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Beyoncé’s ‘RENAISSANCE’: A Celebration Of Queer Icons

Beyoncé performing at Central Park in 2011.
Image courtesy of Asterio Tecson via Wikimedia Commons (CC2.0).

Roar writer Joseph Harrison on the significance of Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE album to the Queer community.

“RENAISSANCE” is the eighth studio album by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. It was released in July, with the lead single “BREAK MY SOUL” having been dropped a month earlier. The album consists of sixteen tracks, all of which signify a stylistic departure for Beyoncé in comparison to her previous work; this was met with strong praise by fans and critics alike.

Beyoncé could almost be described as a cultural document. Her work is praised constantly and, although her presence in the public eye has sometimes been elusive, her power as an entertainer and a monument is hard to dismiss. She has had the career that most artists could only dream of, and her list of accolades has secured her place as one of the world’s biggest stars.

Appropriately for a star with an almost messianic presence in the music industry, Beyoncé’s musical projects are often known to break new ground, and “RENAISSANCE” is no exception. This record has started new conversations around Black, Queer and Trans history and for this its value will only grow.

When the June edition of British Vogue was released with Beyoncé as the cover star, fans braced themselves for her inevitable impact on the music scene. For the photoshoot, she donned a Schiaparelli Couture coat and transformed into an ethereal disco icon. This was enough to start a fervent conversation that a new queen bee was inbound.

Echoing Grace Jones and the disco divas that came before, Vogue called upon readers to “B READY” (as the headline of their feature article quipped). Days later Beyoncé took to social media to announce a new single, entitled “Break MY SOUL”. Whilst fans and followers waited a tense 24 hours to hear the single, few could anticipate the sonic direction the single would embark upon.

“BREAK MY SOUL” was a foray into the world of dance music and gave way to a new incarnation of Beyoncé, showing that her soulful days of rousing vocal arrangements and soundtrack features were behind her. The nu-disco movement of the post-pandemic world was thus transformed when one of pop’s biggest stars decided to step into the glittering world of ‘90s house.

“BREAK MY SOUL” contains a variety of recognisable traits from eras gone by, but remains innovative in its blend of Queer history. The foundational beat of the song includes a sample from Big Freedia, a hip-hop/bounce legend from New Orleans. This was a strong move from Beyoncé, as Big Freedia, an icon to many, is renowned for her Queer sonic style, which has since been embraced by other LGBTQ+ icons such as RuPaul and Charli XCX. The distinctive Bounce style and tropes had remained mostly unheard by mainstream audiences until this single, and many could tell this signalled a new artistic direction for Beyoncé, rather than merely a quick production decision. This was a clear step into the Queer past, which remains a thematic constant throughout “RENAISSANCE”.

Following the success of “BREAK MY SOUL”, which charted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, the album followed days later. With its strong dance and disco roots, “RENAISSANCE” gave voice to the pioneers of genres often stolen from Black and Queer individuals. Beyoncé’s muse for “RENAISSANCE” was her late Uncle Jonny – a family member whom she credits for “expos[ing her] to music and culture”. His life with HIV/AIDS, from which he later died, opened Beyoncé’s creative spirit to a world often regarded as bizarre.

Queer music is inherently rooted in the transgender individuals who worked the circuits of dance clubs in large cities, like Detroit and Chicago. Radical in nature, these clubs birthed new genres and gave marginalised groups a chance to forge their own styles for themselves. Dance and disco were quickly appropriated by white artists who had larger platforms that allowed them to reach more global charts and listeners. Beyoncé was keen to highlight these marginalised and unspoken histories with “RENAISSANCE”, and the album ultimately makes a step towards reclaiming them.

Beyoncé was thus expected to honour Queer expression in every shade and not have a merely tokenistic sample in one track, and she did not disappoint. Many tracks contain interpolations of sounds unique to LGBTQ+ spaces. “PURE/HONEY” is a fierce tribute to the Ballroom scene, founded in 70/80s New York. These expressions from trans and queer people were loud and colourful affairs where Kings and Queens stomped down the runway of dance halls to loud, thumping beats in the most elaborate, campy looks.

Mostly competitive, these gatherings were dominated by Houses – these families, named mostly after fashion brands, were seldom mentioned until recently. This track submerges the listener into a Harlem Ballroom scene where these sounds were pioneered. Beyoncé’s use of samples from Kevin Aviance and MikeQ is a fitting tribute to a community that gave stars of the past a place to call home. Beyoncé’s incessant and necessary tribute to this scene was explored further on the “QUEENS REMIX” of “BREAK MY SOUL” featuring Madonna.

Reinventing the club classic Vogue, Madonna and Beyoncé lay their claim on pop history as both poetically recreate a Ballroom staple. Vogue in its original version made quick use of the voguing dance style but omitted any of the names of those who spearheaded the movement. True to style, however, Beyoncé names women of colour who have legendary status within popular music, then also speaks of the rarely spoken Ballroom houses, which were absent in the original Madonna release. At this point, it is clear that Beyoncé has set her sights on creating a monument to history through sound.

“RENAISSANCE”, literally meaning rebirth, is the rightful reincarnation of a story rarely told. The album is a eulogy to the fallen angels of a musical culture that has its history redacted from public memory. It is an all-inclusive observation that chronicles the Queer experience, and does so with unwavering class and style. And even as Beyoncé disappears from the limelight once again, “RENAISSANCE” will live on in the hearts of Queer people globally. It has undoubtedly been a step towards reconciling a painful past for a community of trailblazers.

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