From Albion College’s “Black is Beautiful” Kiki Ball, hosted by AC Drip, to a monumental moment in GRAMMY Awards history in which Beyoncé became the most-awarded individual – winning her 32nd GRAMMY with her single, “CUFF IT,” the gays at Albion won Feburary’s first weekend.
Though these events themselves call for a standing ovation, the snub that Beyonce’s “RENAISSANCE” album received during the “Album of the Year” category was the primary catalyst behind this article.
Was “Harry’s House” a horrible album? No.
Is it unconventional for individuals like Harry – a straight white cis-gendered male – to be nominated and win this category? Beck’s “Morning Phase” has just entered the group chat and said “no <3.”
There is no denying that these straight, cis-gendered men have produced some great quirky radio hits and should be receiving recognition or appreciation for their work. However, at a height of anti-LGBTQ+ and BIPOC rhetoric, violence, and discrimination, “RENAISSANCE” was a hymn that reinvigorated the queer resilience and joy of trans and BIPOC individuals in this country.
Like many other recent projects, “RENAISSANCE” pays homage to a certain kind of “underground” queerness that has been constantly referenced in pop culture. This being said, “RENAISSANCE” goes a step further. Rather than just placing them in the footnotes or as unlisted credits, which has often occurred, Beyoncé recognizes and gives queer BIPOC and trans icons a seat at the table in her latest project.
For this reason, I think it is essential to discuss the significance of “RENAISSANCE” through the confines of queerness and the ballroom scene, as it is the landscape that Beyoncé cultivates this project upon.
Queerness itself, though it can be perceived as a homogenous experience of culture and history, is an evergreen identity. It registers the distinctive and preceding landscapes of a subjected identity to, in turn, propagate a newly-formed fragmented, intersectional identity.
One of these landscapes was the emergence of the ballroom scene in the 1920s in and around New York City.
By the 1970s, ball culture had become an inclusive safe space for queer BIPOC identities, especially for Black and latines, to freely express themselves and their queerness.
Indeed, as Dorian Corey, the legendary founder of the voguing House of Corey notes in “Paris is Burning,” a 1990 documentary about the ballroom scene,“Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive.”
The ballroom scene was a sanctuary for a kind of queerness that had further been marginalized and silenced by racial divides – it recognized and embraced the intersectional existence of BIPOC queer individuals.
¡Es esto! The immense greatness of the RENAISSANCE lies in its intersectional recognition, celebration and approach to queerness.
The second track, “COZY,” transcends the listener right to the heart of each ballroom, the hard wooden floors. From its opening line “THIS IS A REMINDER” to the unapologetic chants that strive through the trembling house beat, the track pulls from BIPOC queer icons, specifically from Black trans women. It showcases the empowering resilience that trans and queer people of color embroider in their daily fabrics of life and, moreover, in their glistening ballroom fashions.
“COZY” samples a youtube video of TS Madison – a notable trans woman, actress and activist – titled “Bitch, I’m Black.” Her presence takes form as a powerful expletive laced rant about her blackness.
“I’m dark brown, dark skin, light skin, beige, fluorescent beige. Bitch, I’m Black!” she says, “I’m probably one of the Blackest motherfuckers walking around here in this motherfucking place. I’m probably one of the Blackest motherfuckers in this country; Black like that!”
Another personal favorite, the eleventh track, “HEATED,” with Beyoncé’s jaunty vocals that command the trembling beat, gives the listener a more intimate understanding for the muse and influences that this project evokes: Uncle Jonny.
In an Instagram post on July 29 of last year, the same day of the album release, Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, reposted a message from Beyoncé’s website which mentioned how the project was dedicated to her late Uncle Jonny who passed away from AIDS-related complications.
“A big thank you to my Uncle Jonny. He was my godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album,” the message reads. “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. This is a celebration for you.”
Uncle Jonny transferred a certain kind of appreciation for the ballroom culture to Beyoncé that acknowledged the aching backs – past and present – that continue to bridge ballroom to our modern expression of queerness and are constantly referenced in pop culture. Ballroom culture, though it gleams with the brawny resilience of queer and trans people of color, it is a culmination of scars and pioneers who, through the hemorrhaging, sought to create a sense of belonging and healing.
In the caption of this Instagram post, Knowles-Lawson retells the significant role that Uncle Jonny held in the upbringing of both Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, as he helped raised both of them and influenced their sense of style, even making Beyoncé’s prom dress.
The best section of this track is the propulsive freestyle breakdown that Beyoncé delivers in the outro. Throughout the freestyle, Beyoncé emulates the typical language used by emcees at a ball, saying “Ten, ten, ten across the board,” while also interweaving a boastful reference to her Uncle Jonny, “Uncle Jonny made my dress. That cheap Spandex, she looks a mess.”
Although Albion College’s Kiki Ball did not include any “RENAISSANCE” tracks in their playlist, the event still carried a central message that is also shared by Beyonce’s seventh studio album: Black queerness is beautiful.
Moreover, it’s no fringe opinion to say that “RENAISSANCE” is an homage to the Kiki Ball.
The Kiki Ball is ballroom culture. It is a chapter to the legacy that is ballroom. The Kiki Ball nurtured a welcoming space, embracing the expressions of BIPOC, trans and queer folk while also allowing others to find their own kind of joyous resilience.
Though the significance of “RENAISSANCE” might have not been accounted for during the GRAMMY Awards’ “Album of the Year” category, our celebration of ballroom will continue. Albion College, and every individual who contributed to the realization of the Kiki, exemplify this persistent commitment.