All illustrations by Harmonia Rosales

The Spirit of Beyoncé

Ahead of Beyoncé's next release, we look back at 'Lemonade,' the landmark visual album that introduced fans to Santería, a world of volatile gods and Black liberation

SOMETIMES REVENGE IS the only first response to betrayal. Then comes the journey toward healing. 

When Beyoncé’s husband, rapper and music mogul Jay-Z, cheated on her with the now infamous “Becky with the good hair,” she didn’t stay quiet. She brought her rage and vision to her 2016 visual album Lemonade.

And she didn’t stop at calling out “Becky.” 

Beyoncé transforms through her grief into new power. She starts by jumping from the rooftop of a building into a baptismal pool in “Pray You Catch Me,” where she’s reborn as Oshun, the Yoruba orisha or goddess who rules money and fertility and rivers. Oshun may be able to offer the good things in life, but if you cross her, she’s vengeful. She’s known to laugh when she’s sad, and cry when she’s happy. 

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In the most buzzed-about video, “Hold Up,” Beyoncé’s clad in a yellow Roberto Cavalli dress and gold jewelry to represent the goddess’s favorite color and element, smiling as she smashes car windows to the delight of onlookers. 

Beyoncé’s Lemonade has been praised as a work of bold Black feminism. Widely regarded as a revolutionary production, the film creates space for Black women to feel pure joy and pure anger. Black women—like the mothers of the murdered Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner all featured in the film—are given room to grieve unimaginable losses. 

Beyoncé samples Malcolm X’s “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?” speech to convey some facts plainly: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Beyoncé has the platform, and she’s using it to demand that people respect, protect, and pay attention to Black women. 

And when she embodies Oshun in Lemonade and her subsequent visual album, Black Is King, she’s saying that she will reclaim her earthly power through the supernatural and through her African roots. Assuring viewers that there is the possibility of liberation in orisha worship, of stripping away the colonized religions and beliefs that have forced the descendants of enslaved and oppressed people to fit a foreign mold. Beyoncé holds that possibility up for the camera. 

 

 

The Religion

 An amalgamation of West African/Nigerian Yoruba cosmology, Catholicism, and the nineteenth century French practice of spiritism, the complex Afro-Cuban religion Santería has been historically shrouded in secrecy. It’s also known as La Regla de Ocha (the rule of the ocha/orisha) or Lukumí.

It is the religion of the underdog. It’s subversive. It’s about survival through authenticity and adaptation. Enslaved Africans brought their stories and practices to Cuba from Nigeria. White Spanish colonizers encouraged syncretism or a merging of their beliefs with Catholicism through African ethnic fraternal organizations called cabildos. After that, Changó, the fiery, virile male god of fire, lightning, music, and war, became Santa Barbara, who often appears in Changó’s color red and is depicted with lightning bolts and a crown. Oshun became aligned with Our Lady of Charity, or Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba. 

Just as Yoruba beliefs were dragged to Cuba through the slave trade, they again were pushed out into the world during the Cuban diaspora, fueled by the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Santería’s magical branches grew strong and steadily throughout the world, but when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, the most popular reference to this syncretic belief system since Sublime’s 1996 eponymous ska-pop song, those branches had a growth spurt. 

Lemonade gave her fans something much more intimate to explore. In the religion, each of us has orisha “parents” with whom we share personal traits and affinities. They are the owners of our heads, spiritually and literally for believers. In Lemonade, Beyoncé is placing Oshun at her crown. 

Unlike Jesus, who is sexless, rarely emotive, and low-key perfect, orishas are flawed and complicated divinities, and their stories—which they share directly through a divination system called Ifá—include ethical advice and direction on how to move through the world. 

Each New Year, the orishas tell babalawos, or high priests of the religion who gather as the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, what to expect from the year ahead. For years now, natural disasters resulting from climate change have been at the top of the list. Way back in 2008, they shared a warning about epidemics. Go figure. 

