12 Black queer icons that inspired Beyoncé on ‘Renaissance’
August 3, 2022
Like the righteous rage of “Lemonade” and the celebration of identity in “Black is King,” Beyoncé’s latest effort centers and uplifts Black listeners. Now, she’s training her focus on the Black musicians and figures who sought community and shelter within the LGBTQ-dominated scenes of house and ballroom culture.
The undeniable danceability, lighthearted shade, free sexuality and unbridled joy found across “Renaissance” is clearly influenced by and indebted to the queer and trans pioneers who popularized house music, and artists from those genres are represented on nearly every track.
From trans icon Ts Madison and fashion pioneer Telfar Clemens, to late queen of the downtown drag scene, Moi Renee, and Beyoncé’s own uncle, these are some of the influences, artists and allies who shaped Queen Bey’s latest and greatest new work.
It’s the rallying cry heard the world over: “Release your job!” New Orleans’ own Big Freedia, credited with popularizing hip-hop’s bounce sound, originated the now-iconic line in her 2014 anthem, “Explode,” which Beyoncé borrowed for the single “Break My Soul.”
Freedia has lent her signature voice, deep and vibrant, on several mainstream tracks, including Drake’s “Nice for What,” and, of course, Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
“I’m forever grateful to Beyoncé and her team,” Freedia said Friday on CBS Mornings. “They always take care of the queen — this is a time in my life right now [when] I just wanna make people happy.”
Freedia has resisted labels when it comes to her gender, and she encourages the same fluidity in her uninhibited music: “I’m your brother or your sister, whichever one you wanna call me,” she said on CBS. “When you’re comfortable with yourself and you know who you are, I think people will get a better understanding of how to approach diff situations.”
Sydney Bennett, a solo indie R&B artist and lead vocalist of the group The Internet — who’s better known as Syd — is credited with co-writing the funky, slowed-down love song “Plastic Off the Sofa.” Her quietly seductive lyrics and production — her signatures — are evident throughout the track.
Syd is one of the most prominent gay R&B artists, and she’s “always made it a point to just be gay,” she told the Guardian last year. “I love the responsibility of providing representation. But I think I’ve always tried to do that in the most natural way possible.”
Yes, that’s the one, the ONLY Grace Jones — supermodel, disco innovator, Studio 54 staple and general icon — on “Move,” the 10th track on “Renaissance.” Her androgynous beauty, frequent appearances at gay clubs and resistance to easy labels elevated her to queer icon.
“Being tangled up, having some of the man in me, I loved that,” she wrote in her 2015 memoir of attending gay clubs with her brother and her own masculinity. “I felt I was among my own even as I was so far removed.”
On the final track, “Summer Renaissance,” Bey makes a definitive statement on luxury: “This Telfar bag imported; Birkins, them sh*ts in storage.” While a single Hermès Birkin bag, a symbol of outrageous wealth, can run you tens of thousands of dollars, Ms. Knowles-Carter prefers the Telfar shopping bag, made with vegan leather.
Clemens and his eponymous brand’s totes cost no more than $300 and come in three sizes and nearly every shade on the color wheel. Their relative affordability and popularity has earned them the nickname “Bushwick Birkins,” but Clemens rejects the idea of Telfar bags as status symbols. His brand’s slogan? “Not for you — for everyone.”
Moi Renee was a drag performer and trained dancer who was the toast of New York’s underground gay club scene throughout the ’90s. The iconic song “Miss Honey” is considered one of the original “b*tch tracks,” according to Gran Varones, a site dedicated to the history of Black and Latinx queer and trans performers.
Moi Renee’s voice makes an appearance on “Pure/Honey,” purring, “I know you hear me calling you, miss honey!” There’s footage of the performer donning a neon-green beehive wig and a black cutout jumpsuit on a local gay talk show in the ’90s. Renee died in 1997, long before being sampled on Beyoncé’s new track.
Chicago native Honey Dijon — a DJ, producer, fashion designer and underground house legend — co-wrote two songs on “Renaissance”: “Cozy” and “Alien Superstar.” A trans woman, Dijon works to reincorporate the Black, queer history of house music into her tracks, telling the Guardian this year that she tries to “constantly protest against forgetting where this music came from.”
