Solange Knowles is in the business of telling the truth. While her new, Billboard busting album, ‘A Seat at the Table,’ delivered magical black girl mantras like ‘Don’t Touch My Hair,’ she says she simply “tried to write an album that reflected [her] truth…but if someone felt empowered by that situation, then that’s the best thing you could ever ask for.”
She said this on October 27 to a crowd of Stanford University students. The members of the audience were overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly black.
The reboot has clearly garnered the blessing of the music gods. Knowles and the Microphone Check duo were also joined by Melissa Harris-Perry, who is a bit of a griot herself. The former MSNBC host and New Orleans transplant has always been a professor. In all her roles, she uses her extensive knowledge of American political systems to direct young black women as they navigate their racial and gender identities. Harris-Perry, Kelley, and Muhammad helped guide the conversation in which Solange bravely divulged her process, inspirations, and insecurities. This is Solange on, well, everything:
On the concept of #blackgirlmagic: “I felt weird when that became a thing — that and #carefreeblackgirl. People project that on me and I felt like I have a lot of cares! And I don’t feel magical half the time, but I’ve come to realize we’re magical when we don’t think we are. I feel confident knowing that I can still be a hot ass mess sometimes and I can still project and exist in black girl magic. Thank you, girls out there on the internet. I didn’t go to college, so I do rely on the internet to expand me. So thank you for black girl magic.”
“I feel confident knowing that I can still be a hot ass mess sometimes and I can still project and exist in black girl magic.”
On formal education: “I had two very different parents when it came to education. My father was very academic. He was one of seven to integrate both his elementary and middle school. Because of that, he had a very complex relationship with education, but because of that, I think its very important for us to go to college. My mother, on the other hand, felt like she was a student of the world. She was a visionary and did not see the real meaning of college — if there was something else you could really work towards. My mother is the smartest woman I know.”
On her varied experiences with racism: “One of the interesting things about growing up in Houston, with two parents from the South, is I thought that I knew the language of racism. But when I moved to New York, I was confronting it in brand new ways. The South speaks a very specific language of racism in that it’s pretty clear — it’s pretty definitive. My third grade teacher told me the definition of a nigger in a predominately white class. I heard stories about my parents getting arrested while driving in Alabama, because the police thought my mother was a white woman. But in New York, it actually hurt more because I didn’t have the tools — the language — to communicate the [racist] things that would happen [to me]. The subtle things impacted me more because when you showcase to me this liberal, fair, educated person, someone who has had the resources necessary to be able to treat me with empathy, the way I should be treated, [and you don’t]…that hurt me more. I didn’t know what to do with that. I had to move back down south to reflect and differentiate what those two things felt like to me.”
“My third grade teacher told me the definition of a nigger in a predominately white class.”
On moving to New Orleans: “My mother had a complicated relationship with her Creole roots. I’m still kind of confused to be honest. It wasn’t a part of me that was celebrated, so I kinda wanted to immerse myself in that Louisiana culture. The soul, the richness, the perseverance. And to be honest, in NYC, I wasn’t getting what I was paying for.”
Harris-Perry, whose husband James led her to move to the city, responded, “I loved James and he loved New Orleans. I loved the city mostly through James. There’s no other place like it…but I find it to be a rejecting city of those of us who are not from there, and you can never be from there if you’re not from there. I find it hard to love things that don’t love me back. It’s already hard enough to love America and not have it love me back.”
Solange says her son Julez has had no problem finding acceptance in New Orleans.
“My son is a little older, and a boy, and he’s very ‘bout it.” Solange goes back to her love of the city. “The women who were featured in [my ‘A Seat at the Table] videos were the most magical, humble, brilliant, radiant women. There’s a certain rhythm and soul that the people there have and have had to have. I’m forever indebted to the city of New Orleans for the creation of those videos.”
On recording her parents for the album interludes: “Part of the reason I thought it was so important to have my parents featured on this album is so that Julez, my son, has it when he needs it. At various moments of his life, he’ll have various members of his lineage represented.
“My parents are no longer married, so it was a very emotional process for all of us. I heard things that I never knew. I heard things that my parents wanted to protect me from. I learned things that made me who I am. It was such a vital part of the [album] process. When I think of the black aesthetic, I think of archiving all of these things. All these little fractures of moments of my life. It was one of the best things I could have ever done as a mother, as a wife — as a woman. All these things I had so much anger and resentment towards, I understood so much clearer. It brought my son’s father and me closer together…it’s been a blessing.”
“I don’t mean to put words in God’s mouth, but it felt very spiritual.”
On her song, ‘F.U.B.U.’: “I freestyled that. I don’t mean to put words in God’s mouth, but it felt very spiritual. That was just a day I felt silenced, exhausted…I would see white girls be able to do the things I was fighting for so effortlessly. I just really, truly, honestly wanted a moment on that record where there was a clear narration of us having a moment for us, by us. We’re told every day what’s for us and not for us. But I’m clear in what we built. We built this.
“I have fans of all races, and I’m not apologizing [for the song and album’s pro-black messages] — but if I’m at Coachella, do I sing that song and watch everyone sing it with me? That’s the problem. As much as I would like to move past that, I’m gonna feel it in my belly.”
“Dave Chappelle moment?” related Harris-Perry.
“It took me a lot of listens to be able to listen to that album, specifically Cranes in the Sky, without crying,” revealed Muhammad. “When I listen to that album, even in a room full of people, I still find myself alone. So if you’re in Coachella, I think anything you do is going to be alright. You’ll be reaching in to those people…I say perform it. Let the rest do what it does.”
Harris-Perry jumps in with another way to look at it: “To have problems is the human condition. Black people aren’t the only people with problems. All people have problems. What [W.E.B.] DuBois formulates when he writes to black folks, “How does it feel to be a problem?” is that blackness — your very personhood itself — is a problem. Women’s bodies are constantly problems in that they have uteruses and periods…Part of the reason people feel you here, is because some folks are talking about their own, other kind of problematized body — queer bodies, woman bodies. Maybe they’re saying ‘I’m having these feelings you just don’t get.’ So maybe [when non-black people sing along at Cochella] it doesn’t have to hurt.”
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.