In middle school, I was obsessed with Destiny’s Child. 17-year-old Beyoncé Knowles was beautiful and fierce; her voice was even more striking. It was obvious that the foursome would dissolve and she would emerge a one-name star. Magical, weird, loud, and soft, Beyoncé seemed supernatural: She was something and someone new. I listened to “Say My Name” on repeat.
Beyoncé was otherworldly but her youth and her Southern roots made her relatable. Her songs were anthems of female pride and domination soaked in vulnerability, the perfect soundtrack for a teenage girl. She was the badass friend who amped me up, fell crazy in love, and made me feel capable of doing anything. She gave me permission to be every sort of woman.
Beyoncé’s explosion into popularity was inevitable. Soon, being a Beyoncé fan became a religion, and she became a queen.
I’ve always loved hoop earrings, high-top sneakers, and gold-plated name necklaces; for a while, I even wished I had an afro.
In the early years of her queendom, I still felt a connection. I, too, was raised in the south and grew up dancing to hip-hop, R&B, and disco. Growing up in Florida, black culture and music lived alongside me. I’ve always loved hoop earrings, high-top sneakers, and gold-plated name necklaces; for a while, I even wished I had an afro.
But I’m white. Even though my Irish ancestry seems staid in comparison, I know black culture is not mine to appropriate; the ease with which I can take those accessories on and off is part of my white privilege. I always wished it could be considered flattery–a genuine sign of homage. But that’s not my call to make.
As Beyoncé was being coronated Queen Bey, her public persona become unapologetically black. Lemonade celebrated black history and brought racial disparity to the light; see her on top of a sinking New Orleans Police car in the video for “Formation,” a combat-boot clad middle finger to the establishment in the awful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
I wasn’t a part of the black community Beyoncé was advocating for. My devotion was no longer as simple as fandom.
The woman who used to feel like part of my musical library and family is now the embodiment and voice of female blackness. She, as Celeste Little wrote on Man Repeller, “is pointing to communities of people who know what it’s like to be erased.” I loved the direction her work was taking; I celebrated her power. But slowly, as I noticed every other white girl around me doing the same, I felt uncomfortable.
I wasn’t a part of the black community Beyoncé was advocating for. It’s not that I felt left out—I felt like an imposter. My devotion was no longer as simple as fandom. It felt like cultural appropriation.
I started holding back. I stopped listening. Beyoncé embodied blackness and I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to be a part of it. As her performance at Coachella neared, a platform that could be considered the whitest music festival ever, I was nervous. Beyoncé as headliner wasn’t just exciting, it was momentous. Her mother was uneasy at the thought of her daughter performing on such a historically white stage, too. What if all those white folks just didn’t get it?
We all know what happened next. Beyoncé reached a new level of stratosphere; Coachella became Beychella; and if anyone wasn’t a part of the #beyhive before, they were now. Her performance wasn’t just awe-inspiring, it was radical. Her set, “the blackest show Bey has probably ever put together,” was physical, metaphorical, and spiritual. As a music critic in the New York Times wrote, “her performance was as much ancestral tribute and cultural continuum—an uplifting of black womanhood—as contemporary concert.”
The marching band’s big, brassy, NOLA sound boomed out of my laptop. I felt goosebumps over my whole body.
As the glowing reviews piled up, I still hesitated to join in the reverberation; it took me over a week to watch her performance. I was nervous to love it, and I was worried that loving it might mean I was being inauthentic. How could I participate in something so outside of my own experience?
But I pressed play. The marching band’s big, brassy, NOLA sound boomed out of my laptop. I felt goosebumps over my whole body. Beyoncé strutted and swayed across the stage, her curves and thighs gorgeous and strong. There was a moment when she stood atop the bleachers, motionless and calm, taking in the noise from the crowd and beaming with immense pride; it made my eyes well with tears. I felt proud, like I was a part of the performance, a part of her. “Say My Name” beat through my chest.
Beyoncé’s blackness is as much a part of her as it is her art. Watching her on that stage I recognized that by celebrating her—her voice, her style, her moves, her undeniable talent—I’m also celebrating black history and culture. The two are intertwined and synonymous. But is celebration enough? Beyoncé is inviting her fans to confront racial disparity, and I’m grateful for the push. But at what point does the fandom of white women—my fandom—become appropriation? Can I be a part of her hive in a genuine way? For now I’m leaning in and listening to my favorite songs again, this time more aware of and awake to my privilege.