Each month, the Bustle Book Club asks an author to recommend a book they think everyone should read. In April, Well-Read Black Girl founder Glory Edim recommended Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter by Veronica Chambers. Follow along with the book club on Bustle and join the conversation on Goodreads.
For nearly as long as I can remember, Beyoncé’s music and influence has been a constant presence in my life, punctuating significant moments with songs that have now become inextricable from those memories: Learning the "Survivor" choreography with my best friend at 12 years old, feeling emboldened and inspired during a pre-teen phase that, most days, left me feeling anything but; rocking out to "Freakum Dress" in my bedroom in high school, dreaming of the day that I would break free of this adolescent ennui, be able to hit the club with my friends; curling up in a blanket in my matchbook-sized Paris apartment in my early twenties, “Me, Myself and I” on repeat, coming to terms with the fact that the only person who would ever be in charge of my happiness was myself; weeping while listening to “Blue” shortly after my daughter was born, finally understanding the unique joy and heartbreak of watching your child grow up and away, bit by bit, every single day.
Veronica Chambers knows that this phenomenon is not an unusual one. In her new book, Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, she has assembled an all-star group of writers, artists, activists, and community leaders to meditate on the life, artistry, and profound relatability of one of the greatest performers to ever do it. These contributors come to Beyoncé from all walks of life, varying generations, opposing schools of thought, and even levels of fandom — each bringing their own incisive, sharply nuanced take on a specific aspect of Beyoncé’s star power and incredible influence.
In her introduction, Chambers wonders, “What might a Black girl be in this world?” Charting her own life’s trajectory as it aligned with Beyoncé’s impact on her life and sense of self, she lays a lush groundwork for a deeper examination of not only who this superstar is, but how her ever-shifting identities and career milestones are endlessly refracted onto and within us, her audience. The multitudes that Beyoncé contains can, in so many ways, give us both the permission and encouragement to reflect on our own, and thus, add necessary layers of complexity to way we view her power, her drive, her celebrity. Beyoncé has opened many doors and turned to beckon us through behind her; in this essay collection, we learn how some of our most talented and esteemed cultural figures have heard and heeded that call.
Chambers spoke to Bustle about Beyoncé’s undeniable claim to the throne, allowing oneself to dream beyond the margins, the impeccable sleight of hand that is bridging the gap between artist and fan, and so much more.
Bustle: Tell me how this book came to be. Do you feel like it was a long time coming?
Veronica Chambers: After I finished touring for my first anthology, The Meaning of Michelle, my editor, Elisabeth Dyssegaard asked, “Well, who next?” And honestly, I was stumped. I couldn’t imagine anyone who had changed so much of our notions about what it meant to be an American woman. Then one day, Elisabeth said, “How about Beyoncé?” And it was perfect. Because she’s done so much in so many different genres, over an incredibly long period of time. There was just so much to talk about. The happy result is that I’ve spent most of the last five years writing and editing about queens.
Bustle: You have an incredible array of contributors — Fatima Robinson, Melissa Harris-Perry, Brittney Cooper, Michael Eric Dyson — and this is just a very small sampling. What was your approach to assembling such an all-star list? Was your prompt open-ended (“Tell me what you think about Beyoncé”) or did you have specific areas that you wanted them to touch on?
VC: I think we wanted a mix of people from inside and outside of the Beyhive. We started with some of the contributors from the Michelle antho: Brittney Cooper and Ylonda Gault, then we started thinking about different areas of the Bey universe. Melissa Harris-Perry wrote with a former student, Mankaprr Conteh, so there was this great big sis/little sis convo that to me kind of mirrors the Bey x Solange convo. Fatima Robinson brought this marvelous knowledge of dance. And of course, Michael Eric Dyson just raised the whole game.
The happy result is that I’ve spent most of the last five years writing and editing about queens.
Bustle: In the introduction you write, “[Beyoncé] is more than a pop star. Her very omnipresence means she sits, again and again, at the intersection of intersectionality.” I think this is such a fascinating way of speaking concisely to her total immersive effect within our culture. Can you say a bit more about this ability to meet her fans where they are, in a way that feels so intensely personal?
VC: I think two things about Queen Bey and her relatability. She has, in her still very young life, covered in her music so many aspects of a human life: from friendship to romance to frenemies; from the sanctity motherhood to being the rowdiest motha up in the party. We’ve been doing lots of radio shows and what’s so striking is how much listeners call in and they talk about how one particular song carried them through a moment. It’s the playing of a song on repeat that makes this imprint on our hearts and she’s just had so many of those songs: "Halo", "Heaven," "Hold Up," "Flawless," "Formation," "Drunk in Love," "Crazy in Love," "Single Ladies," "Run the World," "Mi Gente," "7/11," "Check On It," the list just goes on and on.
I like to say that the reason some people still underestimate Beyoncé is because her art is a gift she gives us with no price tags. There’s never any talk about how hard she’s worked, the hours put in, the depths she has to plummet to give us all she gives us. As Questlove tweeted after Beychella, "How. in. The. Fuh. Did. She. Pull. That. Shiii. OFF!!!!??? It’s like 170 musicians onstage. I mean the stage plotting. The patch chords. How many monitor boards were used??! Bandleading that sh*t woulda gave me anxiety. Hats off man. Jesus H Christ.”
I like to say that the reason some people still underestimate Beyoncé is because her art is a gift she gives us with no price tags.
Bustle: It seems to be almost an imperative to use royal terminology when talking about Beyoncé. Treva B. Lindsey’s essay, “King Bey,” delves deep into her King/Queen dichotomy, and you’ve even titled the collection Queen Bey. How do you reconcile this King/Queen duality? Do you see these as being a sort of evolution from the double-sided coin of Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce, or is it some other phenomenon entirely?
