The meaning of Beyoncé: a dispatch from inside the Beyhive

How many ways do we love Queen Bey? A superfan explains how Beyonc gives her followers permission to take control

Through a fog of food-truck smoke, a sea of Ivy Park and feminist slogan-clad fans move through the London stadium. To my left are groups of black girls in co-ordinated yellow or gold-hued outfits; to my right, yards of bee motifs. This was an experience, like many before it, that we’d all tell our grandchildren about. Now, for one night, and one night only, there was just me, the Beyhive and Beyoncé – even if her husband did happen to be there.

The Beyhive is perhaps the most dedicated group of superfans (or, as they often call themselves, “stans”) on the planet, and I consider myself one of them. Much catchier than its predecessor, the Beyontourage, the origins of which are unknown, the term Beyhive entered the mainstream consciousness around the 2011 release of 4, Beyoncé’s fourth studio album and her first project done independently of her father, Mathew Knowles. In a nod to the new direction her career was taking – a slightly more grown-up version of the women’s empowerment anthems for which she had become known – Beyoncé’s already precise vocals seemed to improve. And her fans were one-upping themselves just as she was, taking on the detractors at every turn.

They were in full flow by 2015, which is when Kid Rock chose to criticise Beyoncé because, as if it were in any way relevant, he didn’t find her attractive; nor did he think she had “a fucking Purple Rain” in her discography. The Beyhive responded by posting endless comments on all his social media channels using only bee emojis. The rage goes on; every year fans commemorate the day he crossed Queen Bey, covering his social media profiles with – you guessed it – more bee emojis. Such battles – carried out with as much passion as if Beyhive members were defending their own family – have landed the fandom with a somewhat bad reputation.

But what lies at the heart of that protectiveness is an appreciation of Beyoncé’s efforts to, consciously or not, give black women a sense of freedom. Just as Beyoncé takes up space, in music, film, fashion, art and, in some respects, politics, she gives us permission to do the same, entirely on our own terms.

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‘I felt excluded from what is sometimes called “white feminism”. But Beyoncé changed that.’

While good old-fashioned celebrity adulation undoubtedly plays a part Beyoncé is also a trailblazer. The first solo artist to have their first six albums debut at number one, she is also the most Grammy-nominated woman in history and one of just two to win six in one night. Last year Forbes named her the most highly-paid female musician.

And, having been handed the reigns to the US Vogue September cover – rumoured to be Anna Wintour’s last as editor-in-chief – she created monumental change once again when she hired the first black photographer ever to shoot a US Vogue cover in its 126-year history. The portrait of Beyoncé, with no wigs or hair extensions and “little makeup”, was shot by 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell who, understandably, admitted that he “cried three times” on the morning of the release. It was so much more than just another glossy cover; the gorgeous photos, and her account of childbirth complications – an issue regularly sidelined for black women – and the abuse of power in relationships were signifiers of the boundlessness of Beyonce’s power.

Every Beyhive member can recall their own awakening. When Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album unexpectedly dropped, featuring an electrifying sample from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists TED talk, Smera Kumar, an arts and sciences student at University College London, was so inspired that she took it upon herself to establish the university’s first ever Yoncé Appreciation Society, or YAS for short.

“I felt that there wasn’t really a space on campus that brought people together to discuss race and feminism. And it felt as if she was creating a dialogue about these issues through music,” she says in reference to Flawless, the song that sees the words, “I look so good tonight” blend with the novelist’s: “We teach girls to shrink themselves.”

Beyoncé has also come to represent hard work and stubborn perfectionism. “She makes me want to work harder. My screensaver on my Mac is an amazing picture of Beyoncé, because I know, that as soon as I lift it up, I’ll be like, OK, I’m ready,” says Ria Chatterjee, ITV journalist and self-professed Beyoncé stan. She cites Beyoncé’s 2013 documentary Life Is But A Dream as an example of the star’s unrelenting work ethic. “There’s that one scene where she doesn’t like the lighting and she doesn’t show that she’s pissed off. She’s just like, ‘What is this? This isn’t right.’ And she won’t stand for anything less than perfection. Those scenes where she’s dancing in the corridor until 1am because she hasn’t got any space to rehearse – it just makes me want to scream with frustration. But then it makes me want to work harder,” she says.

