Who Is Warsan Shire? The Poet Worked On ‘Lemonade’ With Beyoncé, & You Need To Know Her
On the strength of the music alone, Beyoncé’s instantly-iconic Lemonade holds water. Listening to the album itself on repeat, over the course of a few days, solidifies this. But, the real connective tissue that made Lemonade more than an impressive feat of iron-clad NDAs and uncompromising artistic vision were the poems of Warsan Shire, a London-based Kenyan-born Somali poet whose words accompany the interstitial spaces between songs. Beyoncé, bless her heart, generally lacks the gravitas required for what we typically associate with spoken word, but the work of Shire, read in the singer’s hushed tone — syrupy vowels, that drawl — resonated. I’m sure others turned to their viewing companions and asked, in awe, “Who the hell is writing this?” as Lemonade oozed across the screen. The answer is Warsan Shire.
While she is new to the general public, she’s been doing this for a while. Shire published her first book, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth in 2011 and was nominated as the first-ever London Young Poet Laureate in 2014. She’s also the poetry editor at literary magazine SPOOK which focuses on essays, poetry, fiction and photography from emerging talent and new voices. Her work draws heavily on her experience as an immigrant, detailing the “surrealism of everyday immigrant life—one day you are in your country, having fun, drinking mango juice, and the next day you are in the Underground in London and your children are speaking to you in a language you don’t understand.”
Lemonade borrows from a few of her poems, including “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ To Love.” Others adapted for the film include “The Unbearable Weight Of Staying,” “How To Wear Your Mother’s Lipstick,”“Dear Moon,” “Grief Has Its Blue Hands In Her Hair,” and “Nail Technician As Palm Reader.”
In Alexis Okewo’s 2015 profile of Shire for the New Yorker, she writes,
Shire, more than most today, demonstrates the writing life of a young, prolific poet whose poetry or poem-like offhand thoughts will surface in one of your social media feeds and often be exactly what you needed to read, or what you didn’t know that you needed to read, at that moment.
And, after reading through the script for Lemonade and revisiting her words, Okewo’s right. Shire’s power as a writer lies in her ability to create entire worlds with single sentences, writing the kind of evocative phrases that catch in the base of the throat. “In the tradition of men in my blood you come home at 3AM and lie to me,” Beyoncé sighs in the first minutes of the film. Yes, you think. I’ve been lied to. Just like the rest.