This article originally appeared on Marie Claire South Africa (3 October 2016)
The things that connect black people across the world are powerful. Essentially it’s where we’re from, Africa (even if some were taken away centuries ago), and our collective everyday experiences, otherwise known as the black experience.
In Solange Knowles’s latest album, A Seat at the Table, she presents the wide-ranging expressions of the black experience: love, pain, anger, resistance, fulfillments, alienation and more. These expressions are universal but it’s the nuances of living these emotions within a black body – often overlooked or misrepresented in the mainstream – that differentiates. And it is Solange’s delivery of some of these experiences on the album, which she describes as ‘a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing’, that makes A Seat at the Table so timeous and important.
Almost halfway through the 22-track album, sincerely and with so much charge, Solange sings ‘Don’t touch my hair’. A sentiment or phrase – ‘No, you can’t touch my hair’ – that black women have used when our hair (read: blackness) has been the subject of ogling and othering. ‘Don’t touch my hair… don’t touch my soul… Don’t touch my crown,’ she demands on the track accompanied by British singer Sampha, who co-produces a handful of songs on the album.
From the classroom to the boardroom, we live in a time where black hair, skin and bodies are still policed. After the recent case of Zulaikha Patel and fellow Pretoria High School pupils made international headlines, the singer supported the student and chorus of black schoolgirls across South Africa demanding for their hair not to be touched, straightened or stripped of its African-ness.
In between singing about romance on songs like Cranes in the Sky and Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care), or possessing that #blackgirlmagic on I Got So Much Magic, You Can Have It, Solange’s poetic songwriting illuminates Superstar, which paints a picture of a hustler, living the fast life and shining while doing so, with a grill in his mouth and jewelled wrists.
You’re a superstar
Always shining in the night
And your skin glowing in the moonlight
The streets say you’re a king
The world says you’re a failure
The black experience.
Four years since her True EP was released, A Seat at the Table, effortlessly blends musical newness and nostalgia. The album delivers R&B in all its glorious variations, from neo-R&B, electronic or alt-R&B, to the synthed-out R&B popular in the 1970s. Doing so, Solange enlists the genre’s finest, such as singer-producer Raphael Saadiq, who produces, sings and plays instruments across a number of the songs on the album, while singers Tweet, Kelly Rowland and Kelela provide vocal splendor. Hip hop legend Questlove co-produces the intro, Rise, which sounds like daybreak; Q-Tips gives drums, vocals and productions to Borderline (An Ode To Self Care), and Lil’ Wayne and Andre 3000 drops dimes on the record.
To write about A Seat at the Table without mentioning the accompanying interludes and visuals from the album’s booklet, would be a disservice to this seminal work of Solange, singer, creative and owner of record label Saint Heron.
This is about more than the music, Solange shows. In Interlude: Dad was Mad, her father Matthew Knowles recalls his childhood where he was one of the first blacks, possibly at school or in the neighbourhood (this is not too clear in the recording) and says:
My first day, a state trooper caught me, put me in the backseat of the car, and meeting the other black kids, was six of us. And seeing all of those parents, and also KKK members having signs and throwing cans at us, spitting at us. We lived in the threat of death every day. Every day. So I was just lost in this vacuum between integration and segregation and, and racism. That was my childhood. I was angry for years … angry, very angry.
Decades after her father’s experience, Solange chronicles her own incident of racism. Last month while attending a concert she was assaulted, and like Matthew, had objects thrown at her. Afterwards she wrote a powerful essay about the episode. So when her father speaks about living in the threat of death of every day, it’s hard to not relate it to the present-day black experience, which extends to the killing of black people in the US today, or as he says, ‘the threat of death every day’.
(Re-)claiming the black narrative that has been marginalised or co-opted by white corporations, record labels, publishers, galleries and media, Solange presents interludes by rapper and record label owner Master P and her mother Tina Knowles, which highlights the importance of black people telling our own story.
‘Part of it is accepting that there is so much beauty in being black. I’ve always known that; loved everything about it. There’s such beauty in black people and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black,’ Tina says in this affirming interlude that harks back to ‘Black is Beautiful’ slogans echoed by Black Conscious leader Steve Bantu Biko and the Black Panther Party.
While Master P says, on one of a few interludes about his experience in the music industry, ‘If you don’t understand us and understand what we’ve been through, then you probably wouldn’t understand what this moment is about. This is home. This is where we from. This is where we belong.’
Solange isn’t known for her vocal prowess but her message and delivery is clear when she sings it; unapologetically reiterating Master P and Tina’s words and the importance of creating a narrative about black people for other black people. ‘Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn. For us, this shit is for us,’ she croons on F.U.B.U.
Solange has come a long way since stepping onto the scene in her pan-African coloured crochet cap in the early 2000s, with the song Feeling You. And later moving crowds with her dance anthems T.O.N.Y and I Decided, Part 1 on her 2008 sophomore project Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams.
But there’s something to be said about the vocal and political Solange, who has been publicly addressing issues that affect black people, such as police violence in the US, which she marched against and sang about. And it comes across powerfully on A Seat at the Table, making it for me, her most profound album to date, encompassing musical charm, political messaging and pro-black imagery.
At a time when black bodies are still being scrutinised and dehumanised, we need this record now more than ever.