Trained eyes and ears recognize that Beyoncé has been Black all 37 years she’s been alive. As absurd as it may sound to even consider, this fact apparently did not become 100% clear to everyone until 2016.
Although Beyoncé was nearly two decades into a career defined by massive success and sustained hyper-relevance by that point, it took a hat trick of brazen artistic statements to underline this reality for all: the “Formation” video, submerged cop car and all, the pro-Black imagery in her halftime performance at Super Bowl XL, and the marked Black feminism of Lemonade and its visual treatment. The aim of these decisions was to use her influence to elevate Black people and culture at a time when she felt both could use vociferous support.
Beyoncé’s quest continued last year at Coachella. The performance was historic not only because she, to Coachella’s gross oversight, became the first Black woman to headline the festival, but because she used the huge figurative and literal stage to once again exalt Black culture — chiefly, that of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU). Her Netflix documentary Homecoming, named for an annual collegiate tradition that, while not exclusive to HBCUs, holds deeper relevance on their campuses within popular culture at large, is another grand-stage ode to the environment, which left a lasting impact without her ever attending.
Homecoming’s second performance segment is followed by a montage of bands performing at various Southern HBCUs: Southern University, Jackson State University, Alabama A&M University, Grambling State University, Florida A&M University, North Carolina A&T University, Hampton University, Alabama State University. At the beginning of the film, Beyoncé explains that she grew up in close proximity to Houston’s Prairie View A&M University. She was infatuated with HBCU band culture and sharpened her own budding entertainer skills on Texas Southern University’s campus. She reveals that she wanted to attend an HBCU, just as her father, a Fisk University alum, did. Throughout Homecoming, Beyoncé is seen wearing a Howard University crewneck.
The entertainment industry may have been her formal education, but Homecoming makes Beyoncé’s influences explicitly clear. Featuring them prominently in the film and the event it highlights is another case of the greatest entertainer of her generation making the marginalized feel seen. “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella,” she says through voice-over.
The unexpected-yet-much appreciated showcase placed Beyoncé eye-to-eye with everyone holding similar experiences and influences — as well as with outsiders who’d never bothered to educate themselves about the culture before. Homecoming: The Live Album, released the same day as the film, is an unexpected gift containing another unexpected gift: a cover of Maze & Frankie Beverly’s sublime “Before I Let Go.” Despite the song’s ubiquity within Black culture for nearly 40 years, it’s a deep cultural reference; if you know, you know. Beyoncé’s interpretation of the song, as an element of Homecoming’s multi-platform experience, is part of her ongoing exaltation of Black culture and how it’s inspired her. It’s another lowering of the partition separating the public from someone long charged with being inaccessible.
The cultural associations with Maze & Frankie Beverly’s “Before I Let Go” are pretty uniform at this point. Cookouts. Weddings. Parties. It’s synonymous with celebration in the music canon. The irony is that the song, a studio track included on the San Francisco-based band’s 1981 album Live in New Orleans, is about love’s unfulfilled potential. “We were so close,” Beverly sings. “Where did we go wrong?” he wonders. “I gotta make sure I’m right, before I let go,” he asserts. “I was seeing some lady but I was just with someone [else] and we broke up,” Beverly told Essence in 2017. “And it got kind of hard because I wasn’t with the woman I wanted to be with, and I couldn’t stay with the one I was with.”
The song’s musicality — the guitar solos, the light tambourine, the endearing register of Beverly’s voice, the overall upbeat shuffle — belies its bittersweet inspiration, and makes it what it is. Though born from joy and pain, it’s the former people connect with. It’s had a place in HBCU culture for years, from band competitions to the most random on-campus parties. It’s supplanted Marcia Griffiths’ “Electric Boogie” as the official soundtrack to the Electric Slide. It’s become a call to action. And because “Before I Let Go” gained traction in distinct spaces, it’s become part of a cultural exchange that’s spanned generations, and helped it blossom into something Beverly never could’ve imagined.
“I had no idea that it was gonna be what it turned out to be,” he told Essence during the same 2017 interview. “It just shocked me. I mean to even hear you say it’s like the Black folks national anthem, that’s even more than I can wrap my head around.”
It’s extremely hyperbolic to call “Before I Let Go” the “Black National Anthem” — especially when Beyoncé’s cover of the actual Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” is also included in Homecoming. However, the song taps into a sense of tradition that resonates deeper if you’ve been in the aforementioned spaces. That familiarity is what makes “Before I Let Go” such a welcome inclusion in Homecoming.
Beyoncé was born the same year “Before I Let Go” was released. It has been in the world as long as she has, and clearly had the same profound impact on her as it has many others who hold it in high regard. For all her unprecedented accomplishments, Beyoncé’s tried to make clear that she started out as that Southern girl at those cookouts. At those weddings. At Battle of the Bands. Covering “Before I Let Go” is yet another homage to what made her who and what she is, and the little tweaks made throughout — like her half-rapped, half-sung verse, the marching band horns, or the “Lose My Breath”-esque drums in the background — help to personalize the rendition. The inclusion of Memphis producer Tay Keith’s tag line immediately modernizes the song, while the New Orleans bounce beat that acts as the backbone is a nod to the genre and her mother’s Louisiana roots.
By the time “Before I Let Go” shifts into a mid-song interpolation of Cameo’s 1986 pop-funk classic “Candy,” it’s successfully dovetailed into a present-day twist on not one, but two line-dancing records that have effectively replaced the Electric Slide’s original musical companion. For anyone who’s seen Malcolm D. Lee’s 1999 rom-com The Best Man, or simply attended a Black wedding in the past 30 years, this strikes an unmistakable chord. It’s Beyoncé’s way of telling her grassroots audience that she’s had parallel experiences, without saying it explicitly.
The reality of “Before I Let Go” is that it’s retrospective; it’s Frankie Beverly’s fond memories of what was. Through the years, it’s evolved into a different type of farewell: the song you play just before the celebration’s over. To that effect, Beyoncé’s placement of it at the end of Homecoming the album and over the credits of the film stay true to history. Whether it’s the DJ’s last record or a bonus track, “Before I Let Go” is a parting thought — one last offering before saying goodbye.
Homecoming may not bring the world any closer to truly knowing Beyoncé, but that type of access is a privilege reserved for her inner circle. She has, however, done an effective job of trying to communicate who she is, at the core, even if only through the symbolism of a glorified probate (in the absolute best way possible) or years worth of Homecoming celebrations she never got to experience because she’s been a celebrity since the age of 16. Her take on “Before I Let Go” has elevated a classic, exposing it to a new audience much like she did with HBCU culture — a bedrock of Black culture — at Coachella last year. And for those of us in the know, it’s another instance of Beyoncé saying she sees us, even from her perch at the top.