Solange's new album wasn't for me

You probably thought that the flood of reviews of Solange’s A Seat at the Table were over, but not quite. At nearly its month-aversary, I still find myself bumping A Seat at the Table  front to back. On my increasingly chilly walk to school, on my bed at midnight, as background music to a stressful group project. Yet, reflecting on the past month that has been coloured by Solange’s smooth vocals, something has become so clear. Solange’s new album wasn’t for me.

To elaborate, Solange’s album was not made for me. It does not reflect my reality or my experiences. As a white person, listening to Solange’s album feels like sneaking into a party I wasn’t invited to. It feels like eavesdropping at a door. This is a good thing, and perhaps a rare thing for someone who has had the privilege of their racial experience dominating the mainstream discourse, tastes, and norms of Western culture. For a white person listening to the messages in Solange’s album, it may feel scary to feel a sense of exclusion. This is purposeful and powerful. It is an ironic reflection of the exclusion that black people continue to deal with in North America, and especially in America, to this day. It is important for white people to experience this for once, and most importantly, it is necessary for us to listen. Listen to Solange’s album.

Solange’s album is a warm celebration of black excellence. Track 13, “F.U.B.U” or For Us By Us, is a reference to the successful FUBU label that has ties to the hip hop community and came to popularity in the 90s. The chorus repeats, “This shit is for us”, with us being the black community, making the song a space that is by and for the black community. A place where they can exist and be free without question, a place that is for them. The song goes on to describe the kind of daily discrimination black people face in snippets. Please listen to it. This is not a song that white people can really sing along to, and that’s okay. In fact, that is the point. “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along/Just be glad you got the whole wide world”.

An aspect that makes the album so powerful and outlines these messages are the interludes. Solange doesn’t speak for all black people, they speak for themselves. The interludes break the songs up with prominent and relevant black voices, including those of Solange’s parents.

In “Tina Taught Me”, Solange’s mother Tina Lawson says “What’s irritating is when somebody says, you know, ‘They’re racist!’ ‘That’s reverse racism!’ or ‘They have a Black History Month, but we don’t have a White History Month!’. Well, all we’ve ever been taught is white history, so why are you mad at that? Why does that makes you angry? That is to suppress me and to make me not be proud.”

Although this album is a conversation with the black listener, the conversations often discuss frustrations and negative interactions with non-black people. “Don’t Touch My Hair” is an anthem about owning and redefining black hair on its own terms. Black hairstyles have been fetishized and criticized, appropriated and then deemed inappropriate for the workplace. There is a cultural dichotomy that sees black hair as exotic, a spectacle, and untamed on a black person but on-trend and fashionable as soon as it is adopted by a white person, without any acknowledgment of the history behind the hairstyle.“They don’t understand/What it means to me/Where we chose to go/Where we’ve been to know.”

The same hairstyle that was deemed unacceptable for work by a non-black employer is oohed and ahhed over by a white girl on the subway home, who caresses a braid while making a mental note to look up a Youtube tutorial on cornrows when they get home. “Don’t Touch My Hair” takes ownership of black hair and black culture and firmly gives it back to the black person. “You know this hair is my shit/Rode the ride, I gave it time/But this hair is mine”.

There is so much more to the album that makes it a timely masterpiece of social commentary, but it is not my place to summarize it. It is my obligation to listen, and I suggest, yours as well. Even now, a month later, or even a year later; decades later. White people, listen intently with closed lips. Maybe you won’t be able to sing along, or relate, but maybe you will be able to learn something. I am not trying to attack you or criticize you, and neither is the artist, but I am simply asking you to listen. Hear the experiences and voices of the black community and learn. This album may not be made for you, but it is so crucial that you listen to it nonetheless. It’s purpose is not for you to identify your own experience but to understand another’s.

In an interview with W magazine, Solange said, “All that we can ever ask is that we as humans be sensitive to the oppression that we all play a role in. That’s been the tough thing to navigate, because we all have to have that uncomfortable moment with ourselves where we are honest with ourselves and realize what we have to do systemically change this place that we live on.”