The orishas expect us to harness and draw from their earth energy to fight for the things we believe in with our whole beings. For Beyoncé, it was her marriage and family. But in this time of climate change and political inaction and human-fueled cataclysms, the orishas invite us to see ourselves in them. As Oshun is the river, her children are drawn to water, are one with the water, and are driven to protect the water. 

 

The BeyHive

 If Oshun is the guiding light for Beyoncé, then Beyoncé is a guiding light for her fans. 

Fans see themselves in Beyoncé, and that is her power. As with Swifties and Little Monsters, the BeyHive is an identity shaped by popular culture. (Side note: bees make honey, Oshun’s favorite thing to eat.) 

Friends have told me that songs on Bey’s 2022 album Renaissance saved their lives. The wildly popular Renaissance tour and last year’s documentary provided fans with a church to worship their idol. In the film, we see Beyoncé’s eleven-year-old daughter join her on stage for “My Power” and “Black Parade,” two songs off Black Is King that trace the bloodlines linking the American South to Africa. In the latter, she calls out Oshun explicitly. Oshun, after all, grants us the fertility to allow for new generations to be born.

When Lemonade dropped, the internet lit up with think pieces—from Vogue, Remezcla, Ms., PBS, and Vox—praising Beyoncé for using her platform to share the orishas with the world.

Kameelah L. Martin, director of the African American Studies Program at the College of Charleston, and Kinitra D. Brooks, Chair in Literary Studies at Michigan State University, were inspired to create The Lemonade Reader, a scholarly look at the singer’s oeuvre.  

“I was not a diehard Beyoncé fan when Lemonade hit,” Martin says. But once she turned it on, she couldn’t look away. Martin jumped on FaceTime with Brooks, both in their pajamas, excited to talk about what this exploration of African ancestry meant for Black women and about the yellow dress. 

“I was floored that she had found this sort of depth and spiritual knowledge that was embedded in the film. . . . And I was like, Who has Beyoncé been talking to?” Martin says. “She did that for the world to see. It’s normalizing orisha worship. And exposing people who didn’t even know this was a thing. . . . She’s paying homage to it in a way that we have not seen a pop culture icon of her stature ever do. She certainly put it on the map.” 

R & B singer SZA also often posts on social media about her ties to Santería and Yemayá (who guards the oceans), including using the phrase to praise an orisha, “Maferefun Yemaya y Ochun.” On her 2023 tour stop at Madison Square Garden, ocean themes abounded and she wore a navy jersey with the word yemaya on the back.  

It’s been rumored that Jennifer Lopez was crowned with Oshun; that Forest Whitaker wore white for a year, a requirement of initiates; and that singers India Arie and Summer Walker might also be involved in the religion. Beyoncé included practitioners and twin Cuban singers Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz of Ibeyi on Lemonade—Ibeyi also represents the divine, mischievous orisha twins of Oshun.  

“Something is happening in the celebrity world where we’re seeing more young women in particular move in the direction of orisha worship,” Martin says. “And they’re not afraid to show it.” 

 

 

The Lime

I tell my son that his first concert was Beyoncé’s Formation world tour kickoff, which featured songs from Lemonade. I was pregnant, reviewing the show for Pitchfork, and he was about the size of a lime. I brought a banana and crackers to eat because I was starving all the time and very tired. At home, I had a pumpkin out as an offering to Oshun as advised by my babalawo, to protect me and my pregnancy. 

Beyoncé has been transparent about her fertility struggles. Just over nine months after that concert, she showcased her pregnancy, with twins, at the 59th Grammys, dressed in gold, representing the fertility goddess herself. I imagine she too has a less humble pumpkin in her less humble abode, and she too probably has to pass on pumpkin pie. (Once we’ve petitioned Oshun, we are required to abstain from eating pumpkins. The seeds are her children. Oshun provides, but there is a give-and-take.) 

