Beyoncé’s latest album embraces the revolutionary act of choosing joy

·4 min read

Beyoncé’s latest project, “Renaissance,” is a dance party made for our post-everything world.

With her seventh solo album, the singing supernova provides an antidote to the ills of the day, offering only brief glances at politics and protest. Instead, she carves out space for joy, self-love, and blazing confidence. But critics wonder if this escapism is enough to feed hungry fans what they need for today’s societal battles, or if this dance party will be the soundtrack to forgetting to resist in favor of pop fun.

Beyoncé is great at mirroring the mood and energy of her massive following. She may not meet the often-unattainable expectations of megastars to move the needle on systemic social change, but she is there to reflect back the wants and needs of the Black women and LGBTQ community members who love her.

She provided a voice to their frustrations on her previous studio album “Lemonade,” and here on “Renaissance,” she makes room for listeners to be fierce and beautiful. (She even agreed to remove a slang word from the song “Heated” after an outcry from disability advocates, and is reportedly also removing a song she sampled with the owner’s but not the artist’s knowledge.) The album speaks, sometimes using explicit language, to the exhaustion and frustration expressed by many Black women who need a break, need some Black joy – to be happy and free and to recharge in order to face the continued challenges of racism.

These days, joy often seems beyond reach, or perhaps even inappropriate when so many are hurt or suffering. Happiness and contentment are hard to cultivate when the raw materials are so scarce. But joy comes from somewhere beyond the pleasures of the day. Joy, like hope, is not a result of circumstances but a choice one makes in spite of them.

Generations of Black people have made that choice. Decade by decade, Black people have spun joy from suffering: Through wild creativity in art, food, and fashion, they have wrested beauty and dignity out of trials. And of course, Black people have always created music, an expression of our right to choose life and love.

Blues and rock, hip-hop, and the many genres of dance music featured on “Renaissance” are the sounds of Black resistance. The album plumbs a history of Black dance music from Donna Summer disco to ballroom-ready, bass-heavy beats. While this genre-bending dance-off seems less overt in channeling Black culture than the subdued and deeply personal “Lemonade,” this is no less an album reflecting the feelings of many Black people at this moment.

“Break My Soul,” the first single released from the album, is the track that speaks most directly to a world on fire. The song is an “I quit” email set to a driving rhythm, the chorus a cathartic soul shout: “You won’t break my soul / I’m telling everybody.” Big Freedia, a prominent artist in a New Orleans-born style of hip-hop called bounce, offers an incantation for freeing ourselves from workplace pressure: “release your trade / release the stress / release the love / forget the rest.”

Those who call the album escapism worry that Beyoncé is not focusing her voice on a full-throated fight against injustice. Certainly, her stardom can bring massive attention to any issue, but her primary focus is not on the powers that be, but on her fans who are in the fight. Right now many of her fans are hungry for the revolutionary act of choosing joy.

Part of fighting oppression is protecting those oppressed. So it is today: In the years since the murder of George Floyd, Black communities have focused mightily on healing and self-care. There is no Black resistance movement without a healthy Black community. Black people have dived into finding ways to deepen connection, to address the incredible trauma of racism in America, and to heal so that our lives can matter now, not just in a future where we are liberated. That healing encompasses many avenues, including a focus on joy. Dance and movement are a way to live free in our bodies that are so often under threat.

Who is to say that the soundtrack to the revolution must always be dour and angry. The daily news cycle delivers enough bad news to tighten our shoulders and bow our backs. This album helps us remember the feeling of joy – and dance it into our bodies. What could be more liberating than that?

Susan X Jane works to create more equitable environments as the principal of Navigators Consulting.

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