whole life.'
'Beyonce has become significantly important not just to the African American community where she came from but the entire society itself, said Dr Olupona.
'She is in a position to send a strong message in both the political and non-political realm for them to hear.'
'There is no better place to make this point than at such ceremonies like the Grammys and one point is motherhood as an important value and an important space in the American society.'
Along with her calls for change, Beyoncé was celebrated when she announced she was pregnant with twins on Feb. 1. She would then release a photo-shoot where she posed with daughter Blue Ivy and in water channelling the goddess yet again.
Movement of the Yoruba religious migration most prominently occurred due to the Atlantic slave trade. Local religions – like the Candomble (Brazil), Santeria (Cuba and Puerto Rico) and the Umbanda (Argentina) – can all trace their roots to the Yoruba and the religion now has strong bubbles of support all over the world.
Dr Olubano spoke of another tradition of the Yoruba involving the twin deities Ibeji – Taiwo and Kehndie. Although Taiwo was born first, Kehndie is actually deemed as the senior of the two, sending the former to check and see if the world was ready for their birth.
According to the professor, who is a 'Kehndie' twin himself, the child sent his sibling out and once they heard them cry would also come out. The Yoruba people used this story to help them determine which twin would be in charge if ever they were born in a position of leadership.
The cult of Oshun strongly values twins, which might further explain why Beyoncé was adamant on showing homage to the goddess following the news of her pregnancy.
He said: 'Twins have always been very important in the cult of Oshun because she is the one who gave children to mothers. By that principle she could have given one but she gave two.'
On the track Hold Up of the visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé wears a bright yellow flowing dress as she uses her bat 'Hot sauce' to destroy buildings cars and other objects in a seemingly peaceful neighbourhood. Dr Olupona saw this as a clear channeling of the sometimes wrathful deity.
He said: 'What she was doing in typical Oshun mythology is she was trying to destroy what she considered forces of evil.'
The vengeful nature of the goddess is often associated with a malevolent temper matched with a piercing smile, something the theologist noted when Beyoncé gives a sinister grin before laughing menacingly.
He tells the story of an altercation between Oshun and the spirit of herbal medicines, Osanyin, to show the comparison.
As Osanyin grinded leaves to create a medicine that would do harm to the goddess's mother clients, Oshun manages to prevent the wrongdoing by distracting the god, according to Dr Olupona.
After she succeeded, Oshun quickly threw the medicine into the garbage. Osanyin, a one legged male deity, came back and saw what she did but by then it was too late.
The goddess let out a laugh and started making fun of Osanyin.
"Oh you think you are smart, I am not going to let you make this medicine," he said.
'That is exactly Oshun in action and that is why she will laugh. But when she is laughing she is laughing at her success story.'
'She is laughing at her ability to destroy evil, to destroy negative energy and values in society.'
Beyonce has been vocal in her calls for change and her want to rectify problems in both the US and abroad. And by using the story of Oshun, the professor believes that the star is in the right position to lead the conversation.
Dr Olupona said: 'She is reminding us that there is still much to do in a society like this. She is also interested in the importance of local traditions. How local traditions have become global and we need to pay attention because there is a lot we can gain from these traditions.
'These artist are the best. Most people who saw her at home saw her pregnancy and saw that there was nothing wrong in being a pregnant woman.'
'Everybody is watching Beyoncé.'