I grew up Catholic in Miami, where I found that the iconography and sensual experience of Santería was how I best connected with the divine. 

In Miami, you find offerings to Yemayá floating in Biscayne Bay. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you can hear the drums of rituals where dance and possession are on the agenda.

Botánicas, or religious stores, in strip malls are packed with colorful novella candles adorned with pictures of saints, perfumed baths in tiny bottles, and shrines holding large statues of saints and African gods with offerings scattered at their feet. In the back rooms at random botánicas, I had my first real introduction to the orishas, and it was intense. After a cleansing or rogación de cabeza that employed coconut meat to cleanse my ori, or crown of negative energy, I felt like I was floating on air for days. 

There are the spiritualists who fall into trances to talk to the dead or Eggun; santeras (practitioners) who read your cards, tell you your problems, and offer the prescription in ritual cleanings; and babalawos who read Ifá by throwing cowrie shells or caracoles. Regarded as a form of health care for people who can’t afford or access traditional medical services, herbs, spells, and animal sacrifices are used to clear out negative spiritual energy and unblock the roads that keep us from our best health.

The orishas are woven into our lives. When you believe, you see them everywhere and in everything. They are represented by colors, foods, animals, numbers, and natural forces.

Eleguá is the trickster god who opens and closes roads. He is represented by a cement head with cowrie shell eyes and mouth. He lives at your front door, and he eats first. That means you offer him animal sacrifices and gifts before you can ask other orishas for their blessings or any favors. (The U.S. Supreme Court protected the right for santeras, santeros, and babalawos to sacrifice with the hallmark religious freedom case Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah. The religion is not for the faint of heart nor for minimalists.) 

 

Oyá and the Winds 

This past year, I’ve had a tough time personally and professionally, and so I decided that, after a long break, it was time again for a reading. Back in Miami, I had a kind, wise, and thoughtful babalawo who said I reminded him of his daughter. He took the time to explain what stories were referred to in my readings. With fine penmanship, he would mark in pencil the Ifá codes in a notebook. When I needed a cleansing bath, he would take me into his yard and hack up plants like rue to improve my energy. 

I found someone to give me a reading at a botánica near my current house outside of Washington, D.C. We sat in a small room with folding chairs, the same kind of small room I’ve sat in for most of the readings I’ve had in my life. Eleguá’s cement head with cowrie shell eyes was nestled in the corner. The man used a tarot deck and discovered, as you will often hear in a reading, that someone has been putting bad energy on me. A bath with several herbal perfumes I purchased would clear it away, and new joys and wins would come my way.  

With a prayer, he put a cleansing perfume on his hands and on my neck, and a surge of energy pulsed through his grip. I then felt something I’ve felt after a blessing or cleansing—a comfortable badness, an uneasy malaise that had settled inside me, pulling away. The invisible force almost struggled to disengage with my essence, and I was nauseated and nervous. Soon, I adjusted to its absence and felt calmer. My head was clearer. 

More than twenty years ago, a santera at a botánica had already assessed that my guardian orisha was Oyá. A year later, I sat on the floor with three babalawos who confirmed this was the case. Santería is like that—information is in the air. It follows you wherever you go. 

Oyá is the keeper of the winds, storms, and justice. She lives in the marketplace but allows people to pass to their deaths at the cemetery gates. She is the weather. She is change. She is fierce. She rides into battle with her husband, Changó, whom she shares with Oshun and Obá. Changó made Oyá his queen, and she—a crafty goddess—stole some of his magic: the secret of throwing lightning bolts. 

The babalawos told me things I should never do, often referring to one of the 256 Ifá stories. I cannot eat eggplants, blow out candles, or get too jealous, lest I, like Oyá did, burn down my own house out of spite and anger. I learn more about myself as I learn about Oyá. Her parentage gives me a framework within which I reside more comfortably. In that spiritual and ethical house, I can explore myself better and deepen my connection with the divine. It is settling to be reflected in that independent, justice-obsessed goddess, because Jesus and I don’t have that much in common. 

