Solange Sings Black Girl Existentialism in “A Seat at The Table”

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2016 has been an intense year to be black. Not that it’s ever easy, but some years are calmer than others. The years 1996 and 2008 stand out in particular because first, as Moesha debuted on UPN that year and Obama won his first term, respectively. 1864, was probably lit too. But 2016, has been straight garbage. The next President of the country will (hopefully) be the lesser of two evils, the lesser (we think) is Hillary Clinton, who had a major hand in the creation of the prison industrial complex and coined the term “super predator” in regards to young black men.  So, as urban cities in the United States awash in waves of well deserved violence and the amount of police officers killing black citizens rise like the level of CO2 in the atmosphere; 2016 goes down in the books as the year that things were shitty and more people, including Solange grew tired of it.

A Seat at the Table is a dense album that floats like a feather sonically because Solange has been making music professionally since she was a pre-teen and did not come to play with you hoes. It’s also clear that Solange has been paying attention to the young indie artists, as her album is comparable to newcomer Jamila Woods’ Heavn EP and Noname Gypsys’ Telefone. They are two black women from Chicago telling similar stories about the overwhelmingly unique experience of contemporary blackness in the United States of America.

The title of the album is inspired by civil rights activist James Forman and his famous quote, “If we can’t have a seat at the table, then let’s…knock the fucking legs off”. The tone and style of the album references the civil rights era in lyric and song styles. This is aligned with Solange’s personal sound. Solo Star, her first studio album, featured a teenage Solange on the cover in her red, black and green knit cap. The album also had strong reggae vibes. Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams found Solange heavily influenced by the 1960’s and Motown vibes. Even her TRUE EP featured visuals in South Africa. Solange has always had a political and almost folk music vibe, but this album is her strongest admission into that style yet.

The first four tracks set the tone and present the problem of what all black people are experiencing right now and honestly, always have been. “Black existentialism” the critique of the way black life is treated and an affirmation of black humanity, is thick throughout this album. Apparently the residue of being descendants of the people that literally built the United States of America, and yet are historically under credited, is heavy. Solange is intentional in how she arranged her music, as “Rise” is almost an overture of the album. “Fall in your ways / so you can sleep at night”, airy and simple, with just a piano, kick drum and synth, the track asks the listener to be honest about who they are, so that they can sleep at night, wake up and rise. Rise possibly meaning ascension in this context.  It is from this proclamation of honesty we get into “Weary”.

This song, like the Mr. Krabs blurry meme and Arthur fist meme has managed to sum up 2016. We’re are all tired and angry and those who are unaware are confused as to how we even got to this current state of the world. She speaks of going to look for her body and glory in the chorus in regards to the appropriation of the black female body. Since the creation of this country, it’s been bought and sold, commoditized and consumed, worn as costume and used for experimentation. Our bodies have truly never been ours, as black women. In our own communities we’ve never been free to own and exist in our own bodies on our terms. The great poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, wrote the poem “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” for the lady in green in her seminal “for Colored Girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf”. This song is a direct heir of that poem. Now go do your Googles. The heaviness of “going to look for your body” as a woman, is perilous because from the day you’re born with a vagina, or decide that you want to get one made, is the fact that you will face a lot of bullshit. “You’re leaving/ not a trace in the world” Solange sings, and everyday black and brown girls go missing and are met with radio silence. There are about 64,000 black women missing in the United States of America right now, whose gonna look for your body? Solange evokes, Fannie Lou Hammer’s infamous quote “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” on this track, and the congregation says, “Amen.”

 
 

From there we’re carried into the beautifully soft existential crisis that is “Cranes in the Sky”, where Solange makes us all question our own behavior. Co-produced by Raphael Saadiq, it is an extremely personal and poetic song, that was actually written 8 years ago. I think it should be a Grammy contender. Solange sings of an “it” that we have all been trying to cure. Working out, buying clothes, traveling, all the things that the world say will make us feel better, just isn’t working. How many ways can you try and “[insert action] a feeling away? The cleverness of this song is that the “it” is elusive and never named but we all know what it is. I’ve never heard depression sung so beautifully. Some may assume that a failed romantic love caused this crisis, because Solange is a woman and that patriarchal juice is strong. But nevertheless, the following interlude gives context.

