Liberated, livin’ like we ain’t got time: How Renaissance became Beyoncé’s tribute to queer Black America

A disco record and its rollicking world tour is an unprecedented celebration of queer Black life by the biggest pop star in America, critics and scholars tell Josh Marcus

Thursday 29 June 2023 14:57 BST

At the close of the Barcelona stop on Beyoncé’s much-hyped Renaissance world tour – a dazzling, Afrofuturist fantasia full of sexy androids, a rolling six-wheeled tank, and Queen Bey herself sitting astride a giant crystal horse – an image flickered on the jumbotron at the centre of the stage. It was Beyoncé’s late Uncle Jonny, a man she’s described as her “godmother” and the first person “to expose me to a lot of the music and culture” that’d go on to inspire her Renaissance album, which was released last summer. “Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture,” Beyoncé wrote in a dedication for the record. “To all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognised for far too long.”

Ricky Tucker, a writer and the author of And the Category Is . . . : Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community, was one of the 53,000 people watching Beyoncé perform at Barcelona’s Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys in early June; he’d made the pilgrimage to the city from New York especially to see her. As Jonny flashed on the screen, Tucker’s thoughts turned to his aunt Veronica, his mother’s sister, who – like Jonny – also died of Aids-related complications, and also exposed him to the wider gay world when he was growing up in North Carolina. “My aunt Ronny was one of the first people that taught me about Paris Is Burning,” he tells me, of the groundbreaking 1990 documentary about drag and ball culture in New York. “She was a club kid, real hip, and gay. For Beyoncé to dedicate this album to her uncle… it meant a lot to me. I just burst into tears.”

At the same time as Beyoncé was honouring queer culture and the trailblazers behind it, politicians across the US were cracking down on seemingly every facet of LGBT+ life, from banning books by diverse authors to outlawing drag performances. In the week leading up to the Barcelona show alone, Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri all advanced or passed bans on gender-affirming healthcare for minors, the latest attempt by America’s Republicans to weaponise anti-LGBT+ hate and paranoia.

According to scholars and critics, it is this tension that makes the Renaissance moment so crucial and timely. Even as the powers-that-be are seeking to tear LGBT+ people out of the national fabric, the biggest pop star in the world is using her platform to honour and celebrate the vital place these same people have always held in American life and art.

It’s an endeavour that’s not without its complications, though, sparking questions about authenticity, cultural appropriation, and how much art can do to really change the world around it. But it wouldn’t be a Beyoncé album without high stakes. She is our generation’s defining pop star, with a career that’s bucked convention and grown bolder rather than milder with each iteration. The world domination of Renaissance may be her biggest and most important gamble yet.

The ample list of contributors on Renaissance reads like an archive of American music and underscores the album’s importance. It’s a tribute to the perennial, and under-recognised, musical innovation of Black queer artists in the US and beyond, from the sequined splendor of disco to the dance floor ecstasy of house music and New York City ballroom. Contributors include everyone from pioneering trans DJ and musician Honey Dijon to Grace Jones, the iconic model, musician, and actor. There are samples of legendary New York drag performers and nightlife musicians like Moi Renee and Kevin Aviance, as well as reworks of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and the Nineties house hit “Show Me Love” by Robin S.

The influence of New York City ballroom and drag performance appears across the ‘Renaissance’ album and world tour (AP)

Such a list of contributors and references serves as a rare corrective in the long and sordid history of US Black cultural production being stolen and monetised by white people. Instead of ripping off original sounds, Beyoncé is in many cases collaborating with their pioneers. “She’s citing Black queer culture and she’s making it central to what she’s doing now,” explains UC Santa Barbara professor Omise’eke Tinsley, author of Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism. “Or maybe foregrounding the ways that it’s always been central and celebrating it from start to finish. It’s this loving tribute to disco and house and the 1970s, but particularly to the queerness of those moments.”

The album nods to the house music scene, which has its roots in largely queer clubs like Chicago’s Warehouse, and Renaissance also features the New Orleans bounce sound of regular Beyoncé collaborator Big Freedia, who is nonbinary. Taken together, the album makes the statement, Tinsley continues, that the achievement and legacy of these genres, and the queer people who helped create them, are indisputable landmarks of American cultural history – a force that drove the advancement of US art in an “unapologetic, brilliant, Black feminist way.” She continues: “When we think about those time periods as periods of Black power, we forget sometimes that Black power was also about the power of Black queerness and Black femininity.”

