by Ashley Elizabeth
Iâ€™ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
â€œEat in the kitchen,”
Theyâ€™ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamedâ€”
I, too, am America.
Langston Hughes penned the poignant “I, Too, Sing, America” nearly a century ago, and with Solange Knowle’s new offering, A Seat at the Table, the artist finds her rightful place in Hughesâ€™ vision of a triumphant tomorrow. Solange takes her seat at a pivotal time in entertainment history, beside an influx of artists celebrating black humanity in all its multi-faceted glory. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, Dâ€™Angelo, Donald Glover, Issa Rae, and big sister BeyoncÃ© Knowles have all put out works that offer refreshingly honest, unrepressed looks at black life in America. This ushering in of a new black awakening couldnâ€™t be more on-time, as the current climate in America features black people publicly perishing with alarming regularity. And so the theme of this current movementâ€”broader in scope than the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Power movementâ€”is simple yet sweeping: humanity in the key of black. We are human and we are black and we are here, steadily loosing ourselves the emotional and physical bondage that comes with the territory of being blessedly black in America. And here, in the midst of this movement affirming black life, is an acoustic open-book of Knowlesâ€™ life journey as she, a young black woman, navigates through this wild and weary world, ultimately claiming a seat in her own home.
ASATT opens with â€œRise,â€� a dreamy, chant-like introduction that begins with Solangeâ€™s floaty soprano singing â€œfall in your ways, so you can sleep at nightâ€� and ends with the declaration â€œwalk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise.â€� This message of being true to yourself through good and bad sets the tone for the beginning of the albumâ€™s focus on the quest for peace of mind. This message culminates with the first of several spoken interludes featuring No Limit founder and self-made mogul Percy â€œMaster Pâ€� Miller. His familiar southern baritone drawls, â€œEverybody is always talking about peace, but, as long you find peace in what you doing, then you successful, and that’s what people don’t realize. See, you gotta do stuff â€˜till where you can go sleep at night. Cause the glory is, is in you.â€� Solangeâ€™s decision to include Master P, an important Louisianan figure, stems from the Knowlesâ€™ familial ties to the state. Solangeâ€™s mother and maternal grandparents lived in the small city of New Iberia, and Solange made the trek back to her roots, choosing to record ASATT there. The saying â€œyou donâ€™t know where youâ€™re going until you know where youâ€™ve beenâ€� certainly rings true for Solange, who felt that the journey to self-discovery begins with recognizing where you come from.
The Master P interlude segues into the most moving piece on the album, â€œCranes in the Sky.â€� It opens with simple drums and beautifully melancholic strings while Solange wistfully lists the arbitrary measures she took to keep sadness at bay: â€œI ran my credit card bill up, thought a new dress would make it better. I tried to work it away, but that just made me even sadder.â€� The lyricsâ€”evocative of Nikki Giovanni in their complex simplicityâ€”succinctly express the underlying goal of trying to cover a gaping wound with a band-aid: attempting to seek peace through the confusion of distraction and self-medication.
We then begin the middle section with an interlude simply titled â€œDad was Mad.â€� In this brief moment between songs, we hear Solangeâ€™s father casually recounting the traumatic experience of being one of the first blacks to integrate a school in Alabama. After describing his childhood as filled with integration, segregation, and racism, he ends with â€œI was angry for years.â€� How often do we think of our parentsâ€™ experiences in the world and how they have molded them, ultimately shaping their children? Both in this brief interlude and in interviews, Solange brings up the oft-neglected issue of trauma in the black community being passed down through generations. She is doing the hard work required on the journey towards peace, and thus begins the sounds of blackness that are integral to the album.
This segment features tracks like â€œDonâ€™t You Wait,â€� a message to white critics objecting to the inclusion of race in ASATT, preferring the light-hearted, poppy Solange of 2012â€™s True. Thereâ€™s â€œDonâ€™t Touch My Hair,â€� a powerful message to those who feel as though black bodies are undeserving of boundaries and respect, a historical idea that dwells in the land of entitlement and lingers in every unpermitted touch of a perfectly picked-out afro. Solange ainâ€™t having it, which leads us into yet another great piece affirming our right to just be, â€œF.U.B.U.â€� Here Solange creates an aural â€œsafe space,â€� a term heavily mocked but needed in these times where black death is the order of the day. The opening melody features an uneasy chromaticism that eventually finds its tonal home at the end of the phrase, where the lyrics confidently resonate that â€œthis shit is for us.â€� The chorus declares, â€œAll my niggas in the whole wide world, made this song to make it all yâ€™allâ€™s turn, for us, this shit is for us.â€� Who wasnâ€™t rocking with FUBU in its glory days at the dawn of a new millennium? The big, bold logo proudly pronounced to the world that the men who made the clothes were us. Not an elderly white man, but four young black men who made us proud to rock their creations. Solange recreates this feeling of pride in â€œF.U.B.U.,â€� making it a standout track on ASATT.
Despite what the world may say, we must hold this truth to be self-evident. And Solangeâ€™s ASATT, a healing manual for black humanity, does a stupendous job of reminding us to take our rightful place at the table.
Ashley Elizabeth is a musician, educator, and writer from Tucson, AZ. She attended both Spelman College and The University of Arizona.