Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance is steeped deeply in queer culture. There are samples of underground drag legends Kevin Aviance and Moi Renee, appearances by Ts Madison and Big Freedia, production by DJ Honey Dijon, album imagery that pays homage to Harlem’s ballroom scene, and a shoutout to designer Telfar Clemons. This is not the sort of quick pandering to a fandom—others are certainly guilty of this faux pas—but rather, a studied love letter that elevates unsung heroes of black queer culture, so much so that it makes you wonder what inspired Beyoncé in the first place. Well, the album is dedicated to her late Uncle Johnny, and Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles-Lawson took to Instagram to shed light on how much Johnny, who was technically Knowles-Lawson’s nephew, meant to Beyoncé.
“This dedication was beautiful! It included my Nephew Johnny on this photo with me when I am 38 years old he is 40 we are at a club he made this dress for me it was so cute!” Knowles-Lawson wrote. “It’s my Lena Horne look!! When Parkwood called me and said can we have a picture of Johnny I told them that I was about to do a podcast they said they needed it in an hour I told them that I had four huge boxes of photos and I probably would never find it in that short period of time! I said a prayer went up and right at the top of the first box was this photo of us! What are the odds of that? Wow a chill went thru me!”
(Yes, you can take a moment to marvel at the fact that Parkwood, Beyoncé’s management and production company, only gave Ms. Tina an hour, because it’s very possible the rest of the caption may leave you in tears.)
“Johnny was the closest human being in the world to me. We were inseparable growing up! Later, he was my nanny/housekeeper/designer/dance partner/confidant and bestie,” Knowles-Lawson continued. I laughed constantly with him and trusted him unconditionally! When he died, a piece of me went with him. Solange and Beyoncé worshiped him. He helped me raise them. And influenced their sense of style and uniqueness! He made Beyoncé's prom dress. Last night, she told me to listen closely at the end of the song ‘Heated’ and I heard for the first time her saying, ‘Uncle Johnny made my dress’ and I got so teary eyed.”
As it turns out, much of the music to which Beyoncé pays homage on the album was introduced to her by Johnny.
“You see Johnny loved house music!,” Ms. Tina said. “And introduced my kids to it early on. He is smiling from heaven at Bey right now! Saying you did that, Ms. Thing! We love you, Johnny and we miss you constantly. Wish you were here to dance with me, we would tear it up!”
Beyoncé had previously paid tribute to Johnny back in 2019, when she accepted an award from GLAAD alongside her husband, Jay Z.
“I want to dedicate this award to my uncle Johnny, the most fabulous gay man I have ever met, who helped raise me and my sister,” she said. “Witnessing his battle with HIV was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever lived. I’m hopeful that his struggle served to open pathways for other young people to live more freely.”
Shortly after that, Ms. Tina also shared more about Johnny.
Fan accounts have even found pictures of at least one of the actual dresses Johnny made a young Beyoncé.
To paraphrase one of the more poignant moments from Paris Is Burning, sometimes you leave a mark on this world when you just live your life and a few people remember your name. Now, millions of people know Uncle Johnny’s name.