A Seat at the Table
With gentle integrity, Solange prepared for us an outlet through piano riffs, overlapping harmonic tones, nostalgic drum backdrops and self-reclaiming lyrics.
It's the kind of music that was summoned from our experiences and peeled from our perceptions. A Seat at the Table is a weathered and dried page ripped from our courage and set to easing tempos. Before "F.U.B.U." even played, I knew this shit was for us.
Days before the album’s release, Solange shared with us a tracklist map. It looked like something a physicist might draw up to explain trajectory. Song titles and features were strategically placed on an off-white page with lines swooping from one title to the next. It's this same degree of estimated arrangement that resonates in her expressive and dynamic fashion choices. What Solange does isn’t arbitrary, she meticulously pieces together a roadmap of artistry and social awareness with purpose and meaning. And her purpose is clear in her use of the words, US and WE, and OURS versus THEY.
A Seat at the Table is OUR safe space to talk how WE talk. To divulge the secrets of our personal frustrations. Frustrations that are echoed and understood throughout our community. It’s a controlled space where we can analyze our own existential identities without the side-eye of judgement toward our varied but valid perceptual natures. We can be pro-black and weary. Pro-black and mad. Pro-black and proud. WE aren’t tethered to a singular definition. A Seat at the Table is more than music. It’s a reflection, it’s a response, it’s for US.
We begin with “Rise,” a summons for us to fall into our vulnerabilities and use them to fortify our capacity. We fall into our ways to crumble, to sleep at night and of course wake up and rise just to fall our way through the cycle again. What I love most about this song is the break point. The expectant pause that lingers between the two stanzas. As listeners, we’re almost convinced that the song is over, but WE know we don't just fall. I was expectant for the strength that we all know is there, and when the break ends, we’re propelled by gentle drums, and now, it’s “walk in your ways.” Eventually, from experience we learn to walk in these vulnerabilities, and it’s the walking that opens the door for an elevated strength and purpose.
Weaved throughout are stories and words of wisdom seamlessly and thoughtfully integrated. Interludes from the magnificent Master P. carry his sweet southern drawl- and it's so damn refreshing to hear him tell his story. No Limits Records was a black owned record label founded by Master P. He was a game changer, a true master of his own, and his interludes highlight his strategy and knowledge. In this current renaissance of black pride, black people are taking the time to learn about and own our stories. We are finding and exploring beauty in parts of blackness that were once condemned. We are understanding the politics and economics behind where we spend our money and invest our efforts, and more than ever before, we are venturing out to build and spend with our own. The decision to highlight Master P. was key. He was a trendsetter who did not bow to the big white labels. He wanted what he created to be “For Us, By Us.” His first interlude is called, “The Glory is in You.” The title alone is self affirming, and the album continues to delight us with this theme.
Mathew Knowles and Tina Lawson both make candid appearances that resonate with current events. Matthew talks about his experience growing up at the intersection of integration, segregation and racism and how that junction provoked a great deal of anger in his life. Later, “Tina Taught Me,” put the spotlight on Tina Lawson’s views on black beauty, and her frustration with society's misunderstanding of the purpose and meaning of “black pride.” In the current realm of our country, Black pride has taken an alternate form in the Black Lives Matter movement, whose core purpose has been explicit, yet still misunderstood. At the core of this distinction is the white supremacists’ agenda to spread false propaganda about the means of an organization. Tina reminds us that, “the two (black pride and white pride) don't go together.” Changing the prefix changes the core definition of the movements’ purpose. Self love versus a pride that mirrors its power through hate.
Although the album is an endowment of unskippable craftful tracks, there are some fan favorites. "Don't Touch My Hair," has blown coconut oil winds into the spirits of black women and made our edges flourish. F.U.B.U. had us pridefully exclaiming, "all my niggas in the whole wide world," in the bathroom mirror, in the elevator, driving down the highway and every moment in between. But my favorites are "Mad" and "Where Do We Go."
In "Mad" we are in direct dialogue as she addresses a frustrating series of questions that denounce our anger as being dated, frivolous or unnecessary. Between breaks, her speaking voice halo's above the music as she declares, "I got a lot to be mad about." Lil' Wayne, Master P's fellow New Orleanian, makes an appearance. His verse strikes a key balance between anger and responsibility that serves as a hostile and misunderstood ground for people of color. "Got a lot to be mad about, got a lot to be a man about." We cast over our anger to serve our responsibilities, and all too often that anger stays bottled up for sake of others, for sake of how THEY feel. Too often our anger is left to fester with no outlet or space for respect or compassion. But anger has consequences as Solange notes. Eventually, “it only gets in the way.” Matthew Knowles pointed out in his interlude that anger can last a long time; years, sometimes a lifetime, but where’s the help? Where’s the rehab? On a later interlude, Master P. references the difference between issues within black and white communities. He chuckles about how white kids get to go to rehab and black kids are left the rehab themselves. And ultimately, there’s a frustrating truth that WE all know too well, "I'm not really allowed to be mad."
