This is a guest post written by Ambrielle Moore
“If you don’t understand my record, then you don’t understand me. So this is not for you.”
It’s been a pivotal, powerful year for black women. This album follows Anti (Rihanna), Lemonade (Beyoncé), and Telefone (Noname). It follows Jesse Williams’ BET Awards shout out. It follows Diamond Reynolds. It follows Solange’s own essay, penned after an experience all too many black women recognized. Most of all, this work follows our country’s ever-intensifying social climate as more black people are killed by law enforcement, and an openly racist, misogynistic millionaire inches closer to the White House. As a black woman, the context of this release feels significant. We needed this album in 2016, a year where, as a collective, it’s become crucial to express (in as many ways as possible) a simple, freeing, unapologetic statement: “I love my blackness. And yours.”
This album–like other black works of art this year–issues a personal narrative that expands a greater story on blackness, bringing to light the depths of our pain and experience rarely seen in the mainstream. Art in 2016 has allowed black people (especially black women) to explore, dissect and express a quiet internal storm that’s been building for some time now. As a conceptual work, then, A Seat at the Table succeeds in depicting a once overlooked but increasingly relevant character: the black woman. It is a complete and detailed exploration of that story, and though I imagine it will be educational to many, it is also a love letter in our own language–it does not pander, nor does it spell out obvious and accepted truths. Solange says quite frankly that this is an album for us, by us (see tracks 12 and 13). There are blanks that as a black woman, you fill in easily. Listening to this album is being in conversation with the artist herself, lamenting a shared struggle. Listening to this work as a young black woman is to be seen.
Other songs on the album, though, are clear messages to non-blacks (from a female black perspective). “Don’t Touch My Hair” is the clearest example when she says, “They don’t understand what it means to be me,” and follows up by equating her hair to a “crown” or “pride,” taking back the dignity and humanity often lost in awkward social encounters with non-blacks who confuse black women with friendly poodles or public property. For the black woman, hair is political and consuming in many ways. It’s not accidental that the cover art for this is a headshot of the artist with hair undone, clips strewn in. It’s vulnerable and purposeful and honest.
Let’s talk about the damn interludes though–because they’re flawless. The excerpts of conversation flow and carry the listener through, bridging gaps between songs thoughtfully. Through these smooth speaking transitions, Solange clearly states that this is a complete aural essay. This album deserves a thorough listen, complete and uninterrupted. A Seat at the Table should come on vinyl or cassette or as one giant song–shuffling a work like this should be sacrilege. Unlike a recent album by another important black visionary, I have zero desire to skip through these excerpts, because they matter and, most of all, they’re just pleasant to the ears. You don’t have to overthink them as they’re curated and direct, feeling more like source material introducing or expanding the adjacent tracks. With these clips, Solange proves her attention to detail and her penchant for easy, organic storytelling.
The best part about A Seat at the Table, though, is Solange’s pervasive calm. As the tracks progress, what is, admittedly, her signature and evolving aesthetic starts to feel like a purposeful critique of the angry black woman stereotype. The Mad Black Woman archetype is enforced by memes and movies which make light of her. There exists a whole world of reasons black women have to be angry, as James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” That goes double for black women. If Lemonade embraces the spirit of that anger and that life by reclaiming it–smashing car windows and getting in formation–then A Seat at the Table subverts it. “Mad,” which may be my favorite track, is the best example of this, where a grooving slow tempo carries Solange’s high angelic voice as it delivers truthful frustration. She repeats, “I got a lot to be mad about,” carefully and calmly stating a fact modern black women rarely allow themselves to admit in mixed company. In predominantly white spaces, where many of us function on a daily basis, black women feel a pressure to avoid being labeled an angry black woman, and thus overcompensate with saccharine obedience. If you’ve ever been the black girl in an office, or classroom, or concert, then you know exactly what she means when she finishes the track:
I ran into this girl, I said, “I’m tired of explaining.”
Man, this shit is draining
But I’m not really allowed to be mad.
This track applies to a feeling of “other” and a feeling of exclusion and a pressure to be the opposite of what people expect of you. She drops this truth bomb about the number one black girl frustration, but delivers it with this slow, beautiful cadence and a damn near chilling Weezy verse.
While “Mad” portrays the stifled anger of a black woman, “Cranes in the Sky” breaks down another archetype in the Strong Black Woman. It is a role we are expected to fill as well, an unfair responsibility to provide strength for others–black men, children, bosses and friends. Think of the black best friend in any TV show. Think of every black woman who has to speak about the death of her child or husband in another shooting. Think of the often portrayed black matriarch working as a maid or cook. Black women are expected to be strong in the face of their own struggles and everyone else’s too. Cranes in the Sky could be in response to any myriad of heartbreaks, a romantic loss, a general feeling of exclusion, another televised death. It exposes the vulnerable playbook of coping mechanisms that Solange employs in the face of her own everyday trials. Her strengths fail, and no matter the medium, her melancholy persists. If a Knowles can admit the cracks in her armor, perhaps other strong black women can find solace in a strength that wavers. Instead of being “a strong black woman that don’t need no man,” A Seat at the Table gives us permission to be human in the various ways that somehow seem to exist for everyone else.
I think that’s what this album does so well. Solange dismantles the many myths black women share by humanizing our struggle, celebrating our magic, and building up our beauty.
–Written by Ambrielle Moore