VC: I love this question because I love the way Beyoncé plays with royal terminology. The Hive christened her Queen Bey, but she also has called herself King. But to me the appeal has to do with what Marianne Williamson writes in A Woman’s Worth, "A queen is wise. She has earned her serenity, not having had it bestowed on her but having passed her tests. She has suffered and grown more beautiful because of it. She has proved she can hold her kingdom together. She has become its vision. She cares deeply about something bigger than herself. She rules with authentic power." I mean if that doesn’t describe Beyoncé I don’t know what does. I stan for queens.
Bustle: The first time I listened to "Apesh*t" and watched the video, I felt a sense of complete awe. Here were two people who had truly reached the pinnacle (granted, I think this every time I see Beyoncé do anything!) of fame, of talent, but most significantly, of wealth. Despite the occasional bitterness I feel — how easy would it be for them to just pay off my student loans?! — my admiration never wavers; I just added the song to my mental rolodex of ‘capitalist bops’ and turned up the volume. But I’m curious: keeping in mind how skilled Beyoncé is at making her fans feel a sense of kinship and mutual appreciation, how do you reconcile the very real gap that exists between her and most of her fans’ daily lived experiences?
VC: I think this is such an interesting question. In the book, more than one writer wrestles with the way Beyoncé flaunts her wealth. Personally, when I hear a song like "Apesh*t" and lyrics like, "We livin’; lavish, lavish/I got expensive fabrics/I got expensive habits" I place it more into the hip hop tradition of boasting and braggadocio. Like Kanye said, way back in the day, "I went to Jacob with 25 thou/Before I had a house and I’d do it again/Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz.” I also think that in hip hop, extreme shows of wealth are used as metaphors for off the chart feelings. When I ride around town in my little Mini Cooper blasting, “Top off the Maybach,” I don’t have to have a Maybach to channel the feeling. We could also go into all the ways that she’s evolved as a rapper but that’s a convo for another time!
That said, I feel that student loan pain too!
Bustle: One of the most meaningful through-lines within this collection’s essays is the courage and dogged determination that has made Beyoncé who she is. She has fears, and doubts, and pain, but she pushes through them anyway. She’s made missteps, and fallen down — literally! — but she gets up and keeps working anyway. It reminded me of Michelle Obama’s memoir (who you have also written about!) and her constant refrain: am I good enough? And constantly working to prove that the answer was unequivocally yes. Do you see a kinship between these two? And are there other historical figures who you feel share a similar philosophy or ethos with Beyoncé?
VC: Absolutely, I think there are parallels. How many years ago did James Baldwin write, "Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it."? And yet, how many of us struggle with the feeling of worthiness. What I love about the vernacular of Black women and the tradition that both Michelle O and Beyoncé come from is that it encourages us to stay hopeful of possibility – the possibility that we can do better and the possibility that the world can and will do better by us. That kind of faith is powerful.
How many years ago did James Baldwin James Baldwin write, "Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it."? And yet, how many of us struggle with the feeling of worthiness.
Bustle: I have to know: have you ever met her? Does she know about the book? What do you hope her reaction will be — or what was it, if you already know?
VC: I have never met Beyoncé. Michael Eric Dyson gave the book to Ms. Tina (and posted the pic on Instagram!) so I'm hopeful that she knows about it!
Bustle: I’m so thrilled that this is the Bustle Book Club selection for April, because while it’s grounded in a public figure that is so known and beloved by so many, the way we respond to her life and her art can be revealing about ourselves. Has that been your experience while putting together this book?
VC: It means the world to me that this is the Bustle Book Club selection for April. What I love about this book is that there are so many different aspects of Beyoncé to dip in and out of. I love the essays from creatives like Kid Fury and Lena Waithe. Isabel Gonzalez Whitaker wrote a beautiful essay about Beyoncé singing in Spanish and her Latinx appeal. Maria Brito who is a brilliant Latina art historian wrote about fine art influences in Beyoncé’s visual vernacular. Elodie Mailliet Storm, the CEO of Catchlight and a photography expert, wrote about Bey’s Instagram account and how it’s evolved. And Luvvie Ajayi is just hilarious as always. Every time I read a line of Luvvie’s like: “I said what I said. Stay nauseous.” I just laugh out loud.
Bustle: More generally, what do you think the role of book clubs are in 2019? With so many different ways to connect to people without ever needing to leave your home, what do you think the appeal of belonging to a book club is?
VC: What’s been so fun about our Queen Bey book events is that we usually start out by asking everyone to name their favorite Bey song, which is kind of the perfect ice breaker for any social occasion. Then we talk about the essays in the book. Then we do a little round of Beyoncé trivia – with prizes! And we end with some Lemonade themed cocktails. It’s become my favorite girls’ night out. Literary and what not. With banging Beyoncé beats and cocktails.
Bustle: What are you reading these days? Any recommendations that would make for a great book club discussion?
VC: I’ve just finished Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. And I can’t wait to read Internment by Samira Ahmed and What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young. I’m not saying anything new, but Damon Young is a genius.
Bustle: What do you hope readers take away from this book? What do you hope people who aren’t fans of hers take away from this book?
VC: I hope that readers, Beyhive or not, take away from the book the idea that it’s okay to dream really big. We need all the women in this world to dream bigger. The level of success Beyoncé has achieved was far from given. No offense to the Spice Girls, I still love to dance in a circle with all of my girlfriends to a Spice Girl song, but Beyoncé could have easily been that level of famous and stayed there. If you look at the arc of her career, there’s just so much strategy, work, vision work and physical hard work. I hope the book makes us feel brave enough to push that hard. I hope readers finish the book and then start making some Stacey Abrams style spreadsheets.