Who Taught Beyoncé to Love Herself? ‘Renaissance’ Pays Tribute to Trans Sisters, Gay Uncles and Black Self-Love

(Pose 2 from Beyonce’s Renaissance)

“Who taught you to hate yourself?” Malcolm X famously asked a Black audience in 1962. Beyoncé, who sampled that canonical speech in Lemonadereturns on Renaissance to challenge listeners to ask a life-saving follow up question: Who taught you to love yourself? And she tells us: If you want to learn Black self-love, listen to Black queer and trans voices.  

Comfortable in my skin / Feet up above your sins / I love myself, goddamn / Cozy, cozy,” Beyoncé intones in the chorus of the album’s second track, “Cozy.” The post-chorus amplifies her Black feminist love-the-skin-I’m-in lyrics with a sample from Black trans talk show host Ts Madison: “I’m dark brown, dark skin, light skin, beige, fluorescent beige, bitch, I’m Black!”

A declaration of unapologetic Black self-love, Madison’s 2020 speech is also a call for Black trans love. “I’m tired of being Black and unimportant under my Blackness,” Madison told listeners in the wake of George Floyd’s death and Black trans woman Iyanna Dior’s attack by a mob in Minneapolis. “I’m tired of being Black and standing up for my Black sisters and brothers and my Black people and my Black lineage and my Black heritage and my Black soul and my Black comes back and smother me.” But Beyoncé is not that kind of Black sister, she sings to us in “Cozy”—and no one else should be, either.  

You’re a god, you’re a hero / You survived all you been through / Confident, damn, you lethal / Might I suggest you don’t fuck with my sis?!” Beyoncé commands in the pre-chorus. While many listeners hear a tribute to Solange, the track’s interplay between the voices of Beyoncé and Madison also sound like Queen Bey singing to Miss Maddie. “All colors of Black, all shades of Black: I’m you,” Madison concludes her speech.

And Beyoncé has clearly heard her: comfortable in her skin, loving on Blackity-Blackness, and preaching all-feminist-everything, “Cozy” reminds Black listeners that loving ourselves means loving all Black women fiercely. 

Renaissance’s sampling of Black trans and queer voices continues with Big Freedia on “Energy” and “Break My Soul,” then reaches a crescendo with the classic ballroom samples bookending “Pure/Honey.” “Pure” opens with call-and-response samples between the voices of two ballroom legends: Kevin Aviance on his 1996 “Cunty (The Feeling)” and Kevin Jz Prodigy on Mike Q’s 2011 “Feels Like.” Aviance’s classic track, he explained, was written in homage to the unapologetic self-love of Black queer youth he met on the Christopher Street Piers, looking in pieces of broken mirrors and admiring their spectacular femininity—acknowledging and celebrating the coziness of Black femininity even in a world where its reflections are broken, as Black queer theorist Jafari Allen puts it. 

And as Beyoncé adds her voice to theirs, she celebrates Black fem(me)ininity as an endless resource of both/ands. Everyone has a space on the “Pure/Honey” dance floor: “Bad bitches to the left / Money bitches to the right / You can be both, meet in the middle, dance all night.”

And everyone has a claim to fem(me)ininity if they choose to embody it: She invites “pretty girls to the floor” and “pretty boys to the floor,” too. “She’s cunt, he’s cunt, they’re cunt, I’m cunt,” Aviance conjugated ballroom fem(me)ininity on his track. Again, Beyoncé listened to her Black queer family well: listened and understood that to be confident in your own Black femme fabulousness is to find space to multiply it endlessly. 

Queer uncles and trans aunties have always sustained our communities; sissies, divas and queens were crucial to raising up the generation of Black excellence that Beyoncé represents. 

Black like love too deep,” Beyoncé describes herself on “Cozy,” and the queerness of her Renaissance Black family love comes at a moment when we need it desperately. By now, listeners know Beyoncé dedicated Renaissance to her late Uncle Johnny, her mother Tina’s nephew who helped raise her and whom she describes as “the most fabulous gay man,” “my godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album.”

Deeply personal, her tribute to Jonny is also deeply political. It frames her album as a declaration that Black queer love and queer genders are worth learning from, cherishing and rebirthing; that queer uncles and trans aunties have always sustained our communities; that sissies, divas and queens were crucial to raising up the generation of Black excellence that Beyoncé represents. 

In a time when legislators have criminalized children’s gender expressions in Beyoncé and Jonny’s home state of Texas—with Florida, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Ohio pushing their own anti-LGBT laws—Beyoncé sings her reminder that all Black genders are “Pure/Honey.” Madison and Solange, Kevin Aviance and Uncle Johnny, Big Freedia and Mama Tina: These Black femme angels have graced Beyoncé with lessons in self-love that she’s paying forward on Renaissance. Get comfortable in your skins, Black femmes: Beyoncé is here to adore you.

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Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley is professor of Black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of books including Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism (2016) and The Color Pynk: Black Femme Art for Survival (forthcoming).