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When the three opening notes of the song hit, there’s only one thing to do: Find your people and dance. Today, we’re talking about “Before I Let Go,” by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, and the song’s unique ability to gather and galvanize. It wasn’t a huge hit when it came out in 1981, but it has become a unifying Black anthem and an unfailing source of joy. We dissect Beyoncé’s cover, and we hear from friends, listeners and the Philadelphia DJ Patty Jackson about their memories of the classic song.
On Today’s Episode
‘Before I Let Go’ (1981)
“If you are of the African-American persuasion and alive and have movement in your body, you need to be up and dancing,” said Joy, a friend of Still Processing, about what happens whenever she hears “Before I Let Go.”
The song has a special place in the Black American psyche.
“It’s a great way to find out who’s Black in your town,” Wesley joked. “If you move somewhere new, you just hold up your phone and start playing it — people will just come running.”
“We run toward it, literally and psychically, when we hear it,” Jenna added. “The song to me definitely feels like a protective bubble, and it allows for that five minutes to just exist in this space of joy and optimism.”
When Jenna and Wesley asked listeners to share their memories of the song, they heard stories of cookouts, weddings, funerals and car rides with the radio on. Uninhibited joy was a unifying thread.
“I’m instantly transported to my grandmother’s backyard in the summer,” Lindsay said. “And I’m smelling crabs and beer, and I’m hearing laughter and I’m just seeing jubilation.”
Another listener, Davina, said, “It almost just seems like one of those songs that was always playing in the background of my life.”
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A Love Letter from Beyoncé
Beyoncé covered “Before I Let Go” during her Coachella Festival set in 2018. She was headlining that year, the first Black woman to ever do so.
She used the performance, inspired by homecoming at historically Black colleges and universities, to pay homage to more than a century of Black musical traditions — “Before I Let Go” included.
“What better way to pay tribute to Black culture than to perform a song that everyone knows and thinks about,” Jenna said. “Like, she knew it was going to be a performance that a lot of us were going to see at home and be playing at barbecues.”
One Still Processing listener said Beyoncé’s cover powerfully transports her into a “secret galaxy where it’s just Black girls dancing,” while another said they “only ever want to hear the Frankie Beverly and Maze version” (admitting that might be an “unpopular opinion”).
For Jenna and Wesley, Beyoncé’s cover has a special relationship to the original. “One is not meant to replace the other,” Jenna said. “It’s actually meant to be a love letter to the other.”
Hosted by: Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris
Produced by: Elyssa Dudley
Edited by: Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss
Engineered by: Marion Lozano
Executive Producer, Shows: Wendy Dorr
Executive Editor, Newsroom Audio: Lisa Tobin
Assistant Managing Editor: Sam Dolnick
Special thanks: Nora Keller, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani and Desiree Ibekwe
Wesley Morris is a critic at large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at The Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris
Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for The Times Magazine and co-editor of the book “Black Futures” with Kimberly Drew. @jennydeluxe