Going Deep On Beyoncé, One Of the Last Stars of the Pre-Internet Era

Grace Medford speaks with Tshepo Mokoena about her new book on Queen Bey, delving into personas, pop and how young Black women navigate the industry.
Beyonce performing onstage at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on February 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California
Photo: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Tshepo Mokoena has been a fan of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child since she was a Smash Hits-reading, Top of the Pops-watching tween, terrorising her mother by blasting the 2000 album The Writing’s On The Wall at full volume on every CD player in the house.

“Once I saw the ‘No No No’ remix video, that was the moment I was like, ‘Oh my god, who are they?’” Tshepo recalls of her introduction to Destiny’s Child. “They picked up TLC’s mantle of not only vocals, but an aesthetic and a sexuality that I didn’t quite get because I was a little girl, but I knew they felt cool in a way that I found hard to describe.”

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Last year, Tshepo – a former editor at VICE – was asked to write a book about Beyoncé for the Lives of Musicians series of pocket biographies, which have so far covered legendary greats Prince, David Bowie and Amy Winehouse. The book is a contextualising whip through Beyoncé’s life, from her childhood in Houston, Texas, where she first began to develop her talent; her break into fame as the leader of one of the world’s most successful girl bands; and her unprecedented 20-year journey to becoming the greatest performer of all time: a culture-defining, league-of-her-own superstar.

Tshepo – whose standout Beyoncé performance is the exhilarating, multi-camera spectacle End Of Time at Roseland Ballroom – couldn’t possibly pick a favourite song, but if she had to, gun to head, it would be “Freakum Dress”.

“I felt it would be an opportunity to assess Beyoncé’s cultural cache from the perspective of a young Black woman who grew up watching her,” Tshepo says of her book. “I was young enough to have first encountered her before I understood womanhood, and I’ve grown into a woman as she did at a similar time. That’s given me a perspective that I haven’t seen much in the literature around her yet, and I wanted to provide that once I got approached to write the book.”

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Cover of Lives of the Musicians: Beyonce, by Tshepo Mokoena

Photo: 'Lives of the Musicians: Beyoncé', by Tshepo Mokoena. Out now via Hatchette.

VICE: Starting at the very beginning of Beyoncé’s story, looking at her childhood and the early inklings of her talent, do you think it’s possible for anyone to be Beyoncé, or is she a one-off?
Tshepo Mokoena:
I believe there are different facets to what makes Beyoncé “Beyoncé”. When it comes to the particular vocal ability, that’s something I think you’re born with. But the other part comes down to the graft, how much she was willing to pair talent with actual ambition. If you have both of those in spades, as she does, then maybe you can be a Beyoncé. As a young child, I think she poured a lot of time and energy – that other kids would spend playing with their friends – into singing and performing. That element is the Beyoncé-specific part, the ability to concentrate and focus on what is essentially work when you’re a child.

Does the pursuit of greatness to that level by nature have to be lonely?
I would hazard a guess that to get to that untouchable Beyoncé level – yes, you do have to sacrifice a certain amount of connection. But so few Beyoncés come around, it’s hard to know whether there is another way to do it.

The book talks about how pop music in the early 2000s was led by the Britneys and the Christinas singing about romance and desire, then here come Destiny’s Child with “Bills Bills Bills” and “Say My Name”, addressing the more realistic side of relationships. Why was there such a thematic divide between white pop music and Black pop music?
On the one side you had the Mandy Moores, the Jessica Simpsons, and they would be primed for a white American audience that wants to receive women in a certain way: sweet, deferential, submitting to a man in a good, white Christian way… but still highly sexualised. Destiny’s Child straddled that tension. They were also considered overtly sexualised, but they were allowed, through the lyrics, to say “men can be trash, actually!” and speak directly to women, rather than having to pander to a male audience that are only consuming women as sexual objects. At the time, it was mostly Black songwriters working on those sort of “what if women were allowed to make relationships work for them?” songs, so the songwriters set the template, and they tended to work with other Black artists, because that’s the slightly racialised way that American pop works.

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Given that Destiny’s Child were so successful, why was there such skepticism about Beyoncé’s viability as a solo artist?
In that era, young, pretty, light-skinned Black girls felt a bit interchangeable, and the media narrative around her was very negative. She was seen as this daddy’s girl who manipulated her way to the top by using her group. R&B was still very much considered a “Black genre”, and the charts were still very segregated. There was a sense that Beyoncé would have to prove herself to a white audience to become a viable commodity.

