Culture

Get to Know the Brilliant Somali-British Poet Featured on Beyoncé’s Lemonade

by Tasbeeh Herwees

April 24, 2016
Image via Warsan Shire's Instagram account.

For immigrant girls who came of age on Tumblr, reading the diasporic verses of Warsan Shire is like receiving the soothing counsel of the young, mischievous aunty or elder cousin. For years, the 26-year old poet’s work was shared widely and obsessively on Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram by her most ardent fans. Now, Shire’s poetry is being introduced to an even greater audience—via Beyoncé’s new visual album, Lemonade, narrated with the words of Shire herself. In her fifth studio album, Beyoncé uses adaptations of Shire’s poetry to bookmark chapters within the album— Shire is credited on the album as a collaborator on “Film Adaptation and Poetry”.

“I tried to make a home outta you,” Beyoncé narrates, intoning the words of Shire. “But doors lead to trapdoors. A stairway leads to nothing. Unknown women wander the halls at night. Where do you go when you go quiet?”

Beyoncé borrows most heavily from Shire’s For Women Who Are Difficult to Love. “You are terrifying and strange and beautiful,” she reads, as the camera pans over her reflection in the mirror. Shire made a short film for this piece a few years ago, a video that now has more than 180,000 views on Vimeo.

Just last year, New Yorker contributor Alexis Okeowo wrote a piece profiling Shire and her steady rise to fame, running down her list of accomplishments: in 2011, she published “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth”, a collection of her poems; she took home Brunel University’s African Poetry Prize in 2013; she was Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014. On the appeal of Shire’s poetry, Okeowo wrote:

“[Shire’s] poetry evokes longing for home, a place to call home, and is often nostalgic for memories not her own, but for those of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, people who forged her idea of her ancestral homeland through their own stories. With fifty thousand Twitter followers and a similar number of Tumblr readers, 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.”

Even if Shire’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, her poetry might be immediately recognizable to anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time online. Her poetry on immigration and refugees frequently pops up on social media timelines whenever the subjects become topical. A simple Google image search of this poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”, turns up hundreds of results:

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Get to Know the Brilliant Somali-British Poet Featured on Beyoncé’s Lemonade