In the interlude “Dad was Mad” Solanges’ father Matthew Knowles recants his experience of integrating his school as a child and the anger that he lived with as result transitions into the Lil Wayne assisted track “Mad”. “Mad” a very literal song, adds context to the general tone of her album, if you haven’t figured out that this album is about Solanges’ personal life as well as the shared black experience. Since Barack Obama has been President, people have been putting words together that make no sense, like “post” and “racial” and “reverse” and “racism”. It seems Solange is just as flabbergasted as the rest of us as to how we’ve reached a point where people aren’t allowed to be angry at their experienced injustice, just because Barack Obama is president. Tweet’s ethereal voice plainly states, “I’ve got a lot to be mad about.” And we all know exactly what she’s talking about. The bluntness of this song juxtaposed with the silkiness of Solange and Tweet’s voice helps us all swallow a bitter pill of reality.

This part of the album, gets less philosophical and more literal as Solange moves away from alluding to depression and sadness to straight up naming her pain and the perpetrators of the offense. “Don’t You Wait” an upbeat track, more sonically aligned to her TRUE EP sound, talks about “biting the hand that feeds you” and no longer wanting to waste time by knowing someone. This record is in direct response to one of the many infamous twitter rants Solange gave earlier in the year. Jon Caramanica a NYT music journalist, stressed that Solange may run the risk of biting the hands that feeds her, in regards to her stance on who can critique R&B music and black culture. Jon implied that Solange needs her white indie fan base to exist. In a sense, “Don’t You Wait”, is a good bye kiss to the whiteness Solange may have found herself immersed in while creating TRUE and living in Brooklyn. If this is true, her move to the south around 2013 could have lead to the following track, “Don’t Touch My Hair”.

 
 

This gem on the album is a read that only a black woman could deliver. White people literally have no understanding of the complexity of black hair. From the texture to the way it stands up instead of falling limp, Solange sings “they don’t understand/ what it means to me/ where we chose to go/ where we’ve been, to know” Slaves once braided paths to freedom into each other’s heads. Now Kim Kardashian is being credited for a style that literally cost tears. As a young black girl, you sat in between your mother’s leg, or whoever was doing it and cried because combing through kinky hair hurts. It hurts your scalp and it hurts whoever is combing your hair to watch your cry, but it’s a necessary evil because black hair must be tamed and controlled.  It’s infuriating. This country literally writes laws about how we can wear it. The recent decision that makes bans on dreadlocks legal in 2016 is nothing but a child of the ban that women of color in the 1800s faced. They were forced to cover their hair in public to control the growing influence of free blacks in Louisiana as well as keep white men’s sexual desires and white women’s’ jealousy at bay.

“I rode the ride/I gave it time” makes me think of that perilous time in a black girl's  life when she cuts the perm out of her hair and has to watch her natural texture, which has become unnatural to her by now, “grow out”. She literally has to give her hair time to grow. And it’s indeed a “ride” to have short kinky hair. She may lose her lover, her job, her self esteem. She’s risking a lot to be herself. So when she has to watch videos of white women creating weird ass “afros” and being called avant-garde for it, it’s nauseating. But Solange delivers this sentiment  soulfully and gracefully. Her voice is soft and the horns are smooth and the commands to not touch certain aspects of our culture, like our voice and our soul are delivered seamlessly over cowbells. Fucking cowbells. How can Solange encapsulate peak American blackness so well? Just when you think you’ve reached the climax she makes a subtle turn into the image heavy ballad, “Where Do We Go”.

In an interview with Saint Heron, Solanges’ mother Tina Knowles talks about how her family ended up in Texas. Mama Tina’s parents were run out of New Iberia, Louisiana after a mining incident that trapped her father. The mining company left her father and another man to die. Luckily half of the miners were related to Tina’s father and they rescued him. Unfortunately, this resulted in the termination of half of the family from the company for “breaking the rules”. In a classic power move, the mining company then rehired half of the family, which successfully divided the family, as the employed family members were no longer allowed to interact with the unemployed. “A molotov cocktail was actually thrown into my parents’ home, and at that moment they decided to leave for Galveston” says Tina Lawson in the interview. The lyrics “No I don’t know where to do/No, I don’t know where to stay” could be Solange channeling her grand parents anxiety over their sudden displacement. The song could also be used to talk about the violent gentrification that major cities around the world are facing right now. Solanges’ personal experiences are mirroring the state of the world in a way that makes this album feel formative. “We bowed our heads/We broke our bread that night/Shook our hands/Then conquer and divide” is a lyric about how the mining company disrupted her family. But it could also be talking about the history of Thanksgiving, easily. It’s her ability to be speaking about a very specific personal issue while simultaneously recanting historical events that makes this album Solanges’ showcase of how far she’s come as a songwriter and artist. She wrote and arranged every song on this album. And she’s really proud of the work she and her artistic partners have done. So much so that she made, “F.U.B.U”.

