Women born at the dawn of the 1980s were among the last generation to live an analog life and the first to see themselves re-imagined in digital. Beyoncé’s childhood coincided with the rise of home-recording equipment—video cameras, stereo systems that let you record your own voice, keyboards that let you find whatever sound you wanted, personal computers to synthesize it all. The girls before her had mirrors and the echoes of the trees and magazines with cartoon approximations to reflect themselves. Her generation was the first to regularly experience the dizzying accuracy of playback. It could be a destabilizing force; there’s your voice as you think it sounds, and then your voice when it comes back to you, after you’ve hit Record.
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter came of age during that digital revolution, and knowing how to navigate that dissonance is part of her artistic superpower. She has built her company, Parkwood Entertainment, into a media conglomerate that includes a fashion line, IVY PARK. She is now a mother of three, to nine-year-old Blue Ivy and four-year-old twins Rumi and Sir, with husband JAY-Z. The iconic couple has just been named the new faces of Tiffany & Co., which was acquired earlier this year by LVMH and is relaunching under its auspices. And she is working on new music along with an array of other projects that promise to obliterate old boundaries and vault her further into uncharted territory.
Is that what I sound like? Is that what I want to send into the world? These are questions she answers anew, each decade of her life. Now, at 40, Beyoncé listens to her voice alone.
You turn 40 on September 4. Reflecting on your life so far, what has each decade taught you?
The first decade of my life was dedicated to dreaming. Because I was an introvert, I didn’t speak very much as a child. I spent a lot of time in my head building my imagination. I am now grateful for those shy years of silence. Being shy taught me empathy and gave me the ability to connect and relate to people. I’m no longer shy, but I’m not sure I would dream as big as I dream today if it were not for those awkward years in my head.
I was competing in dance and singing competitions at age seven. When I was on the stage, I felt safe. I was often the only Black girl, and it was then that I started to realize I had to dance and sing twice as hard. I had to have stage presence, wit, and charm if I wanted to win. I started taking voice lessons from an opera singer at nine. By 10 I had already recorded at least 50 or 60 songs in the recording studio. This was before Pro Tools, when you recorded to tape.
I had my first vocal injury at 13 from singing in the studio for too many hours. We had just gotten our first record deal, and I was afraid I had developed nodules and destroyed my voice and that my career could be over. The doctors put me on vocal rest all summer and I was silent once again.
My teenage years were about the grind. I grew up hearing this particular scripture from James 2:17, “Faith without work is dead.” Vision and intention weren’t enough; I had to put in the work. I committed to always being a student and always being open to growth. No one in my school knew that I could sing because I barely spoke. My energy went into Destiny’s Child and the dream of us getting a record deal and becoming musicians. If something wasn’t helping me reach my goal, I decided to invest no time in it. I didn’t feel like I had time to “kiki” or hang out. I sacrificed a lot of things and ran from any possible distraction. I felt as a young Black woman that I couldn’t mess up. I felt the pressure from the outside and their eyes watching for me to trip or fail. I couldn’t let my family down after all the sacrifices they made for me and the girls. That meant I was the most careful, professional teenager and I grew up fast. I wanted to break all of the stereotypes of the Black superstar, whether falling victim to drugs or alcohol or the absurd misconception that Black women were angry. I knew I was given this amazing opportunity and felt like I had one shot. I refused to mess it up, but I had to give up a lot.
My 20s were about building a strong foundation for my career and establishing my legacy. I was focused on commercial success and number ones and being a visionary no matter how many barriers I had to break through. I was pushed to my limits. I learned the power of saying no. I took control of my independence at 27 and started Parkwood Entertainment. At the time, there wasn’t a company that did what I needed it to do or ran the way I wanted it run. So, I created this multipurpose badass conglomerate that was a creative agency, record label, production company, and management company to produce and work on projects that meant the most to me. I wanted to manage myself and have a company that put art and creativity first.
I pulled together these young visionaries and independent thinkers to collaborate with. I wanted strong women to be in key roles throughout my company, when most of the industry was still male dominated. I wanted collaborators who had not been jaded by the corporate world and wouldn’t be afraid to rock with me when I came up with unconventional ideas, a team that would challenge me but wouldn’t be conditioned to say you’re not supposed to do something.
I remember being in a meeting discussing analytics, and I was told the research discovered that my fans did not like when my photography was black and white. They told me I wouldn’t sell if it wasn’t in color. That was ridiculous. It pissed me off that an agency could dictate what my fans wanted based on a survey. Who did they ask? How is it possible to generalize people this much? Are these studies accurate? Are they fair? Are all the people I’m trying to uplift and shine a light on included? They’re not. It triggered me when I was told, “These studies show…” I was so exhausted and annoyed with these formulaic corporate companies that I based my whole next project off of black and white photography, including the videos for “Single Ladies” and “If I Were a Boy” and all of the artwork by Peter Lindbergh for I Am…Sasha Fierce, which ended up being my biggest commercial success to date. I try to keep the human feeling and spirit and emotion in my decision-making.
I was very interested in filmmaking, and my first project was directing my concert film I Am…World Tour. I learned how to edit the cut myself in Final Cut Pro, and it was the beginning of a newfound love and creative expression, which led to creating the visual album with my self-titled album, Beyoncé, then Lemonade, Homecoming, and Black Is King.
My 30s were about starting my family and my life becoming more than my career. I worked to heal generational trauma and turned my broken heart into art that would help move culture forward and hopefully live far beyond me. My 30s were about digging deeper. In 2013, I started BeyGOOD to share the mentality that we could all do something to help others, something my parents instilled in me from a young age—to inspire others to be kind, to be charitable, and to be good. We focused on many areas of need, including hurricane relief, education with scholarships to colleges and universities in the U.S., a fellowship program in South Africa, women’s rights, support of minority businesses, assisting families with housing needs, water crises, pediatric health care, and pandemic relief. BeyGOOD has become a worldwide initiative for providing support domestically and internationally. It has always been important to me to help others and to make a positive impact on the world. I have worked to lift my people up, to change perceptions so my kids could live in a world where they are seen, celebrated, and valued.
I’ve spent so many years trying to better myself and improve whatever I’ve done that I’m at a point where I no longer need to compete with myself. I have no interest in searching backwards. The past is the past. I feel many aspects of that younger, less evolved Beyoncé could never f*** with the woman I am today. Haaa!
Tell us about your community. How have the women in your life influenced you?
My closest friends are brilliant women who run companies, are entrepreneurs, mothers, wives, and close family. Kelly [Rowland] and Michelle [Williams] are still my best friends. I gravitate toward strong, grounded women like my incredible sister, Solange. She is full of wisdom, and she is the dopest person I know.
There is power in community, and I saw that growing up the daughter of a salon owner. My first introduction to beautiful women was curvy, Texas-bred, bean-and-cornbread-fed goddesses. I was exposed to so many entrepreneurial women that I admired. Doctors, business owners, artists, teachers, mothers—they all came through my mom’s salon. I saw firsthand how a salon can be a sanctuary for women. I vividly remember one client who was an opera singer. She was this regal Black woman who had traveled all around the world and would tell these incredible stories. I’d love to hear about her travels and decided one day I would travel around the world too.
I watched my mother nurture and heal those women in her salon, not just by making them look and feel beautiful but by talking with them, listening to them, and connecting with them. I’ve seen how much Black women’s emotions are attached to our hair and beauty. The beauty industry does not always understand these emotions and what we need. I want to build a community where women of all races can communicate and share some of those secrets, so we can continue to support and take care of each other. I want to give women a space to feel their own strength and tell their stories. That is power.
Reprinted with permission from Harper's Bazaar