It was the third consecutive time I had listened to Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, Renaissance, after it debuted at midnight. As a Black queer millennial who grew up anticipating the global superstar’s stylishly curated releases, this felt remarkably personal. Beyoncé has never been a stranger to giving a nod to LGBTQ themes and artists in her work (her past collaborations with Frank Ocean, Big Freedia, MNEK, and others were iconic). But this was a musical love letter to the diverse queer fans who’ve held it down for her “Beyhive” since the beginning.
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For my generation, I can’t think of another mainstream straight artist who has given us a comprehensive record as intentionally Black and queer as Renaissance. The album is a treasure trove of lyrical references, samples, and shout-outs to the melanated LGBTQ innovators who’ve inspired her. From the incorporation of ballroom-vogue chants to memorably shouting out the viral handbags of Black queer designer Telfar Clemens, Beyoncé gave fans like myself an “IYKYK” experience that’s rare for a marginalized community that has often been treated as second-class citizens in an industry that loves to jack our swagger. And the amazing part about this summer is: She wasn’t the only one.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at how other listeners have struggled to identify the Black queer influences and references in the latest musical trends. Twitter couldn’t decide whether Drake’s latest album Honestly, Nevermind was Black queer-inspired house music or just simply European-nightclub “oontz oontz” beats. National media fail to understand what Beyoncé means in her new song “Cozy” when she sings “Might I suggest you don’t fuck with my sis” (Hint: She wasn’t talking about her “sis” Solange in the infamous elevator incident). Every “debate” — if you can call them that — makes it more and more obvious a cultural reset is overdue.
It’s been refreshing (and surprising) to hear Madonna join forces with Black queer rapper Saucy Santana to reinvent what it means to be a “Material Gworrllllllll,” Grammy-winning R&B crooner Lucky Daye lending his vocals on a track with lesbian singer Syd, and straight hip-hop artist GID collaborate on his new album with Black LGBTQ musicians such as Yung Baby Tate. All of this has been a long time coming for music listeners like myself, who have often been served the “Great Value” version of what allyship looks like in the industry.
Before the latest explosion of Black queer appreciation, mainstream music “for the gays” felt like a huge white Pride parade where everything sounded like both aged and modern synth-pop or disco remixes (think Madonna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Whitney Houston, David Bowie, and Cher). Sure, there was Janet Jackson, Diana Ross, and Beyoncé love on the speakers at gay nightclubs and festivals, but the vast majority of queer cultural references and nods were served to the Will & Grace/Queer as Folk gays who were often metropolitan, male, and white (ABBA and George Michael isn’t the only gay fun time, people). To be a Black queer music lover in society often meant having your playlist segregated — where your personal “gay icons” could only be played in your headphones but never blasted on the airwaves.
In 2022, with the help of several Black mainstream artists, a Black queer musical renaissance might finally put such a dichotomy to rest.
Not all that long ago, I had to go to particular Black — and particularly gay — corners of the internet to find such sonic representation.
It was on now-extinct websites, such as Black Gay Chat Live and Black Planet, where people not only went online for dating, but to actually be exposed to new diverse sounds. These were the places where I was widely introduced to underground Black queer culture (I first learned of the iconic documentary Paris Is Burning from an online blog discussion) and became familiar with contemporary ballroom remixes from the likes of DJ MikeQ, who is now famous for spinning tracks on the HBO Max ballroom-competition show Legendary. Online Black queer communities on Tumblr, YouTube, and SoundCloud reintroduced me to New Orleans bounce music that was made famous by LGBTQ artists such as Sissy Nobby, Big Freedia, and Nicky Da B.
My years in college allowed me to have a more nuanced view of my identity through music. While I was studying critical race theory and intersectionality, it became clear to me how my personal understanding of being queer was shaped largely by a white-dominated media landscape. During the early 2010s, diverse representation of queer people on the radio who looked like me in music was often rare. As the likes of white mainstream LGBTQ musicians, such as Lady Gaga, Adam Lambert, and Brandi Carlile emerged, things elsewhere looked largely colorless, with the exceptions of Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks. As much as the queer community often tried to avoid the unequal elephant in the room, it was hard not to feel the erasure in music.
I love a good Gaga banger as much as the next butch queen, but her sometimes innocuous, one-for-all-mankind “colorblind” music can only captivate me for so long.