Co-produced and written by the Dream, “F. U. B. U.” is an acronym, For Us, By Us, which was the name of a black owned clothing company in the 1990s. “F.U.B.U” is another literal song. She starts the song by speaking to “all her niggas, in the whole wide world” and goes on to talk about how this shit is for us, by us. The “shit” could mean a lot of things, music, dance, art, peanut butter, all things that were created by black people belong to black people and shouldn’t be touched. Frankly, Solange is no longer with the shits. The shits being the blatant theft of black culture. I vote that F.U.B.U be entered into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Solange being an intentional artist and healer takes us out of the heavy emotion that  “Don’t Touch my Hair” “Where Do We Go” and “F.U.B.U” places us in. Just when you’re ready to curse out all your white co workers, she slides us into the up tempo track, “Borderline” co-produced by Q-Tip.

When you’ve “been more than a woman” and “lovers on a mission” sometimes you need a safe space to relax and “take an intermission”. Thus the shift into self care begins with much help from the Aaliyah sampled track. (RIP BabyGirl). Sonically Solange leaves the somber and heaviness of the beginning of the album on “Borderline” which, interestingly makes us feel borderline, to be going from tears to dancing in two songs. It’s an heir to Maya Angelou’s poem, Weekend Glory, which talks about the glory that is to be black on a Saturday night. The mood continues into the next track.

“Junie” the Andre 3000 assisted up tempo song is an ode to Junie Morrison, a legend in the music game and former member of the Ohio Players and Parliament Funkadelic. Although the mood is light and funky, Solange still manages to get some jabs at white supremacy in with the lyrics, “You want to be the teacher/ Don’t want to go to school/ Don’t want to do the dishes/ Just want to eat the food”. Even while caring for self and enjoying the glory that is to be black on a Saturday night, Solange is quick to remind you that even when she’s enjoying herself she knows what’s really going on in the world right now. “Don’t Wish Me Well” is another drop in the no fucks given bucket. She seems to be speaking directly to all her critics. She says she’s going all the way, but she’ll leave on the lights and mic for “you.” “You” being the world at large. That critic. Those who always have something to say. She’s stated her case with this album and she’s standing her ground.  She knows you’ll have something to say, but she’s already moving on to her next creative endeavor.

The last song “Scales” featuring Kelela is a dreamy track that makes you want to make out in a car. It seems to be an ode to young black men, specifically the kind of young black men who are targeted by the police. “Look on the TV/they all want to be me” Solange sings in a sweet falsetto commenting on the avid consumerism of black urban culture. This admission makes the presence of Master P, the great rap tycoon who revolutionized the way hip hop made money off itself, all the more empowering. Narrating the album in an Morgan Freeman God like voice, he talks about how watching the Avon lady in his neighborhood pop her trunk to sell her product influenced him to sell his music the same way, despite being offered a million dollars from a record company. Betting on himself, because he knew the white music exec was underestimating his worth he went on to start his own label amongst other things, and went on to make Forbes 40 under 40 list. His tales of entrepreneurship add empowerment to an otherwise frustratingly honest album about the unique and complicated experience of being black in the present day United States of America.

Revolutionary, this album is not. It’s not even revolutionary for Solange whose voice has always been rebellious and at times almost bratty. Being the sister of Beyoncé, allows one to live in a very interesting space. “I mirror the life of a millionaire/and I’m sorry if I’m talking shit/ but I really do mean well” she sang on her first track “God Given Name” from her album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. She’s managed to be accepted by the indie crowds while not actually being fully indie, at least financially. But she talks like she’s independent, because she is. She doesn’t have much to lose when it comes to her artistry. She’s the little sister of Beyonce, that will always loom over her and financially protect her.  But that’s why she was able to make “A Seat at the Table”. An album full of sentiment that I’m sure every black pop artist has felt while existing in the industry. The fact that it resonates so earnestly with other facets of black life is simply fate.  This album is what happens when artists are given space and freedom to express what’s really going on without fear of backlash. “A Seat at the Table” is a beautiful musing on black existentialism for black girls who are angry when being Beyoncé’s sister isn’t enough to protect you from the bullshit of white supremacy.