Destination Jam: Five times Beyoncé used music to convey her love for Black culture and history
The singer's latest visual album 'Black Is King' is a treat in every way, but it certainly isn't the first time she has crafted an ode to her people
Beyoncé has come a long way as an artist since her beginnings as a young R&B-pop singer in Destiny's Child. Her music at that time centered around relationships, in all its forms and DC wrote many an anthem for girls and women back in the day. But with 2016's 'Lemonade', something shifted. Recorded over a period of two years, the album marked the first time Beyoncé elected to tell her personal story through her music which up until that point she preferred to keep as private as possible. Her previous record, 2013's 'Beyoncé', was arguably the precursor to 'Lemonade', having dealt with some similar themes and the album before that, 2011's '4' was when we saw Beyoncé shift from her earlier pop sound to something far more rooted in R&B, funk and soul. Nonetheless, 'Lemonade' was a brand new chapter for the singer, something no one had seen from her before.
'Lemonade' took the story of Beyoncé, arguably one of our greatest living legends and gave her dimensions no one ever imagined could have existed in someone who always seemed so confident, bold, and brave: it gave her vulnerability, it showed her pain and struggle and it revealed her fight to stay strong and carve her own path towards victory. And since its release, the singer has continued to highlight themes relating to her own personal experiences, honing in on the Black experience and her own journey through connecting with her roots and finding joy in the various Black cultures that have shaped her: from ancient African civilizations to urban African communities, from her early life in Texas to her modern-day position as a global superstar.
And so, here are five songs from Beyoncé that encompass her journey and celebrate Black pride, Black love and Black joy.
'Before I Let Go'
This Frankie Beverly-penned song was originally released in 1981 by his band Maze as part of their fifth album and first live album 'Live in New Orleans'. At the time the song peaked at number 13 on the Billboard R&B chart. Beverly later gave Beyoncé permission to cover the track which she featured on her 'Homecoming' album as well as the accompanying live album. Her version also includes a sample from bounce-music pioneer DJ Jubilee, as well as bits of 'Candy' by Cameo that run throughout the song. Beverly would later share in an interview with Billboard that Beyoncé's cover was "one of the high points of [his] life... in a class of its own," adding that it made him "feel bigger than ever! I feel like I have a huge smash out there."
What made Beyoncé's rendition of this track special was that everything from its lyrics to her performance of it exuded Black excellence. For starters, the intro of the track also samples a video of Winston Salem State University’s homecoming, which perfectly aligned with Beyoncé's choice to give HBCUs a spotlight during her performances. She also gave a shout out to Motown legends like Diana Ross and Michael Jackson via the lyrics and had her husband Jay-Z, sister Solange, and fellow Destiny’s Child members, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, all make guest appearances during her Coachella show. Additionally, her entire band and dancers were Black students from HBCUs. Festivals like Coachella are often seen as geared towards suburban White audiences and Beyoncé's performance ensured there was a space for Black voices at the table.
'Brown Skin Girl'
Featuring on both 2019's 'The Lion King: The Gift' and Beyoncé's latest endeavor, 'Black Is King', this track celebrates Black and Brown women and girls. And it does so unapologetically, without any negativity. It is, very simply, a song about self-love. Here, Beyoncé is telling her fellow 'Brown-skinned girls' that their skin is beautiful and they do not ever need to feel ashamed of it. The song, which also features Blue Ivy Carter, SAINt JHN, and Wizkid, also addresses how growing up in poverty or being repeatedly told one's worth is tied to a man might make a girl question herself, but she shouldn't. And, to top it all off, the song is a shout out to model Naomi Campbell, who is of Jamaican descent and Kenyan-Mexican award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o as icons of beauty, thereby highlighting Beyoncé's attempts to showcase Black talent who have made it despite what anyone may have said about their skin.
Featured on 'Lemonade', 'Daddy Lessons' was a step outside the box for Beyoncé owing to it being a country song. Listeners may have been shocked or taken aback by it, the country industry certainly was, seeing as it sparked a debate on whether Beyoncé would be allowed a nomination in country music categories at awards and by extension, a debate around racism in the country music industry. Controversy aside, there should be no doubt that Beyoncé would have a love for country, given her Southern roots as well as the fact that the genre draws from Black music. With this track, Beyoncé represented her pride as a Black Southern woman and essentially reclaimed a spot for her fellow Black folk in the genre.
Another track off 'The Lion King: The Gift' and 'Black Is King', this is probably one of the most inspirational, goosebump-inducing tracks Beyoncé has ever released. It tells its audience, over and over again, that they are a part of something bigger and that they are meant for greatness. This message was taken to new heights with the accompanying visuals of 'Black Is King' which showcased the journey Black people have had, beginning with their ancestors all the way to urban settings. It really is the culmination of Beyoncé's work over the last decade, from reconnecting with her roots musically to then embracing African cultures in everything from visuals and fashion to her crew and the people she chooses to endorse or collaborate with. Beyoncé's art represents her commitment to uplifting Black voices and tells us she is a part of something 'Bigger'.
If 'Bigger' was the sonic and visual culmination of Beyoncé's journey, 'Black Parade' was the culmination of her activism and political stances. The singer has made no secret of her firm stance against police brutality and racism, beginning with her song 'Formation'. With the recent racial tensions and protests that have sprung up worldwide in response to the killing of George Floyd, Beyoncé made clear once more that she was on the side demanding justice for Black victims. And then, on Juneteenth, a day that originated in Texas and commemorated the end of slavery in the .S., Beyoncé dropped 'Black Parade', a celebration of Black culture and activism. She additionally launched the site 'Black Parade Route', which focused on Black-owned businesses and Black artists and creators. And to top it all off, she revealed that all proceeds from the song would benefit black-owned small businesses in need via the BeyGOOD Black Business Impact Fund.
Destination Jam is a daily list of songs that will keep you entertained and grooving up top in lieu of feeling drained and losing the plot. Look out for a fresh selection of great tunes from MEAWW to refresh your mood every day!