While I enjoyed the risky thrills in Lambert’s controversial debut album, For Your Entertainment, the vocal nods to Freddie Mercury and lyrical leather/biker-stop love entanglements were personally unrelatable. And even though I love a good Gaga banger like the next butch queen, her sometimes innocuous, one-for-all-mankind “colorblind” music can only captivate me for so long. What was missing for me was queer music that I could actually shake my curvy ass to, lyrics with jargon that I actually spoke to my Black queer friends with. Unfortunately, such sounds were solely confined to the hard-to-find Black gay nightclubs, group chats, and my personal playlists.
It wasn’t until major Black artists such as Beyoncé, Drake, and Megan Thee Stallion, that we’ve had such recent conversations on the legacy of Black queer artistry this consistently in a while.
In June, the cultures of Black History Month and Pride Month uniquely collided with the unexpected records that dropped. When Drake released his surprise album Honestly, Nevermind on June 17, it was an unfiltered hip-hop infusion of house music that invoked a public re-education of the Black queer origins of the genre.
For years, I’d been a superfan of house music, and I appreciated how Drake’s album paid homage to the past and present of the genre, even if he did so unintentionally. At the time, not too many people seemed to understand this. While many of Drake’s fans were calling his latest record “Ibiza music,” it was literally whitewashing and queer-erasing the origins of the sound I had grown accustomed to.
In the 1970s, the late legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles, an out and proud Black musician, would be known as the godfather of house music. The reason why it’s even known as “house” music is because Knuckles played the sounds that would be described as “Disco’s revenge” in a Chicago nightclub known as the Warehouse. Since then, the likes of Black LGBTQ artists, such as Kaytranada, DJ Lady D, and Honey Dijon, have helped keep the legacy alive for a new generation of house-music lovers.
It’s hard not to listen to Honestly, Nevermind and recognize the influence of Kaytranada, a DJ, producer, and Black gay house music aficionado who I saw rise in my early twenties. Before he became the new face of the genre, he was an underground Canadian artist. Back then, I had to find his now-iconic “Boiler Room” DJ sets and mixtapes on SoundCloud and YouTube. Today, he’s a two-time Grammy award-winning artist who’s opened up for Madonna on tour and has collaborated with industry heavyweights like Rick Rubin and Anderson .Paak.
The return of Black queer influences feels intentional and disruptive. It’s hard to deny who and where these mainstream artists got their vibes from, and it’s finally forcing the rest of the world to take note.
Drake’s newfound love for house would later be shared with Beyoncé through Renaissance’s lead single “Break My Soul.” Again, most initial media reactions only made the connection to both artists making us want to “dance more” without diving deep into the Black queer influences driving the music. With “Break My Soul,” Beyoncé was not only appreciating Robin S.’ classic hit “Show Me Love,” but she was also sampling elements of Big Freedia’s 2014 breakthrough banger “Explode” on the record. Oddly enough, Drake had previously sampled Freedia’s voice from “Intro – Freedia Live” for his 2018 smash hit “Nice for What” — two years after Beyoncé had first included the queer artist on her tour-de-force track “Formation.”
The return of Black queer influences this time around feels more intentional and disruptive. Right now, it’s hard to deny who and where these mainstream artists got their vibes from, and it’s finally forcing the rest of the world to take note. When Beyoncé dedicated her album to her late gay “Uncle Jonny” and “all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long” – Bey officially steaked her claim as the undeniale Black “gay icon” of my generation.
I recognized a wave was finally here when I caught a very vogue-inspired performance from Megan Thee Stallion on Good Morning America. She was premiering her latest single, “Her,” that’s a very overt promotion of gender pronoun usage while incorporating dance moves from Black gay choreographer Sean Bankhead, who’s previously choreographed music videos for Lil Nas X, Normani, Cardi B, and Sam Smith.
The queer influence isn’t hard to spot in this case: Stallion previously starred as a celebrity judge on the voguing dance-competition show Legendary for its first two seasons. So it’s no surprise that the “Savage” rapper wanted to keep her support for the LGBTQ community alive and well.
It’s one of the many reasons I’m more optimistic that the music that reflected my experiences and identity is no longer being kept in the closet, or subject to industry denial and erasure. Now, it’s being ushered in on the main stage, by the biggest artists on the planet. I know representation isn’t everything, but it sure does feel good to be heard — literally.
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