Beyoncé Dazzles Fans in 'Renaissance' World Tour Opening Concert

Michigan State University professor Kinitra Brooks, who has taught courses on Beyoncé and is co-editing a forthcoming book about the album called The Renaissance Reader, says Renaissance is also about endorsing a broader conception of what a famous Black woman from the South can be in America. “At the beginning of her career, there was this sense [that] Beyoncé is a good, Southern, Christian girl, which implied that she believed certain things,” she says, a set of unspoken codes that suggested Beyoncé shouldn’t be too political, too sexual, too pointed about race or gender, or anything else that might get in the way of selling records. In the early 2000s, as Beyoncé rose to prominence as a solo artist, even high-profile white musicians like The Chicks could see their careers annihilated by voicing the wrong opinion on something like the Iraq War, making it even more risky, given the double standards in US culture, for a Black artist to fully express herself.

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Fast forward two decades, and Beyoncé isn’t holding anything back, embracing and celebrating her specific place as “an icon of Black femme culture,” says Brooks. That includes, she adds, recognising the “undervalued” sounds and styles of “Black women and Black queer men or queer folks” in the South, people whose vibrant art and culture rarely gets the same level of investment or recognition in the mainstream music industry as other groups.

The ‘Renaissance’ tracklist features artists who pushed boundaries in US music and culture like Grace Jones (DAVID SANDISON)

Tucker says that Renaissance is also important for what it says within the Black community at large.“Often, folks in the Black community have only queer people to oppress,” he says. “We’re excommunicated from churches. [With] her messaging, Beyoncé was speaking directly to us.” He adds that this embrace extends to her live tour as well, which features young vogue dancers from within the community, as well as gender neutral bathrooms for fans.

As New York Times critic Wesley Morris noted of the album upon its release, its title is also a powerful callback to the Harlem Renaissance, an era in which artists and writers fled Jim Crow and racial terror in the early 1900s and arrived in New York. There they helped create a flourishing scene of performers and creatives across genres, pioneering new art forms and new forms of identity. It’s a statement, Morris writes, on the way art can form a sanctuary in times of persecution. “The point is they called that a renaissance, too,” he wrote. “It sustained and delivered delight and provocation in spite of the surrounding crisis. It gave people looking for a house something that approximates home.”

Featuring references and samples from artists like Big Freedia and New York drag performer Moi Renee, ‘Renaissance’ pays tribute to generations of queer Black music

In addition to the big-picture cultural statements of the Renaissance album and tour, the project also represents the latest evolution of Beyoncé’s increasingly political personal message. According to Brooks, it is a telling reflection on the confines of being a Black artist that only after Beyoncé became a galactic megastar and rich beyond belief could she start really speaking her mind, even if it means Renaissance hasn’t sold as quickly as her previous albums. “She built the monetary buffer, the cultural buffer, to have these larger conversations about race,” she says, “where she could not sell as many records, she could take certain hits from it. Some of her more race-critical work doesn’t sell as well as some of her earlier works.”

Beyoncé during her 2014 Video Music Awards performance

It may not sell as well, but with each new era in her career, Beyoncé has become both more specific and more pointed. Each big artistic swing has a way of driving years worth of cultural conversation. There was her 2014 MTV Video Music Awards performance, where she sang in front of a massive screen reading “FEMINIST”. Paired with an audio sample of author Chimamanda Nogzi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists”, the performance arguably helped broaden popular discussion of feminism at the time.

Two years later, she dropped “Formation,” an ode to the many flavours of Black Southern swag. The song is triumphant, with a brash Big Freedia sample announcing, “I came to slay, b****” and Beyoncé boasting of her authenticity, that she “earned all this money” but that “they never take the country out me”. The anthem – with its militant, bouncy chorus telling ladies to “get in formation” – could be heard playing everywhere from house parties to Black Lives Matter protests that year. The video added another layer, contrasting the luminous Black Southern culture Beyoncé grew up in against the environmental racism and police violence of the South.

In one portion of the video, a young Black boy in a hoodie – seemingly, a reference to murdered teenager Trayvon Martin – dances in front of riot police as graffiti appears, reading ‘Stop Shooting Us’. It signaled that the Black Lives Matter movement had earned a major mainstream supporter. The clip ends with a poignant reference to Hurricane Katrina and Beyoncé drowning on top of a New Orleans police car.

Some, such as acclaimed author Jesmyn Ward, saw the song and the video as a vital love letter. For NPR, she wrote that it was intended for people “who grew up black in the American South, who swam through Hurricane Katrina, who watched the world sink, who starved for two weeks after the eye passed, who left our dead floating in our houses...we needed to hear this.”

