Kelly Rowland gets asked about her skin tone a lot. Almost as much as she gets asked about her best friend and former Destiny’s Child bandmate, Beyoncé. Both are understandable lines of questioning. Rowland is a dark-skinned Black woman in Hollywood who has been subjected to horrific colourism and undue ridicule because of her beautiful dark complexion. She is also one of the few people who really knows Beyoncé, the greatest, most prolific and yet elusive artist of our generation. But these two questions are rarely asked in relation to the other. And still, when Rowland answers the colourism questions, she usually brings up a story about Beyoncé’s mom Tina Knowles-Lawson.
“I went through a period where I didn’t embrace my ‘chocolatiness,’” Rowland starts the story in an interview from 2013. “I remember being out in the sun and I was trying to shield myself from the sun and [Ms Tina] said, ‘Are you crazy?’ She just told me how beautiful I was and how rare chocolate is and how gorgeous [my] skin is.” Before this moment, Rowland says she struggled with self doubt. “I didn’t embrace... just being a chocolate, lovely brown skin girl and being proud of that.” In 2013, Kelly Rowland credited Ms. Tina as the person who helped her embrace being a “lovely brown skin girl.”
Seven years later, and fifty one minutes and forty-six seconds into the masterpiece that is Black Is King, Kelly Rowland appears front and centre, perched on the ground with her skin literally glistening, during the film’s visual component to “Brown Skin Girl,” a song about women embracing their dark skin. It’s Rowland’s second cameo in Beyoncé’s opus of Black excellence, but it’s the one that made me gasp and yell out loud to no one, “OK Kelendria Trene Rowland!”
Rowland has multiple standout moments during the song. She is, with Blue Ivy Carter coming in at a close second, the star of “Brown Skin Girl” in Black Is King. That’s saying something when Naomi Campbell and Lupita Nyong’o are also right there (they’re all namechecked in the song). Like everything Beyoncé does, making Kelly the standout was intentional. It’s not surprising to me that almost a decade ago, Rowland used the same three words (“brown skin girl”) to describe her journey to self acceptance. Best friends have the same shorthand. I have no doubt that this song, a love letter to dark Black girls and their beauty, is also a love letter from Beyoncé to Kelly. Each one of Rowland’s moments in “Brown Skin Girl” depict decades of friendship and sisterhood. In a film packed with Black love moments, it’s the love story between these two best friends that made me weep.
The most tear-inducing moment between these women has now been turned into a gif that hits me right in the eye ducts every time I scroll past it on Twitter. Beyoncé and Kelly, bare shoulders and brown skin, are facing each other with their hair up and a simple backdrop. They sing, “I’d never trade you for anybody else” into each other’s eyes and collapse into giggles and an embrace. It’s Beyoncé’s face at the end that gets me. Rowland is smiling hard, while Queen Bey seems to be on the verge of tears and almost bewildered at the fact that this woman is her best friend. The look on Beyoncé’s face holds every milestone these two have gone through together, every triumph and hardship.
When the world was falling apart around them (or when Michelle Williams was literally falling down beside them), Beyoncé and Kelly had each other. As much as Kelly owes many of her accolades and career (which is still thriving!) to the Knowles family, Beyoncé wouldn’t be BEYONCÉ without Kelly. And I think she’d be the first to say so. Yes, I saw all of that in a look. It’s also just a silly joyful moment between Black women, and the world needs more of those right now.
I’ve seen less memes and gifs made of the shot of Beyoncé singing “because you’re beautiful,” eye-to-eye with Rowland, but it’s the one I want tattooed on my eyeballs. When Rowland is constantly asked about colourism, she usually brings up growing up watching Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. Seeing their beauty and darker skin tones in a sea of white pop stars gave Rowland the hope that she could be a singer one day too. But Houston and Jackson weren’t standing next to two light-skinned women every time they stepped on stage or onto a red carpet. The fact that Kelly was flanked by Beyoncé and Williams for half of her career is part of why she got so much hate. I like to joke that white people love telling Black people what Black celebrities they look like so much that I’ve gotten every member of Destiny’s Child. All three are compliments, but in high school when people would compare me to Kelly, it would be an insult. Those same white classmates would say, “you’d be so much prettier if you were lighter.” Colourism is so still pervasive in Hollywood (see: almost every Black woman cast in a Netflix show) that it inevitably trickles into classrooms and schoolyards.
Say what you will about Matthew Knowles (and we could say a lot) but he wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that Beyoncé’s career benefitted from her complexion and Kelly’s suffered. That’s not taking anything away from Queen Bey’s brilliance. She’s earned every accolade she has. But colourism is a very real part of the music industry (Normani had to deal with similar bullshit when she was the darkest member of Fifth Harmony). I think Beyoncé knows this. And it’s the reason she chose to put a song like “Brown Skin Girl” (which has won more awards than any other song on the album and is arguably the most popular) into the world. It’s the reason she’s choosing to lift up her best friend and tell her she’s beautiful in the middle of a groundbreaking celebration of Blackness that pushes against western standards of beauty.
“We were beautiful before they knew what beauty was.” That line leads into “Brown Skin Girl” in Black Is King. Kelly Rowland has always been stunningly, stupidly beautiful. That’s not up for debate. But Rowland had to be reminded of her beauty by Ms. Tina when she was struggling to accept herself. With “Brown Skin Girl,” Beyoncé made sure the little girls growing up with images of Kelly glowing, and of these Black best friends giggling and hugging, won’t ever have to question whether they are beautiful in spite of their brown skin. They’ll know that they are because of it.