Since BET aired the Soul Train Awards on Sunday, I’ve spent a significant portion of my week trying to find the words for what I felt watching Janelle Monáe receive the ceremony’s first-ever Spirit of Soul Award. The moment felt like a collective culture shift. And so it’s only right we, the collective, unpack why.
Earlier this month, the award show announced that it had changed the name of its Lady of Soul Award to the Spirit of Soul Award to honor the extraordinary work of the nonbinary Grammy-nominated artist appropriately. This honor comes on the heels of the widely successful release and tour of Monáe’s most recent album, “The Age of Pleasure,” a sultry and highly lauded project that explores themes of Black joy, pride and queer sexual expression.
During their acceptance speech, Monáe expressed how deeply moving it was to be celebrated by Black people or, in their words, family.
“Thank you for keeping the soul alive,” they said. “So many people have reinvented that word, and I’m just so honored to have something like this for us that continues to evolve and showcase so many different forms of what soul can be.” They also invoked artists that paved the way for their expression, including Prince, Stevie Wonder and queer icon Grace Jones.
While being honored by a cultural institution such as Soul Train is a massive accomplishment on its own, this moment is pivotal because it bucks the traumatic history of ignoring, mocking or altogether dismissing Black queer and gender-nonconforming artists.
It is still common for openly queer and gender-nonconforming Black people to be pushed to the outskirts of society by their families and their communities. This moment in award show history made space for Black people to bury this violent practice. It also shows us what’s possible when we respect and acknowledge people’s gender identities.
The acceptance speech resonated with me because it was a mind-bending moment for Black people who are not accustomed to seeing queerness embraced and celebrated by mainstream Black institutions. Monáe’s presence and words uprooted the harmful respectability politics that many of us still have to endure — ones that argue that we’re only worthy of praise if we adhere to archaic gender norms.
And while we’re moving slowly, the Soul Train Awards’ voting body’s decision to honor Monáe in a way that also acknowledges their gender identity is worth celebrating, especially when considering BET’s past attitudes toward queer artists, such as Lil Nas X.
Though there are still many hurdles to overcome to build inclusivity within the Black community and institutions (i.e., increased representation of nonbinary people who are not as femme-presenting as Monáe and those who belong to other marginalized groups within the Black community), this is a step in the right direction.