"A Seat at the Table", AKA Lemonade on Steroids.
What is it that gives you purpose? What is it that helps you figure out your place in the world to understand yourself? What is it that connects you - to you? Although looking at your reflection is a powerful tool for self-identification and is a tangible reality of your existence, finding who you are through something else - through someone else - is even more of a treasure. When there is someone else out there that has fought your fight, that has won a battle that you have yet surpassed, that has laid beside you equally paralyzed by life's trauma, pain, anxiety and fear, it causes a confrontation with yourself that you can’t achieve through looking in the mirror's reflection. When someone finally cries out for something that has left them festering in solitude and people not only hear, but also listen to it, there’s movement, there’s progression. Progression in who you are and what you mean.
In that time of solitude, music is what lends a hand. It exposes everything that has been repressed and bottled up by experiences that have hindered self-evaluation and awareness. Music plays out as mantras in everyday life and succeeds in confirming one’s ideas, experiences, and feelings.
When I first heard Solange’s most recent album, A Seat at the Table, it was as if someone had finally listened to me for the first time in my life. It was as if someone recognized my pain and wanted to acknowledge the experiences that have haunted me for as long as I could remember. For the first time, in a long time, someone had gathered the courage and the audacity to share my story in the most unapologetic way and it had me floating above the ground, craving for more. When the album came to an end, I found myself sad, but nevertheless so incredibly full of hope and progression. As a black woman, I felt deeply cared for and genuinely represented, which is something that has always been missing.
The album was rich and vividly alive due to its fantastic production and mastering. Although the overall sound of the album was more a mellow and slow tempo feel, it still had me head banging it out. The beats were, as I like to call them, beautifully thuggish and had me riding through my racially ambiguous neighborhood with my windows down, seat a little further back than usual, one hand on my steering wheel, riding real slow, blasting it out my speakers as I rode through the streets. It had me feeling unstoppable and proud of my black femininity.
Much of the album is about self-empowerment, reflection, and growth. The first time I heard "Cranes in the Sky", it was as if I had the wind knocked out of me from someone exposing one of my deepest secrets. In the 3rd and 4th verse of the song she sings, “I tried to run it away/ thought then my head be feeling clearer/ I traveled 70 states/ thought moving round make me feel better/ I tried to let go my lover/ thought if I was alone then maybe I could recover/ to write it away or cry it away/ don’t you cry baby/ away”. To the general population, it may have come across as just another sad song, but to me, it was the most immaculate thing I’ve heard in years. Let me explain: in the black community we are constantly told to just “stand up and brush it off”, or “things could be much worse”, or “be strong, don’t cry or show your weakness”, and we say these things unknowingly to the point that it is detrimental to our mental health. Even more so, as a black woman, there is this preconceived idea that we must be hard and resistant, “a strong black woman”, with the implications of not wanting or being able to show our pain, exhaustion, and vulnerability. This song embodied all the tears and heartache that the black woman has suppressed all her life. It shows the reality of so many things within our community and the standards that we try to live up to that, in my opinion, cause more harm than good, for we are human and cannot be confined to act a certain way.
Similarly, the sixth track on the album entitled, "Mad", featuring New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, reiterated the internal black struggle of acting like everything is okay when things are not within and outside of the community. As Solange puts it, “I got a lot to be mad about”. In the song, Solange writes about encounters she has had wherein she was criticized for not complying with something that had enraged her and her unwillingness to “let it go”. Lil Wayne, too, shows his lack of conformity by illuminating the truth of his mental health issues. As a black man who has been told to never show emotion or vulnerability, he too has a lot to be mad about. In the second verse of the song, Wayne states, “But it's hard when you only got fans around and no fam around/ And if they are, then their hands are out/ And they pointing fingers/ When I wear this fucking burden on my back like a motherfucking cap and gown/ Then I walk up in the bank, pants sagging down/ And I laugh at frowns, what they mad about? / Cause here come this motherfucker with this mass account/ That didn't wear cap and gown/ Are you mad 'cause the judge ain't give me more time?/ And when I attempted suicide, I didn't die/ I remember how mad I was on that day/ Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way/ Let it go, let it go”. Here, Wayne genuinely reveals his emotions about how it is to live as a black man in this current day and age. The reality of feeling alone, prejudged by others, dealing with depression, and being told to let it go, or as Solange puts it, “I’m not really allowed to be mad”.
This album offers a fantastic critique of what it is to be black in society. It continues to break down boundaries and prompts us to shape our own future. For a black man to go on record about his depression and attempted suicide is one large step toward evolving as an oppressed group of people. Especially for it to have come from such an influential man in our community believed to be strong, resilient, and tough. This is crucial for our culture because rather than perpetuating the idea that black men and people don’t struggle with mental health issues and can’t show their emotions, which is problematic, it serves as a real message to our community to be aware of our traumas and history and how they can seriously affect us (and have). Hopefully, it will serve as a push to help us heal together and be okay expressing our rage and sadness.
Unlike many other of Solange’s albums, this one was loud and political. Solange makes it very clear that this album is BLACK and has black pride written all over it, which I respect so much. She sings of the black woman’s biggest burden and pride - her hair. The ninth track on the album entitled, "Don’t Touch My Hair", for me, was such a powerful staple in the album. In a society that presses such euro-centric beliefs and values, the black woman’s hair has been a controversial issue and made out to be taboo for decades. I was told once that I didn’t have as good a work ethic as my other (white) co-workers because I wore my hair in a fro. When I was in middle school, I would cry and refuse to go to school if my hair wasn’t done up like white girls because that’s what was beautiful and thought to be “good hair”. I would do whatever it took to make my hair look as euro-centric as possible. For years, I have endured a great amount of stress and pain because of my hair, like people asking me questions about it as if I were an alien or people, without my consent, poking and grabbing at it as if it were a science experiment and I were an animal. I don’t think people realize how traumatizing these experiences can be for a young black woman. Growing up and never seeing beautiful pictures of people that look like you and feeling pressured to look like something you are not, because that’s what society has told you is “beautiful”, is detrimental to a person’s self-esteem and identity. For Solange to come out with this song was truly a saving grace and, as I viewed it, an ode to black women who deserve to be heard and spoken for and recognized for their natural beauty. It served as a message for those who find entitlement to touch our hair to, in layman’s terms, fuck off with their problematic, grimy hands.
All in all, because I could seriously write a 30-page essay on analyzing this amazing collection of work, Solange did more than tell her own story, she told our story - the black American story - and for that, she deserves to be highly acknowledged for her impeccable work and writing.
Solange, thank you for lending me a hand during my time of solitude and disdain toward myself. Thank you for helping me find my identity again. Thank you for sharing my story in the most artistic, concise, and thoughtful way. Thank you for paving a way for our women to heal, for our women to no longer be silenced, for our men to be critical of their mental health, for our men to acknowledge their strife, for our people to have pride in who we are, to let others know that we are kings and queens that come from a dark, yet rich history, to give ourselves the truth of who we are, to give ourselves our identity if it were ever lost and most importantly, to give others a seat at the table to better understand the black (woman) experience.
With that, I will leave y’all with the words from the last track on the album by Master P, “That’s what make my life complete, knowing that it's a higher being, a higher power, knowing that these people done paved they way. You know, our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers that came here, they found some kind of way to make the rhythm. You know, and they kept rhythm, no matter what/ Now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones”.