We are stupidly lucky in our current time. There is a new dialogue of the politics of inclusiveness, race, gender, sexuality and the dream of equality happening in this world. It’s everywhere. The information age’s cuddly, cumbersome blanket of worldwide connection with your fellow man and woman has opened a window into experiences outside of the mainstream and we are closer to understanding each other on a mass scale than ever before, yet something’s still not quite right.
Black people are still being gunned down, profiled and frisked in the streets worldwide. Blackface is still utilised casually at parties, projecting decadent and destructive behaviours onto the idea of the black body and mind. Women are used to a “kind of equal but not really” situation in our society, and what about black women? The fashion and beauty industries seem hell bent on telling them that they are not beautiful, encouraging a tender and whispered low key assimilation through skin bleaching, hair treatments and wigs.
When they want to speak on the frustration of this experience, why are they dismissed as aggressive, angry, intimidating and even racist? Even passionate allies to the experience of otherness and equality are derided as overtly pushy “social justice warriors”, when really they just want the same kind of peace thing as all of us, right? Why is sincerity in your plea for equality a joke now? Why is being vocal about your experience taboo?
Enter Solange Knowles.
Musically, A Seat At The Table pulls from funk, hip-hop, soul, R&B and occasionally sprinkles a light dusting of dancehall into the mix. It is mixed to a minimalistic, metallic shine, but remains warm, cosy and most of all, extremely intimate. It bounces and reverberates with an ebb and flow that sounds at once like it could have been recorded in Solange’s own front room as much as in an old, unused concert hall. Solange’s voice is at once tender, vulnerable and immediate; pretty much the perfect conduit for the beauty, pride and joy of blackness, yet also the grief, exhaustion and sometimes, intensity of the black experience.
The raw honesty and sincerity of this record is pretty much infallible, much like its long list of collaborators, including Raphael Saadiq, Q-Tip, Master P, Questlove, Sampha, Troy Johnson, David Sitek and Kwes. To know how many luminaries have jumped in on this record and then hearing the production, it becomes evident that each and every person involved in ASATT knew that these stories had to be told with as much rawness, tenderness and fidelity as a phone shot video of a peaceful protest.
ASATT has been in the works since 2013, and given the above, it could be observed that even though tracks such as Rise, Cranes in the Sky, Don’t You Wait, Don’t Touch My Hair, Junie and Borderline (An Ode To Self Love) are titans in terms of the more literal, transparent deliveries of their themes, this isn’t so much a “stand out tracks” album. This has to be taken from beginning to end, as a whole, and amazingly, it’s not frontloaded in its thematic power; this is an extremely well rounded discussion of the black experience. Every track and interlude here is absolutely essential.
For reference though, let’s quickly talk about Don’t Touch My Hair – a discussion at once of black pride and the fetishization of the black body; a forerunner for the most thematically transparent track on the record, perhaps, but then again, the different portrayals of the black experience will speak to each person differently here. This track lays down a key point in the discussion of the way black culture is perceived by society – Solange says, “Don’t touch my hair, when it’s the feelings I wear […] This hair is my shit, I rode the ride, I gave it time, but this here is mine.”
The hair is an extremely meaningful thing in black culture; its intrinsically black texture and beauty makes for malleability and a wide range of styles. It takes love, time and care to maintain. Solange begs the question, firstly, as a human, would you like it if someone, maybe even a stranger, randomly came up and touched your head? But also, what if they ruined something you had nurtured as an extension of the self? If they felt entitled to mess with something that wasn’t theirs? If they felt, somehow, that your status as a black person, an other, with a different hair texture, gave them the hegemonic right to touch you?
ASATT is a hugely important record in the continuing dialogue on the experience of black people in our modern time. Musically, it is a lesson on how to slay, using intimate, achingly poetic groove laden candlelight funk. But thematically, ASATT is a celebration of black culture and a comforting embrace to those frustrated by the outside perception, appropriation and misunderstanding of blackness and black history. ASATT is a maternal, comforting whisper that says “Of course you’re angry, and of course you’re sad. A lot of people are going to perpetuate this grief in you. But you are allowed to love yourself and you are allowed to love your people.” Do yourself a favour. If you want to know more about the black experience, or you want your own experiences validated, then go home and listen to this album, immediately.