These gestures didn’t land with everyone. Other observers, such as Shantrelle P Lewis, a writer and curator from New Orleans, accused Beyoncé of “exacerbating a trauma” that wasn’t her own to sell records and concert tickets, with the double insult that the “Formation” video failed to visually feature Messy Mya and Big Freedia, the local queer bounce performers sampled in the song. “Can black people appropriate one another?” Lewis asked in Slate. “I’ve never thought I’d come to this conclusion, but yes, we can – especially when you’re one of the most influential and powerful black women in the world. Especially when you take the cultural productions of a marginalised community and present them as your own. Especially when you capitalise off of their deaths. This is not giving people voice. It is stealing.”

She is hiring folks from these communities and putting food on their tables and money in their pockets

Professor Kinitra Brooks

This debate about authenticity – whether Beyoncé, a multi-millionaire pop star, could genuinely engage in delicate political conversations outside of her direct experience – would follow her career as she continued to get more conceptual. But the criticisms certainly didn’t slow her down. Later in 2016, her Super Bowl performance alongside Bruno Mars and Coldplay brought her increasingly political message to one of the biggest and most diverse stages in America, and one of the few remaining pieces of media in the smartphone age that Americans of all stripes still watch together. The NFL, with its almost entirely white class of team owners and troubling record silencing protest from players like Colin Kaepernick, is among the more conservative pro sports leagues in the US, but that didn’t stop Beyoncé and her dancers from performing in leather outfits and berets styled after the Black Panthers, and giving their signature salute. The performance bottled a new wave of Black activism and anti-racist organisation, and led to a cultural whirlwind – there were rave reviews, outrage at Fox News, and calls from police groups to boycott security at Beyoncé shows.

But by this point, Beyoncé seemed impervious to obstacles. Her 2018 Coachella performance – in which she remixed a career worth of hits into a raucous, HBCU-style homecoming rally with a full marching band – further cemented her place in the musical pantheon. She was the first Black woman to headline the festival, while the show became the most-viewed live music performance in YouTube history at the time, with over 450,000 tuning into the livestream.

When Renaissance hit last summer, Beyoncé was at the height of her powers. Despite criticism about whether or not her celebration of Black queer history was an appropriate story for her to tell, Tucker says that it’s important to note that Beyoncé never claimed any of her influences as her own creations. It’s something replicated on the Renaissance tour, too. “She let the dancers do that and queer folks do it,” he says. “They had kind of a mini ball. It was a good seven minutes of vogue and she disappeared for a minute.”

Deliberately stepping just outside the spotlight is a more meaningful form of engagement, he said, than the work of another ballroom-inspired pop star, Madonna, whose 1990 hit “Vogue” referenced the Black and Latine New York City queer scene. The song, Tucker says, was a “room divider” within the ballroom world that inspired it, with some appreciating the recognition, and others seeing a white artist profiting off an art form made by people of colour – virtually all of whom would never be able to enjoy that same kind of compensation that she did.

Brooks notes that unlike past pop stars who have drawn inspiration from queer art, Beyoncé credits her collaborators on her songs, providing them monetary thanks. “She is hiring folks from these communities and putting food on their tables and money in their pockets,” she says. “She isn’t simply being extractive. She’s still Beyoncé. We have to acknowledge the power dynamics that are there, but also she’s becoming very intentional about where she spends her power and for whom.”

Beyoncé performing “Formation” during the Super Bowl

Still, Beyoncé isn’t above reproach. Fans were furious with her decision to perform this year in Dubai, where homosexuality is illegal. Others saw her decision to pose in a 2021 Tiffany campaign featuring a colonial-era South African diamond mined by Black labourers as at odds with her liberatory message.

In the end, Tinsley said she likes to think about Beyoncé, and allyship in general, through the lens of usefulness. Sure, it’s a complicated bundle of identities being a multi-platinum, multi-millionaire, radical pop star, but at the end of the day, Beyoncé is funneling her power towards uplifting people, unlike the Republican politicians cracking down on LGBT+ rights across the US. “There are so many Josh Hawleys and Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Greg Abbotts, people who are literally trying to kill me and my family,” she said. The professor and her husband, who is transgender, recently left Texas, in part because of the state’s vehemently anti-trans legislation. “Beyoncé is not the enemy. They don’t have to be my best friend for their work to be useful to my survival.”

Beyond that, she also argues that Beyoncé’s tour – as well as her decision to have her daughter Blue Ivy perform with her on stage – looks towards a radiant, inclusive future in a country with a long history of cutting Black life short. “I still remember when quarantine started and it felt like the world was ending,” she tells me. “Beyoncé is imagining a Black future for these young Black queer folks … it’s powerful, it’s energetic, [and] it is to be celebrated.”

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