On Instagram, she thanked Beyoncé and her collaborators, writing, “To share my Chicago house music roots and black queer and trans culture with you and the world is profound and emotional.”
Aviance, a performance artist and musician, has been a staple of New York’s downtown club scene since the ’90s. His song with an unprintable name is sampled in the penultimate track “Pure/Honey,” but Bey is hardly the first major woman singer to seek his expertise: Aviance counts Whitney Houston, Cher, Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson among his collaborators.
Madison, a transgender comedian, actress and advocate, first went viral in the 2010s on the now-defunct video platform Vine and her successful Youtube channel. It was an obvious choice, then, for Bey to sample Madison’s natural wit on “Renaissance”: Lines from Madison’s video “B*tch I’m Black,” released in June 2020 amid protests after George Floyd’s murder, appear in “Cozy,” the second track.
Not that it surprised Madison that she’d eventually appear on a track with Beyoncé — she tweeted “My VOICE is ICONIC!!” the day before the album officially dropped.
DJ MikeQ is a fixture of today’s ballroom scene, spinning at gay clubs and putting his own influence on a beloved genre: The New York Times in 2012 said he and his contemporaries have “put a hip-hop spin on ballroom sounds and slang, while respecting tradition.” He’s credited on “Pure/Honey,” which samples his song “Feels Like.” Now, you can find him as the resident DJ on the HBO Max ballroom competition, “Legendary.”
House of LaBeija
“Tip, tip, tip on hardwood floors
Ten, ten, ten across the board
Give me face, face, face, face, yah
Your face card never declines, my gawd!”
Yep, any of these lines from Beyoncé’s “Heated” would fit right in at a ball run by legendary New Yorker performer Crystal LaBeija and the House of LaBeija. LaBeija, fed up with the racism she experienced in drag competitions run by White gay men — a grievance that provided the most memorable scene in the 1968 documentary “The Queen” — created her own balls for Black and brown queer and trans performers. At these balls, queer and trans New Yorkers competed, danced and created years-long rivalries between Houses (that is, “found families” of LGBTQ people who competed together).
The House of LaBeija — whose members also included the emcee Junior LaBeija, who popularized phrases like “Opulence — you own everything!” — also inspired other queer artists, including RuPaul and the LGBTQ cast of “Pose,” whose characters are based on real-life ballroom figures.
Beyoncé borrows heavily from disco queen Summer’s “I Feel Love” on the final track, “Summer Renaissance.” It’s at least the second time Bey has pulled from Summer: “Naughty Girl,” from Beyoncé’s solo debut, interpolates Summer’s “Love to Love You,” another gay nightclub anthem.
Even though her relationship with her gay fanbase was tenuous — Summer was accused of making homophobic comments about gay victims of AIDS — her music was beloved by LGBTQ listeners for “its poise, gravity and open sex content,” wrote Paul Flynn, journalist and chronicler of gay culture, in a 2012 piece for the Guardian.
She was “blessed with a divine inability to intuit how 3am under a mirror-ball in a Metropolitan gay nightclub ought to sound,” Flynn wrote. “‘I Feel Love’ is still it.”
In a note on her website, Beyoncé thanked her family, including her children and her “muse,” Jay-Z. But the most meaningful praise was reserved for her late Uncle Jonny, whom she called her “godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album.”
“Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long,” Bey wrote. “This is a celebration for you.”
She also honored her uncle in a 2019 speech while accepting a GLAAD award: “He lived his truth. He was brave and unapologetic during a time when this country wasn’t as accepting.”
Tina Knowles-Lawson, Bey’s mom, shared on Instagram that Jonny helped her raise a young Beyoncé and her sister, Solange, and that the girls “worshipped him.” Jonny even made Beyoncé’s prom dress, Knowles-Lawson said.
Bey honors him with one of the greatest lines on the album: “Uncle Jonny made my dress,” she sings on “Heated.” “That cheap spandex, she looks a mess!”