2016 has been a year of tectonic shifts — politically, culturally, societally — but it would be wrong to assume that those were staggering accidents, avalanches caused by a single gunshot. Rather, what was years in the making has been revealed. What was, perhaps, an inevitable reaction to the changes became apparent. As America went through the 2016 presidential election, the world watched how racist, sexist, inherently aggressive demagoguery officially qualified as ‘the lesser of two evils’.
The election of Obama in 2008 was an instant temporal jump for everyone who grew up with the Hollywood trope of having a black president ca. year 2256. Just like that, with Siri and self-driving cars, we were transported into the future. However, for those who had been racially profiled, frisked, treated as second-class citizens, the first black President of the United States meant more: a civil rights victory, progress and validation. What does the success of Donald Trump mean then?
Not unlike election results, although musical records appear at once and are accepted or rejected within days, the work on them lasts a while. Solange Knowles started writing her third studio album in 2008. A Seat at the Table was subsequently released on September 30th, 2016 — in the year that already delivered Freetown Sound and Lemonade. This time, as her older sister Beyoncé, Solange Knowles sings about being black — particularly, being a black woman — here and now. The themes of rage, despair, and empowerment will be familiar to the fans of Queen Bey. Yet, the take on those themes, the sound and the mood are different.
A Seat at the Table is a concept album, and one of those I am looking forward to having on vinyl. Stylistically, it is soul and R&B, but the sound varies from track to track, collaborators, from Lil Wayne to Kelly Rowland to Sampha. The eighteen songs are interspersed with speech, bits of electronic and psychedelic soul music. It is a singularly regal, solid record that is powerful and above the noise, accepting and grieving, healing and searching.
The title, A Seat at the Table, is a reference to familial history, to the culture of sharing the space, the meal, the trust. In her interview with NPR Music Solange says:
I think that title has a lot of different subtexts. I think one of the seats at the table is also saying that, you know, I’m inviting you to have a seat at my table. And it’s an honor to be able to have a seat at our table and for us to open up in this way and for us to feel safe enough to have these conversations and share them with you.
The phrase also brings to mind the Last Supper, mentioned by Solange herself in the same interview, and this part of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I am writing this review external to the dialogue, to the continent, to black culture — but if there is a quality that art has it is in making us feel. One does not need to have the same experience to be able to empathise or enjoy the music, but I recognise that with many listeners A Seat at the Table will resonate in ways it does not for me.
Image from the A Seat at the Table art book accompanying the album. The repeated line reads, ‘bite the hand’.
As much as it is about grief, the album is about empowerment. When speaking about black culture, music becomes an incredibly vigorous and diverse vehicle, at once the medium and the message.
Solange goes from the meditative lullaby-like ‘Rise’, inspired by the police killings in Ferguson and Baltimore and the subsequent protests, to ‘Mad’ — a dialogue between the singer and Lil Wayne. The ‘I’ve got a lot to be mad about’ refrain rings undeniably true, thus making the discord between partners in the song inescapable. It is a tragic piece about how ‘woman is the nigger of the world’ and how, when the woman happens to be black, the metaphor gets even sharper.
In a detailed interview with Stereogum, Solange talks about her musical influences and the journey that making this record had been, both literally and metaphorically. There is a list of artists and songs (with links!) that you can explore if you are interested in the album’s background: Lauryn Hill and Kanye West, Syreeta Wright and D’Angelo. Despite the variety of style, A Seat at the Table is not a collage; it sounds like a single piece of art, from the first second to the last, since whatever influences there had been, they were processed and developed into songs new and original.
Solange had previously released two studio albums, Solo Star (2003) and Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (2008). A Seat at the Table is, however, my introduction to her discography, and I suspect that now going in the reverse chronological order will be something of a disappointment. A Seat at the Table is a message delivered just the right way, music that is not demanding but quietly powerful. It is about radical self-acceptance and it is beautiful.
Discography: Solange, A Seat at the Table. United States. Released on Saint Records and Columbia Records from September 30th, 2016. (On AllMusic)
Current album: Solange, A Seat at the Table
Current book: Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures
Current TV series: Planet Earth II, Series 1 (2016)