It may be Cowboy Carter week, but the silvery disco ball strobe lights of Renaissance — the first act of Beyoncé’s presently unfolding trilogy — continue to illuminate the world. On Monday (March 26), the Human Rights Campaign debuted Renaissance: A Queer Syllabus, a sprawling collection of academic articles, essays, films and other pieces of media rooted in Black queer and feminist studies and directly inspired by each track on Queen Bey’s Billboard 200-topping dance album.

Curated by Justin Calhoun, Leslie Hall and Chauna Lawson of the HRC’s HBCU program, the syllabus will serve as an educational resource designed to honor, analyze and celebrate the joy, resilience, innovation and legacy of the Black queer community. The syllabus will be shared with nearly 30 historically Black colleges and universities, including Howard University, North Carolina A&T University, Prairie View A&M University and Shaw University.

Released in the summer of 2022, Renaissance was and continues to be a bonafide cultural phenomenon. A lovingly researched ode to the Black queer roots of dance music filtered through her intensely personal relationship with her late Uncle Johnny, the album captivated fans around the world and shined a much-needed light on the unsung movers and shakers of Black queer art and culture. The album won four Grammys — including a historic win for best dance/electronic album — housed a pair of Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits in “Break My Soul” (No. 1) and “Cuff It” (No. 6) and spawned a record-breaking stadium tour and accompanying box office-topping documentary concert film.

From the economic impact of Beyoncé’s silver fashion aesthetic to career boosts given to Black queer icons such as Kevin Aviance, Ts Madison and Honey Dijon, Renaissance proved itself to be much more than a standard LP. The HRC understood that there was a chance to make a real impact across education and activism through the lens of the record.

“There are ways that we can embed the impact of her lyrics into real life. It was serendipitous for this to happen,” said Hall, director of the HRC’s HBCU Program. “All the anti-DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] laws were being introduced in the same states that she was doing concerts in. So, what would it look like for us to put our best thinking together to put articles, books, and movies to all of the songs on her album?”

On May 15, 2023 — just three shows into the Renaissance World Tour — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning DEI initiatives in public colleges. A month later (June 14, 2023), the governor of Beyoncé’s home state of Texas, Greg Abbott, signed a bill prohibiting DEI offices and the hiring of DEI staff at public higher education institutions.

The juxtaposition of rising anti-queer sentiments and Beyoncé’s Renaissance era anchors the syllabus’ arrangement. The syllabus begins with a brief statement summarizing and reiterating the HRC’s June 2023 LGBTQ+ State of Emergency statement, which they declared “for the first time following an unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses.” The final pages of the syllabus contain both a reprint of Beyoncé’s statement in memory of O’Shea Sibley — a young Black queer man who was murdered in Brooklyn back in July 2023 for simply voguing to Renaissance -—and an additional statement from the HRC denouncing hate crimes.

“I think when you preface something [with] a state of emergency, you get the lay of the land and how important [the] syllabus is,” said Calhoun, an HBCU program manager at HRC. “It brings a sense of urgency and realness to what’s actually happening to queer youth, especially black Queer Youth.”

Calhoun — alongside Hall and Lawson — began work on the syllabus in October 2023, dividing the album’s 16-song tracklist into different themes and building hubs of additional secondary resources that expound on said themes. Despite Calhoun’s initial concerns that breaking up the tracklist would “lose the flow” of the album — Renaissance is intentionally mixed and sequenced to emulate a seamless DJ set — he ultimately agreed that the approach helped the syllabus feel more like a lesson plan.

Six themes anchor the syllabus, ranging from “intersectionality and inclusivity” to “social justice and activism.” Fan favorite tracks like “Alien Superstar” and “Thique” rope in the origins of the body positivity moment and iconic speeches from Barbara Ann Teer (including the one sampled on “Superstar”) under the umbrella of “empowerment and self-acceptance.” “Energy,” the song behind the infamous “mute challenge,” gets new readings by interloping essays from bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins. Even less-famed tracks like “Move” (with Grace Jones & Tems) — which is paired with fascinating readings on the effects of colonialism on pre-colonial Africa and African perspectives on trans identity — get in on the scholarly fun.

Naturally, “Heated,” a song that had an intense, immediate impact on Renaissance listeners with deep ties to the ballroom scene, served as the crux of the syllabus, according to Calhoun. “It was the model child for how a section of the syllabus should look,” he explains. “There was so much to unpack in ‘Heated.’ You have Beyoncé’s Uncle Johnny, a Black gay man [living] during the AIDS epidemic — that lead to us [compiling different resources] about how we lost a generation of black gay men who were visionaries and people who paved the culture.”

The syllabus is a thorough resource, one that continues the HRC’s connection with Beyoncé’s Renaissance era. On Aug. 27, 2023, the HRC, with support from Beyoncé’s BeyGOOD Foundation, mounted the Equality Ball in Las Vegas, NV – an event that doubled as actual ball complete with a “Bring It Like Beyoncé” category and an educational resource pushing voter registration and sexual health awareness.

Although Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé’s production company, did not authorize or give “direct sign off” on the syllabus (Billboard reached out to representatives at Parkwood for comment), creating the resource was “a seamless process,” according to Calhoun. “We knew amongst the team which authors and which folks to go to for certain things, I don’t think any of us did many Google searches,” said Hall. “We knew where to go to connect the right [resources] to one of her songs [and] build a course out of it. It is really a testament to well-read, well-learned people. I feel obligated to say that because we don’t talk about ourselves like that. We’re smart. It would take folks with Howard degrees to put something like this together.”

From Pauli Murray and C. Riley Snorton to Audre Lorde and Sonya Renee Taylor, HRC’s new syllabus continues Renaissance’s mission of highlighting, amplifying and re-centering Black and queer voices. Of course, this syllabus is far from the first piece of Beyoncé-inspired coursework in higher education. Following the release of the Grammy winner’s culture-shifting album Lemonade in 2016, a slew of Beyoncé-themed classes debuted across higher education institutions — including the University of Copenhagen, Rutgers University, Arizona State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

For Hall, the rise of courses tackling social constructs through the lens of pop culture is only a good thing. “We’re in a powder keg right now, and it’s gonna pop around election time,” he says. “We have to get information to folks in younger generations. We need them to be connected to what’s really happening and a way to do that is through music and culture.”

Nonetheless, Hall and his colleagues aren’t oblivious to the fact that Renaissance exists in an intrinsically capitalistic context. “[It’s] something I grapple with so much,” notes Calhoun. “I had a teacher who once said that capitalism is the current structure and we have to live under it. This is how life operates. What is Beyoncé going to do to stop a capitalist structure? I just don’t feel like we’re at a point in the movement where we know what we want [people like her] to do.”

While there may be no current plans for a Cowboy Carter syllabus — “being from the Mississippi Delta, that would be dope, but it depends on Beyoncé,” quipped Calhoun — the HRC’s Renaissance syllabus is the ultimate proof that the Renaissance is, in fact, not over.

“We’ve made a course that adds to scholarship about Black queer futures and specifically ballroom and uplifting history that’s not as popular in academia,” says Calhoun. “It really adds to the academic cannon of Black queer scholarship in a way we haven’t seen before.”

Stephen Daw
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