 

 Black Is King

The orishas also call us to remember the diaspora and the contributions that enslaved Africans brought, the blood they shed, the horrors they endured to create the world we know today. 

With her 2020 visual album Black Is King, Beyoncé doesn’t even bother with the Western references that she wove through Lemonade. This time, she no longer subtly brings the orishas into her work. The veil has been lifted. She now calls Oshun and Yemayá out by name in “Black Parade.” 

Constance Grady at Vox observed, “Black Is King is a love letter to the African diaspora.” It offers a Pan-African cornucopia of references and language to connect with African ancestry to build community and leave a legacy. With this film, as with Lemonade, Beyoncé continues to show that the path forward begins with introspection. “To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist,” she says. The orishas function as mirrors that let you know that inside there is magic, there is a connection to the earth and the ancestors. 

“Of all the tools Oshun is said to carry, perhaps the most powerful one is her mirror. The layperson mistakes this for a sign of her vanity,” writes Joan Morgan in Genius. “Those of us who know her a bit more intimately however recognize the mirror as the tool Oshun holds up to our faces when she requires us to do the difficult work of really seeing ourselves.

 

 

A Safe Space

Martin, who is Black, found her spiritual home in Santería. “It gave me a place to feel safe and to really explore and belong into, not just a community of people, but a very ancient community that predated enslavement,” she says, “that predated what I knew about my family in the United States.”

Martin’s mother’s family is Catholic, with roots in New Orleans, like Beyoncé, and her father converted to Islam. Growing up, she had a heightened intuition, sensed the supernatural in her dreams, and saw signs everywhere. “I felt so much more confident in who I was,” she says of her practice. And the fact that Santería is connected to Africa enhanced that confidence. She walked around with her head held higher, her chest out. The religion and its stories acted as a root system that linked her back to Africa and her ancestry, and gave her a way to speak with her ancestors.  

She used to keep her scholarship separate from her practice of the religion, but Lemonade broke that wall down for her. “I’m learning an entirely different set of knowledge and wisdom that you won’t learn in a book,” she says. She now speaks with a different type of authority, one of experience. 

She was recently initiated in Havana, in a series of secret ceremonies that involve smells, tastes, and feelings. She just wrapped her post-initiation year and seven days of wearing white. The sacrifices throughout this process—some quite literal—deepen santeras’ relationships with their parent orishas and themselves even further. They become better in tune with the dead, the divine, and the natural world.

 

A Call to Action

Orishas will endure once humans can no longer survive on this planet, but until then, we can protect the earth and otherworldly energies by letting the orishas shine through us.  

“Oyá . . . brings the winds of transition and change,” Martin agrees. “There may be chaos in the storm and destruction, but there’s always this rebirth.” Oyá is, in many ways, a perfect orisha to have at our side as we fight for our planet. This creator of extreme weather calls us to action.

We are called upon to take the subversive energy of Oshun and the furious desire for justice of Oyá to speak up through activism, art, in any way we can to push back against those in power who will not listen. 

“The earth is newer, refreshed. Humanity may be destroyed, but there’s something to be said for understanding that there is a deeper spiritual message that’s happening with our weather system in addition to the science,” she says. 

I try to find hope in the thought that we are on an ever- changing planet, that the winds will shift, whether or not in our favor. They will always shift. 


Oshun is often seen holding yellow pennywort and sunflowers.

Harmonia Rosales is an Afro-Cuban artist whose work connects the stories and characters of the Yorùbá religion, Greco-Roman mythology, and Christianity with the artistic techniques of the Renaissance era.

Read more from Orion‘s Spring 2024 issue Rites of Nature here.

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Liz Tracy is a culture and health journalist and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Glamour, and Pitchfork. She is senior writer and researcher at Impact Politics.