Lena Waithe on the Power and Glory of Beyoncé: 'That's What Beauty Is'

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Whether you're a loyal member of the Beyhive or a hater, the overwhelming impact of Beyoncé cannot be denied—or so argues a new collection, QUEEN BEY: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (St. Martin's Press), edited by Veronica Chambers. The collection features cultural critics and academics on anything and everything Bey. Below, Emmy-winning writer, producer and actress Lena Waithe, creator of Showtime's The Chi, reflects on her personal journey with Beyoncé's music.

I was in junior high when Destiny's Child released its first video, "No, No, No." I remember me and my friends, all the black girls, seeing this different kind of black girl, one we hadn't really seen before. They all seemed like us, but there was also something very Diana Ross-ish about Beyoncé, even at the very beginning, where your eyes were drawn to her. You didn't even really understand why, but you knew it wasn't just about the vocals. I gravitated to all of them so easily and so quickly, and I remember thinking, They're like me. They're like us. I could see something of me in them, in her. They were our generation.

Beyoncé was also a black queen. I saw in her Diana Ross but also Lena Horne, and I thought: So that's what beauty is. That's what it means to be hot. That's what it means to step in the forefront.

I also immediately wanted to protect her, like she was my bud. Years after I first saw her perform with Michelle [Williams] and Kelly [Rowland] at the House of Blues in Chicago, when she stepped out for her first solo album, I remember thinking, Oh man, I hope this is good. I was nervous for her because I loved Destiny's Child, every iteration of it, and didn't want any of their success or power to go away. Of course, it didn't; it grew.

In a way, we're all on the same journey with Beyoncé. I remember seeing her be so confident and also coming into her womanhood. In my 20s, I moved to L.A., where I was trying to find my own confidence and womanhood. That's when I was really listening to her music and relating to her journey in terms of exploring who I was as a woman, as a person, as a black woman. And now, especially where I am in my career and looking at her, I understand that idea of having to go through a baptism where you bless yourself with the water and you ordain yourself a new woman. Only then can you step forward.

I appreciate also that she knows the journey is never crystal clear. It's not always smooth. It's not always a direct path. Sometimes there are things that you do that you regret. Sometimes you take a step back, and then you take a step forward. As I've gone through the challenges in my life, I've been looking at the challenges of her life, and she gives you permission to stumble a little bit but then make something beautiful out of that stumble. She proves you can survive like a phoenix no matter what the world throws at you.

Lena Waithe first saw Beyoncé perform at Chicago's House of Blues when Knowles was still with Destiny's Child. "I loved Destiny's Child, every iteration of it, and didn't want any of their success or power to go away. Of course, it didn't; it grew." Matt Winkelmeyer/SXSW/Contour/Getty

I fell in love with my fiancé when the Beyoncé album hit. I wanted the things she talked about in that album, to feel that passion and connection to someone

Lemonade is the album that lifts us up, all of us. She talks about surviving heartbreak and betrayal. There's just something so human about it and so brave. It's also the album that represents community, where she included all these women that she admires, like Serena Williams. She showed how she survived that time of her life as a black woman, finding people in her circle to look to when she was struggling and looking for someone to say, "OK, that person is strong so I can be strong." When you hear the song "Sorry" for the first time, you're blown away by Warsan Shire's poetry. She's putting people in the public eye you ordinarily wouldn't know about or care about. But because Beyoncé is uttering this person's words, this brown woman's words, we all go out and look for her and find her.

Beyoncé used Lemonade to shine a light not just on herself but on a community of women of color, to tell their stories and to share their journeys. And she may not have won a Grammy for best album for Lemonade, but that won't make people listen to it any less. If I hadn't won an Emmy for the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None, that wouldn't make people feel any less connected to it. Black women have always been the backbone of everything. Black women have never sat back.

Beyoncé shows that we're all made of the same stuff; we are all in the same boat. She makes it her business to say, "I'm a mother, a wife, I'm an activist, I'm a daughter, I'm a friend." We're all friends in this life even if we're different. And no matter how big or small your voice is, she reminds us that we have to stand tall because our ancestors did. So who are we not to do it as well? It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what your means are.

Look at how she holds up her love for the city of Houston. I'm from Chicago and both cities have their issues, but we know there is beauty in these cities that other people may look down on. But to attach Beyoncé to Houston makes people hold the city and that community in a special place versus saying, "Oh that city over there." To speak to our cities is to remind people there that you can stand where I stand.

58 Whitney Houston
7. Whitney Houston: 11 number one hits, spending 31 weeks at number one. "Saving All My Love for You" 1 week. "How Will I Know" 2 weeks. "Greatest Love of All" 3 weeks. "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" 2 weeks. "Didn't We Almost Have It All" 2 weeks. "So Emotional" 1 week. "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" 2 weeks. "I'm Your Baby Tonight" 1 week. "All the Man That I Need" 2 weeks. "I Will Always Love You" 14 weeks. "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" 1 week. Scott Gries/ImageDirect

For gay people, Beyoncé represents a light at the end of the tunnel. She may not be gay, but like Cher and Madonna she's a gay ally and icon in the community because she knows what it means to not be like everybody else and to be unafraid of that truth. There are people all over the world—gay, straight, trans, black, white—that she speaks to because she can cross all barriers. In that way, she's descended from Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. They were proud African-Americans who continued to speak to black audiences, but they couldn't help but bleed over to other audiences because there was something so pure and special about them. Plus, there's the specificity of Beyoncé's work—her music and her heart—that's propelled her.

As a writer who writes about my life, I know firsthand it's specificity that brings you a broader audience. The more specific you are, the more willing you are to bare your soul, the more audiences endear themselves to you, feel like they know you and cheer for you. That's when things shift in your career. She's done that multiple times.

I grew up on Whitney and Michael and Prince. We may have lost them, but Beyoncé is not afraid to take the baton of their talent, of their impact. I remember watching Being Bobby Brown, and Whitney was in the car and they started talking about Beyoncé. Whitney, in a way, was giving her stamp of approval. She was kind of saying, "Beyoncé can take it from here." Whenever I look at Beyoncé, I'm always reminded of that. Whitney gave her a sign to go ahead—a touch that said, "You got it from here."

St. Martin’s Press

Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press. You can find QUEEN BEY: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter here.