In light of recent events involving the magazine, I am loath to quote Rolling Stone. And yet, for my purposes, the words of reviewer Rob Sheffield sum up quite succinctly what occurred this time last year, in December of 2013:
Beyoncé has delivered countless surprises in her 15 years on top of the music world, but she’s never dropped a bombshell like this. The Queen Bey woke the world in the midnight hour with a surprise “visual album” – 14 new songs, 17 videos, dropped via iTunes with no warning. The whole project is a celebration of the Beyoncé Philosophy, which basically boils down to the fact that Beyoncé can do anything the hell she wants to.
This was what I woke up to on December 13, 2013 as I signed into Twitter:
Beyoncé‘s surprise release of her fifth studio album…has been referred to in at least 1.2 million tweets, a Twitter spokesperson told Mashable. The stunt, at its peak on Twitter, sparked more than 5,300 tweets per minute.
Understand that at the time, I was not a Beyoncé fan in the traditional, hysterically-mad-with-joy sense. My online world, where I conduct much of my creative work, networking, and general foolishness (i.e., my tweets), was beset by the so-called “BeyHive.” All of my fellow tweeters, many of them writers and artists themselves, pressed the proverbial pause button on their self-promotion or general discussions around, say, the need for diversity in books, and the publishing world in whole, to participate in the conversation.
Beyoncé was, in every way except literal, a nuclear missile dropped on the music industry. And like the detonation of a nuclear weapon, its impact wasn’t confined to “ground zero,” so to speak; the Beyoncé fire spread across the earth, wiping away all that existed before, and was felt by everyone within the blast radius, myself included. And to feel such a shockwave, to witness an experience like a surprise album from music’s biggest star, and to be completely unable to participate in the conversation, seemed like a nuclear winter: cold, desolate, lonely, so lonely.
There was no sense in attempting any un-Beyoncé-related conversation with anyone, even people who listened to, but didn’t care for, her music; hate-listeners were united and busy tearing down the album on social media. The memes were endless, the jokes a show of one-upmanship—one tweet comes to mind, describing Beyoncé as a superwoman who woke up, recorded fourteen songs, shot seventeen videos, all before preparing Blue Ivy’s breakfast.
Meanwhile, I had to remain honest, ethical—yes, I have some code of ethics and conduct involving what I share and talk about online: I hadn’t heard the album, hadn’t heard any of Beyoncé’s music outside of what I heard on a stray radio station or seen on a music video channel, and was thus woefully unprepared to discuss the biggest musical event of the year.
Perhaps the situation isn’t so maudlin, or dire. But consider the echo chamber of Twitter as a specific topic—Beyoncé, for example—can dominate your timeline for hours, days. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, in the face of human horrors reported upon seemingly daily now, the idea of being excluded from a large-scale conversation is irrelevant.
But the feeling of being included is important, at least it is for me. There’s no honor in ignoring the zeitgeist. In matters of pop culture, you are not brave for remaining above the fray, and there’s no shame in getting into the thick of it. Rather, pop culture is one more rare tie that binds us together. Not in some utopian sense, where police officers will stop murdering black people because of a shared affinity for Beyoncé, but the very nature of pop culture is its lightness, its silliness at times, its attempts to stretch across generations and races.
Regardless, I was late to the party, so to speak, despite having Beyoncé in my Dropbox for eight months before listening to it. (Note: I have not watched the included videos.) It came in handy this past summer as a breakup finally took shape; the end of a relationship arrives and you’re left to decide: depression or reanimation? Despite, deep down, wanting the breakup, wanting the end, pain and doubt always looms in such a situation. Added to that was the stress of moving into a new apartment in Bushwick, a section of Brooklyn once unfamiliar to me.
In all, I wanted something new for myself, wanted to acknowledge the changes occurring within me. Having turned thirty-three the first weekend in my new apartment, away from someone with whom I spent my first two years in New York, what occurred to me was a series of decisions and revelations too long to list here, too personal to lay out on a website.
But thirty-three is sometimes called the Jesus year and memes have often called Beyoncé “God,” so it made sense we coalesced as I decide to be happy, to choose joy. A black woman declaring her creative autonomy, her feminism empowered by complete agency, empowered me as I finally played Beyoncé and kept “Haunted” on repeat and reintroduced myself to the world.
What does black male empowerment look like when it’s set to Beyoncé? Is it carrying a date on my back while we drunkenly struggle-sing “Drunk In Love” on a subway platform? Does that count as black male empowerment? Is there a safe space for carefree black boys that won’t get us killed, that don’t require us to street harass women, to call women bitches, to pitch the definition of black masculinity through the prism of feminine subjugation? Must we dominate?
What does it mean that I can think of a reanimated black man, carefree and joyous, only when Beyoncé sings, or another black woman performs or creates art, and not when a black man sings or raps or writes? Is there even such a thing as a carefree black boy? Why do I even have to pose these questions? Because—it is what evolution looks like. It is how change begins, how one changes his or mind about the large and small things, such as Beyoncé as a performer, musician, and, surprisingly, a source of inspiration. It’s how one changes his life after one too many failures and false starts.
Maybe Beyoncé is a terrible album to you. That’s cool. But the album made millions of fans. It turned me into a fan. It made me happy as I tried to generate my own happiness for the first time in life. Being happy might seem trite, but happiness is an act of civil obedience, an outright declaration of violence against the status quo, when you’re a person of color and you woke up every day in 2014 damn near in tears, thinking about the news, the names, the deaths, wondering if this is the morning the world will send you to the graveyard. Word to Beyoncé, the new year approaches and we need all the joys, all the happy music, we can find.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.