There are clues to this work ethic that only the Beyhive are familiar with. During her almost year-long I Am… world tour in 2009, for example, a video of a live performance of Diva surfaced, in which Beyoncé, displeased by lighting errors in the live show, melodically weaves the phrase, “LIGHTS! Somebody’s getting fired, hey hey!” into the chorus. It instantly became a catchphrase for the hive, something you say when people fail to meet your high standards.

Daniel Yeboah is one of four friends who regularly convene to discuss Beyoncé in a WhatsApp group called Queen B’s Angels. He says that Beyoncé’s latest project, Everything Is Love, her joint album with her husband Jay-Z, “magnifies her hard work and pro-blackness” by subverting what’s considered classic art. Their Apeshit music video was filmed in the Louvre, its all-black ensemble bringing a welcome change of air to the French museum. Beyoncé’s career trajectory as a whole, he adds, taught him “to work hard, break barriers and not limit myself to the glass ceiling the world puts us in”.

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With Blue Ivy and Jay-Z at the 2014 VMAs. Photograph: WireImage

For Jenessa Williams, a student, Beyoncé’s tirelessness was encapsulated by a scene at the Mrs Carter Show world tour in 2013. “I went to see her for my 19th birthday at Manchester Arena and the seats were so bad they were basically behind the stage. But the best thing was, you could actually see her preparing to come on and coming off.

“I have the most vivid image: she was in this full-on sparkly catsuit, ready to do the first number, and someone pushed a pram out to her, which would have had her daughter, Blue Ivy, in it. And she just rocked this pram for like 30 seconds, and then her dancers assembled, someone put the pram away, and off she went. We were the only people in the block who could see that, but that, to me, was a proper goosebumps moment that made me think, ‘She’s literally doing it all.’ She’s got this baby, she’s rocking her; and now she’s going to go take care of business.”

In so many ways, Beyoncé defies traditional expectations of a pop star. Her Black Panther-styled Super Bowl performance of Formation, for example, at the height of American protests against police brutality. Or the time she took the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant to the 2017 MTV video music awards.

With the threat of a Trump presidency on the horizon, the release of the album Lemonade was healing, particularly for Beyoncé’s black fans. Featuring cameos from myriad black women and girls, from a twerking Serena Williams, to Blue Ivy, to older women like Jay-Z’s grandmother, it led Jenessa Williams to examine her own identity as a mixed-race black woman. “I’d always felt like my story wasn’t quite as important as other people’s,” she recalls, “and Lemonade gave me the chance to acknowledge that, as long as it came from the right place, I could talk about that.”

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Beyoncé and Jay-Z on stage during their On The Run II tour in Cardiff in June. Photograph: Getty Images

Beyoncé’s power is both economic and political: she has crashed iTunes, Topshop and the US Congress contact page respectively, with her surprise self-titled album, the release of her Ivy Park athleisure line, and a call for her fans to contact their representatives about police brutality.

I used to reject the feminist label, mostly because I felt excluded from what is sometimes called “white feminism”. But Beyoncé changed that, by proudly brandishing the term across stadium screens, on award shows, in her music videos and as part of her merchandise. I’m now proud to claim it for myself.

Now that Everything Is Love has been released, and tour tickets are sold out, we don’t know what will happen next. Part of the fun of being a certified Beyhive member is the endless speculation. Will she ditch her double-act routine with Jay-Z and embark on a solo tour in 2019? Will her friendship with the Obamas inspire her to run for Congress in 2020? If years of loving this woman with every inch of your being teaches you anything, it’s that attempts at forecasting Beyoncé’s future moves are usually futile. She will reveal all when she’s ready. And when she is, we’ll be waiting.

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