As much as there was that skepticism in the media and at her label, Beyoncé’s fans never had the same doubts. With the next generation of big stars – Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift – there was a really concerted effort from the artist side to cultivate a devoted fanbase, but the BeyHive was built with very little input from Beyoncé. At what point in the timeline was the Hive as we know it now born?
The beginnings of the Hive were already forming when she was still in Destiny’s Child, before there was a name for it, but it was probably 2005/2006, as online forums, blogs and blog comment sections were beginning to flourish. The Hive grew from those disparate corners of the internet, where Beyoncé fans were coming together and originating that really early stan culture – where people were talking negatively about her and they would be fighting in the comments on her behalf. They felt that she was misunderstood, and it was the Hive’s duty to set the record straight.

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As a writer, how do you feel about Beyoncé’s level of engagement with the media, and is it at odds with how you feel about her as a fan?
As a fan, and as a person consuming media, I would obviously love to hear more from Beyoncé, to read interviews where Beyoncé speaks to journalists rather than other famous people. There is a gap from 2005-ish, where she starts to get quiet to a point where it becomes almost a silence. When you look back at how candid she was in early interviews, unfiltered Beyoncé telling the press what she thought about things, it’s fascinating. But as a journalist, I do understand that speaking to the press is very intense, and people in the media often forget how much of a sacrifice it is for anyone to speak on the record about anything. I think people in this industry can take for granted the privilege and the access the trade can give you.

Do the documentaries and films she puts out through Parkwood satisfy in the same way?
The films serve a different purpose because they’re not journalism, they’re introspection, they’re reflection, they can be promotional. She’s ultimately chosen to replace the press run with releasing a behind-the-scenes documentary, whether it’s with Netflix or on YouTube. Once she realised her power and she understood that she could take control of her image, she ran with that idea. I think that kind of thing annoys and maybe scares people in the media.

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You reference some of the key SNL skits that have centred around Beyoncé over the course of her career. Are these skits a good broad scope of how white America has perceived her over the years, and how has that changed over time?
It’s fun to look through that lens at how the white mainstream perceived her, from initially seeing Destiny’s Child as a joke, with the “Survivor” skit, to Beyoncé being this unassailable figure whose agency will have you destroyed if you imply that she’s not incredible.

The most interesting SNL skit to me is “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”, which came after Lemonade.
I don’t wanna generalise about people, but it’s probably uncomfortable for Americans who did not expect a Black musician to be able to do that in their lifetime. She went from songs like “Bills Bills Bills”, where she was connecting to Black girls and speaking their language, to “Independent Women”, where she was speaking to all women, to “Halo”, where she was speaking to everybody. Then she narrowed it back down, went back to speaking to Black women in one way, to queer people in another way and sort of saying, “Maybe these songs aren’t for you… I’m gonna make them anyway because they feel good for me.” I think it’s been harder for a mainstream white American audience to understand or accept that, because a lot of people may not be willing to think about the Black experience in a more intimate way. You can enjoy the art, but not wanna understand what the life was like for the person who made the art.

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How much do you think Beyoncé’s public image aligns with the truth?
Only the people who know her personally understand who Beyoncé is. Everyone else forms their approximation, a mirage that fulfils whatever purpose they want it to. People feel connected to her through her music, her photographs, the odd interview, her films… and piecing those things together gives them an outline of her, but it’s not her in there. Years ago I spoke to Stormzy for British Vogue, and he basically said that fame feels like a sickness, it kills people. I think she does everything she can to insulate herself from that sickness.

The last chapter of the book discusses the mogul side of Beyoncé – how does mogul Beyoncé square with Beyoncé the activist?
I don’t think she owes anyone a notion of being a perfect consumer or perfect public figure. I don’t think any of us get to be that under late-stage capitalism. When she was younger, she would do food drives for poor Black communities, while at the same time having Coca-Cola sponsor her tour. It’s the nature of the game. I think she can do both, and she knows that she won’t always please everybody as she does both. 

If Beyoncé retired tomorrow, what would her legacy look like?
That she ended up being true to her Black, southern roots, while looking and sounding amazing. She’s never faltered as an artist, but her later years of really stepping into her Blackness more publicly, her activism around the rights of Black people, and what the next generation do as they attempt to walk in her shoes, that will be the core of her legacy.

@oneofthosefaces

Lives of the Musicians: Beyoncé is out now via Hatchette.

This interview has been edited for length.