Editor’s Note: Guest Editor Panama Jackson has hand-selected a group of acclaimed writers to curate this special series of personal narratives celebrating Black music, in preparation for the National Museum of African American Music’s January 2021 opening.

You don’t have to experience the difficulties of being one of only a handful of Black children in a predominately white Jersey Shore town to imagine them. Other than my caramel skin and my bead-adorned-and-braided hair being the obvious differences, my budding individual tastes similarly set me apart from my porcelain peers. Like most children, I looked towards the media as a way to find entertainment and representation. Yet, as my interest in all things music piqued during these formative years, finding modern, pop-leaning musicians who I could relate to on a racial level proved to be a challenge. 

While I uplifted Brandy during my youth for her music and her christening as my first Black princess, in hindsight, I wasn’t really a “princess” type of girl. There were a handful of R&B/pop girl groups popping up around the late ‘90s, but none seemed to hook me…until Destiny’s Child. The quartet provided an energetic, pop-tinged R&B flavor most pleasing to me, and as an individual with caramel skin and similarly long braids, Beyoncé—in particular—gave me exactly what I needed to see: Myself.

From an early age, I gravitated to the innate star quality Beyoncé possesses. In 2000 as the seven-year-old owner of a shiny copy of Destiny’s Child’s sophomore album, The Writing’s On The Wall, I was introduced to Knowles’ buttery vocals and noteworthy performance skills. She instantly provided a magnetism that I hadn’t yet experienced from an artist in my era; however, that electric connection felt warm and familiar.

Beyoncé reacquainted me with the chill-inducing feeling I’d get watching Michael and Janet Jackson videos in my youth. She carries the torch of the behemoths that came before her with the utmost reverence, and recognizing her dedication to purveying the sanctity of dance—an important element of Black performance—is as vital as acknowledging her cultural impact. 

Similarly, she defies the confines of what society thinks Black artists should do by orchestrating her own world-stopping moments. However, her overall mission to serve her community is the most integral aspect of Beyoncé’s career.

While she’s a pop act in an overarching sense, her roots—from her humble beginnings to her sonic influences—are R&B to the core. Much like Motown Records, her work satisfies the idea that Black artists can become successful on historically-white stages while still remaining true to their culture and community. Her first solo mainstream hit, 2003’s “Crazy In Love,” samples 1970s R&B/soul quartet The Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So),” tying in funk elements to create a bonafide pop classic. Since then, Beyoncé’s work has paid homage to Prince and Vanity 6, Tina Turner, Josephine Baker, Issac Hayes, her Southern upbringing, and many more Black luminaries. 

She’s also taken her love of the Black community to the stage and screen in recent years. Her critically-acclaimed visual album, 2016’s Lemonade, serves as a love letter to Black women. Her highly-discussed and dissected performance at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival is a testament to the power of Blackness and the importance of community through an homage to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Her 2020 visual album Black Is King (the visual companion to 2019’s The Lion King: The Gift) finds her working with artists across the Black and African diasporas, tying the importance of Black music and influence in a neat, visually-stunning bow. 

 

Watching Beyoncé lean into her power as a Black woman through her work has been inspiring. Her presence in my life became amplified during my teenage years as I grappled with my identity and relationship with myself as a young Black woman, thanks to songs featuring concepts surrounding independence, strength, and self-love. Beyoncé’s transition from a child to an evolving young woman was something that I was experiencing with her, nearly in real-time. 

Although I was a fresh teenager during the release of albums like 2006’s B’Day, I related to the project’s theme of coming into my own amidst the personal changes I was undergoing. By listening to 2008’s I Am…Sasha Fierce and 2011’s 4, I was able to hone in on my self-confidence, while reflecting on and reclaiming what made me me.

After she became a wife and mother, Beyoncé’s music became even more visceral, as she detailed personal journeys shared by many through the lens of her experiences. She muses about marriage, life, and death on “Mine” and “Heaven,” respectively,  from her 2013 self-titled fifth album, and goes through the roller coaster of self-healing and acceptance on her most recent solo effort, 2016’s Lemonade. She also fully steps into her role as a feminist and womanist on tracks like 2013’s “***Flawless” and 2016’s “Formation.” 

These topics not only resonated with me, but allowed me to foster a connection with other Black women—something I was unsure I’d ever have the pleasure of having—due to conversations surrounding our shared experiences sparked by Beyoncé’s work. And that’s just the beauty of music, isn’t it? It puts your life into words when you’re unable to do so for yourself, and creates community with those who are living similar lives.

A message Beyoncé has consistently harped upon is the importance of embracing Blackness. It’s become evident through her career that she is proud of who she is and where she comes from, and wants to make sure her fans and followers find that pride as well. While self-acceptance is a never ending process, through the example of artists like Beyoncé, coupled with my own journey as a Black woman in America, my self love continues to grow each day.

It’s no secret that Beyoncé comes equipped with the work ethic, energy, and passion to empower her fans and other artists. But what I’ve discovered I enjoy most about her is that she encapsulates the best of Black culture in one dynamic package. Her combination of grace and the guts to keep the legacy of Black music alive, while simultaneously creating her own, has earned her a place among culture’s elite. Moreso, she’s impacted my relationship with myself and my community through the power of her work, instilling confidence, strength and pride in myself and many others.

–J’na Jefferson

Music and culture journalist J’na Jefferson’s work has been featured in Billboard, NPR Music, and a host of other publications.