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Solange: A Seat at the Table

Solange: A Seat at the Table

The South molds you to deal with racism directly, in flat terms. If you can’t, you suffer.

Solange: A Seat at the Table

4.5 / 5

Depending on where you are in this country, anti-Black racism is employed to varying degrees. As a Black man, living in the South for the majority of my life, I have understood racism in plain-speak. Paved highways turned to dirt roads on long car rides from Houston to Pinola, Mississippi; passing Confederate flags and old farmer’s markets where, as my mother would explain, Black people were not allowed entrance for fear of violence or death. Racism is simple there; there isn’t any purse clutching, no side-eyeing glare. There is only “get out or you will bleed.” I’ve met people who honestly prefer this kind of racism–“at least we know where we stand”–opposed to the more liberal variety. The latter is all about reading through the insidious subtext of integration, rejection from potential places of employment because of my ethnic name, or the passive aggressive shock of Black “eloquence.” It’s always a surprise when you’re ‘not like the rest of the niggas.’

The South molds you to deal with racism directly, in flat terms. If you can’t, you suffer.

The first thing that struck me in Solange’s third album, A Seat at the Table, is its piercing plain-speak. The album was written over an extensive amount of time (some songs stretching back as far as eight years) and composed in New Iberia, Louisiana; an intentional locale as the artist wanted to feel the energy of her ancestors while working on it. Though her previous work, 2008’s “Fuck the Industry (Signed Sincerely) and her 2012 album, True, features straight-talk– (“Some Things Never Fucking Work”)–A Seat at the Table is the most forward she’s ever been. Along for the ride is album narrator, Master P, fleshing out the evolution towards Black triumph by retelling his own rise into Black mythic figure. If it’s not clear to you right off the bat that this album is about Blackness, in all of its complications and accomplishments, then it’s probably because you really didn’t want to understand in the first place.

Solange removes the fluff immediately, describing the act itself as a process of evolving on “Rise,”–“Fall in your ways, so you can crumble/Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.Waking up, though described here as a personal journey, is the first use of code, signaling the necessity of a Black consciousness–code that any Black person who’s unlearned the trauma of internalized racism would understand. The code, transmitted through staccato drum patterning by Questlove, is accentuated by precise silences. The word, “crumble,” made all the more important by sharp snare strikes, gives way to a stark quietness. The tactic would pop up again on “Weary,” — a track that finds the artist struggling with the feeling of belonging in a country that ultimately wants her either marginalized or dead — “Be leery, of your place in the world.” She reconciles social marginalization by inquiring, “Do you belong?” with another percussive lick giving way to the declarative, “I do.” And Solange leaves it right there, no need to explain her existence and significance any further. She’s important, we are important, simply because we exist.

There is a schizophrenia undergirding A Seat at the Table; one that comes with the burdening knowledge of Black indelible beauty in the midst of a violent struggle for livelihood. Solange’s mother, Tina Lawson, describes it perfectly — “There’s so much beauty in being Black and that’s the thing, I guess, I get emotional about because I’ve always known that.” “Cranes” with its tender strings and Solange’s peaking vocals insinuates the inability for Black people to avoid the hateful gaze of an anti-Black world, “I tried to drink it away…I tried to keep myself busy…I traveled 70 states.” But there isn’t any running away, the “cranes” will always be in the sky, we’ve just got to find beauty in our collective tragedy.

The album is composed (by Solange, herself) masterfully. One idea–for example, that of hopelessness in “Cranes”–cascades seamlessly into the next–madness. As Solange’s voice whistles, “Away,” her father’s fills the space with a disturbing narrative chronicling the hysteria of Civil Rights era protest in the South and its manic results. What follows is a stunning triumvirate (“Mad,” “Don’t You Wait,” and “Don’t Touch My Hair”) of bracing independence. “Mad” dispels the notion that Black folk should be satisfied with an illusory semblance of freedom, while “Don’t You Wait” places its crosshairs on white critics who claim Solange should be grateful to them for her rise to prominence. “Don’t Touch My Hair” finds Solange calling out white fascination with Black hair as an objectifying macro-aggression against Blackness, while laying claim to its versatility and magic as characteristics inherent within the Black body. Solange stretches the feeling of dissatisfaction over three songs, flipping perspectives while remaining within the heat of Negritude. She tried to get along in the white world, she “rode the ride” and “gave it time” but, realizing that she would never be whole in their eyes; Solange instead grabs the globe on her shoulders and claims it as her own, “this here is mine.

The back half of the album represents the love of Black grace in its most triumphant form. Following the bombastic horns carrying “Don’t Touch My Hair” into Master P’s “This Moment” interlude, Q-Tip’s drumming patterns become the highlight of the show. They march alongside John Kirby’s careening piano on the unapologetic “Where Do We Go.” On “Borderline (Ode to Self-Care)” Q-Tip’s drum takes on a character of its own, a rhythm in the foreground compelling us to let our feet do the healing work necessary for our survival. The funky synthesizer on “Junie” feels like a form-busting ode to the Sun Ra Arkestra, blasting off into the purple crest of the sky before coming down just low enough to remind copycat culture vultures that they’re “a fool” if they think they can do it like us.

On A Seat at the Table, Solange with an expansive mix of features and co-producers, continues a legacy of Black cultural production that is not just self-referentially critical, but peaks in spiritual and emotional transcendence. There’s a power in knowing that her ancestors that she can name have walked on the ground she walks on. It is the reason that knowledge is feared and revered, why that history has been stolen from us. On “F.U.B.U.,” she invokes not only the popular Black fashion line but also the historical realization that everything we’ve touched, from music to fashion, to literature and leadership, turns to gold. We hardly get to experience the reward of our remarkable output though we are endlessly relied upon to push our country forward. So here we are, once again, looking towards a future that we’re already in the process of creating for ourselves. Just waiting for the world to pull up a chair.

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