Beyoncé has hailed this summer’s liberation anthem with the release of her new single “Break My Soul” – and its Black queer roots are undeniable.
The song’s release earlier this week comes at the intersection of Juneteenth, Pride Month and Black Music month. A house track at its core, the song samples Robin S.’s 1993 hit “Show Me Love” and vocals from Black queer bounce icon Big Freedia.
House music is a form of electronic dance music developed in the early 1980s in Chicago that quickly spread throughout underground music scenes in cities like New York, Detroit and London.
The genre has also increasingly influenced mainstream music. In 1989, Queen Latifah released a rap-house song “Come into My House.” Throughout the ’90s, Crystal Water’s “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” saw pop success as well as C+C Music Factory’s blend of hip-hop and house, which produced classics such as “Gonna Make You Sweat” and “Just a “Touch of Love.” Since the mid ‘00s, Grammy-winning producer Kaytranada has partnered with hip-hop and R&B artists.
Lesser known about house music is its roots in Black queer culture. It has been the soundtrack to Black queer nightlife as a liberating sanctuary.
The lyrics “Release your anger/Release your mind/Release your job/Release the tide/Release your trade/Release the stress/Release your love/Forget the rest,” sang by Big Freedia, who was also featured in Beyoncé’s 2016 song “Formation,” encourage listeners to free themselves from the stresses of everyday life and instead embrace love and joy.
Miami University musicology professor Tammy Kernodle said house clubs provided a space for young Black and Latinx queer communities to let go of negativity. She equated nights at these clubs to a spiritual, judgment-free experience in which house music’s hard-hitting bass, layered polyrhythms and beat drops created a sense of ecstasy among listeners.
“In terms of Black queer joy, these particular spaces and house music served as the kind of equivalent of church and gospel music,” Kernodle said. “These spaces were spaces that helped individuals reclaim their humanity from not just white majority spaces that looked upon them in certain ways, but also the Black community that distanced them.”
History of house
Known for its upbeat tempo, repetitive four-four rhythms and sampled vocals, house music is said to have gotten its name from an underground gay club in Chicago known as the Warehouse, a member-only club that opened in the late 1970s.
Clubs like the Warehouse provided a safe space for queer communities of color, who were excluded from white gay clubs while facing homophobia within their own racial and ethnic communities. DJs like Frankie Knuckles, known as the “godfather of house music,” created an electrifying experience for the mostly Black and Latinx queer audiences who were able to let loose on the dancefloor and embrace community.
Knuckles, who came from New York to Chicago, exemplifies house music as a cultural dialogue between the two cities. In New York City, dance clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft preceded the Warehouse, providing a safe nightlife haven for queer youth of color to dance to the sounds curated by DJs like Larry Levan.
What differentiated clubs like the Warehouse from traditional nightclubs is that they were alcohol-free zones, instead serving juice and fruits, Kernodle said. Audiences were not under the influence of drugs and alcohol, rather they were intoxicated by the music.
House pioneer Jesse Saunders said house music really came to fruition as a genre in the early 1980s as more clubs like the Warehouse began to open and more straight Chicago youth from the Southside and other regions began coming to these spaces, sharing the music with the outside world. Saunders said even in a city as segregated as Chicago, house music clubs were spaces of unity that brought people of various racial backgrounds and sexual orientations together as the genre grew more popular.
“House music is universal, is the shared love of freedom, wanting to dance and not be crucified for it,” Saunders said. “House music as a culture is one of acceptance, it breeds harmony.”
An erased history
Relative to genres like rap and hip hop, Kernodle said house music is often omitted from conversations about Black DJ culture due to homophobia. Though house, rap and hip hop were all birthed from Jamaican dancehall and sound system culture coming to America, rap and hip hop became more palatable and revered based on how they presented images of Black masculinity that were deemed acceptable, she added.
London-based house DJ and record producer Kwame Safo, known by his stage name Funk Butcher, said house music has also largely been whitewashed and is often not affiliated with Black culture.
“Homophobia, in a mainstream sense, as a barrier to the commercial viability of a sound has impacted house probably greater than any other music genre because a lot of the mainstream music genres are selling something,” Safo said. “They’re selling an image to mainstream audiences.”
Alongside “Break My Soul,” Drake’s new album, “Honestly, Nevermind,” is also said to have house influences. With more mainstream artists creating house tracks and breaking into the genre, Saunders said house is being pushed forward and able to have more reach.
The song’s lyric video amassed over seven million views in just a few days and was number one on the iTunes Top 100 Songs chart shortly following its release.
Safo said the success of “Break My Soul” comes as no surprise to those in the house community who’ve always known the potential of the genre. He also connects house music’s Black queer roots to the genre’s importance as a form of social commentary, highlighting the significance of Beyoncé singing about burnout and toxic hustle culture during a global pandemic that has afflicted everyone.
Hailed as the Great Resignation’s anthem, there’s a certain universality to “Break My Soul” that speaks to the larger universality of house music in creating an inclusive environment free from oppression.
In the underground gay clubs of metropolitan cities, queer communities of color laid the foundation for a genre synonymous with liberation that contemporary artists would later tap into to spread messages of hope and perseverance.
“Break My Soul” is the first single from Beyoncé’s upcoming album “Renaissance,” set to be released July 29. Kernodle noted that the title of the album, which means rebirth, is significant. We’re not only in a Renaissance when it comes to the resurgence and mainstreaming of house music, but also a societal rebirth in light of so much loss throughout the pandemic in pursuit of a more inclusive world, she said.
”[‘Break My Soul’] is a larger message to us about freedom and reclamation and transcendence, that’s at the heart of who we are as Black people and our music,” Kernodle said. “I also believe [Beyoncé] is saying that also includes our queer brothers and sisters. We can’t be free if we ain’t all free.”