"Where Do We Go" struck me on various levels. Police brutality, Dakota Access Pipeline, gentrification and cultural appropriation sing through in brief montages capped by the disquieted question, "where do we go from here?" Physically, emotionally, spiritually, we’ve all wondered this exact question, and it’s left unanswered and open ended. We’re saying our goodbyes to the things, places and spaces that used to be ours, and now we don’t know where’s next, what’s next.
I touched on "Don't Touch My Hair," as being a fan favorite, but I need to get into the importance of it. The song uncorks with Solange's eloquent but fevert warning. She makes sure to delicately separate and exemplify the word hair. The separation is another example of purposeful arrangement that exposes the value and emphasis of the word. “Don’t Touch My Hair” is an artful response to those who say, "it's just hair." It’s in this song that her forthright distinction of THEY is so pronounced and reflective. "They don't understand what it means to me."
Black hair is deep seeded in the history of racism and colorism, yet it has managed to be both marginalized and stigmatized in society. Black hair has constantly been deemed as something that requires a certain level of obedience, sterilization and submission to keep within the complacency of the status quo. Our hair has been taken from us and mutilated, as our names and histories have been. It's not just hair: It's our feelings, our soul, our rhythm, our crown, our pride.
The Monday after the album’s release, Solange released the music videos for "Cranes in the Sky" and "Don't Touch My Hair." Nature’s elements, striking architecture and slow dreamy calculated movements united with numbed colors and melanin ranging from warm earth to honey bronze and golden dusk.
In "Don't Touch My Hair," Solange swung her head from side to side, as braids adorned in wooden beads bounced and swayed around her head. The finger waves, compact kinks and brimming styles are part of OUR culture, the elusive, ever-evolving culture that cannot be imitated or replicated, at least not without losing a part of the essence of origin. Each style, each strand, as unique and distinct as they each are, carries a royal notion of admirance, “You know this hair is my shit, rode the ride, I gave it time, but this here is mine.” While our hair does exist in the physical, is not something that can be touched.
The video is alive with black movement and black dance, sometimes so subtle yet so inherently black. I nearly lost my shit when Solange and her fellow carefree queens popped their hips out and pressed their palms into their knees as they let their necks roll with the natural trend setting sass that only a black women could so carefreely execute. Black men in tracksuits, played "air basketball," crossing up invisible opponents and shooting jump shots into a non-existent hoop. Movements we all know very well, movements that are part of US. Solange and Sampha enjoy a free form jam session, one that looks and feels familiar to us, because it is us. It’s the us when no one is around. The US, when it is just us. It’s a glimpse into our freedom.
On the "Interlude: For Us By Us," Master P. reminds us of what our culture is worth. What we are worth. He tells a story about how THEY will fool us out of OUR value if we don't know and respect ourselves. The commodity is the culture. Everything we do, breathe, think and enjoy breeds money. And while our culture may be intangible, our lives are not. Black lives are battered, murdered and forgotten yet they still want the culture without the bodies that make it what it is. Master P said it best, "if you don't understand us and understand what we been through, then you probably wouldn't understand what this moment is about."
The album concludes with “Scales” featuring Kelela, followed by an interlude by Master P., “The Chosen Ones.”
“Scales” is an ode to the black man. A look beyond his flashy exterior, a look beyond what THEY have to say about him. On “Scales” we are yet again reminded of the craving for our culture, our look and style. Even when our existence is saturated with negativity, we still have that thing that makes us the best; that thing that makes the root of our existence desirable. "You gon' end up like your daddy, but damn that nigga fresh; So if it all comes out to plan, you gon' end up like the best." All for nothing, THEY want to be like US, even if they don’t really want to be us.
“The Chosen Ones” begins with a sequence horns, a perfect declaration of royalty. Master P. fades in to talk about the legacy of rhythm within black people, a history of something that we have maintained and preserved, something that signifies that we are the chosen ones. The ones that possess something that they all want, but can never truly acquire.
A Seat At The Table is an album of declarative, self-reflecting and resonant statements. If you're still wondering who is at the table, it's probably not you.