In a revealing conversation with Rookie’s Tavi Gevinson, Solange Knowles speaks out on motherhood, racism and black empowerment – themes that dominate her third studio album, A Seat at the Table, which was released today: “I like to think that this is my punk moment.”
Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, is so many things at once: an antidote to hate, a celebration of blackness, an expression of the right to feel it all. After a move to Louisiana and period of self-reflection, the artist joined forces with a range of collaborators to put her new discoveries to music. Hearing it for the very first time, my heart went in and out of slow motion: swelled at a layered vocal, stopped at a painfully apt choice of words, sped up with a perfect bass-line. Mostly I was struck by A Seat at the Table as a nurturing force among the trauma of anti-blackness; a further exploration of questions posed by Solange on her Twitter, last summer: “Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”
I first met Solange at a party for her gorgeous and inspiring website, Saint Heron. I’d already had so many phases of listening exclusively to 2012’s “True,” and admired her activism and radiant style. When she said she had an album coming soon and wanted me to interview her about it for W, I was thrilled. We spoke on the phone on Monday – following an all-nighter in the studio on her part – about how A Seat at the Table came to be.
I literally just finished listening to A Seat at the Table, and it’s so powerful and beautiful. I’m really excited for the world to get to hear it and have it to turn to.
Thank you. I am extremely excited; I’m also just relieved in a sense. It’s been such a healing process and that’s what really started the whole experience, was feeling the need for healing, self-reflection, self-discovery, and empowerment. When I first embarked on the journey it was really scary, and now I feel so empowered and renewed.
What was scary about it from the outset?
I knew I wanted to move to Louisiana, where my grandparents are from because I needed to write this record to connect with myself and my lineage and my roots. I think anytime that you’re really open and raw like that with yourself, it is a little scary because you never know what you’re going to discover along the way. You never know what you’re going to find out about yourself, and about your entire experience of life. I was taking a huge step by being so vulnerable and open. But what’s really interesting about this is that it’s the album that I was destined to write since I was in third or fourth grade.
What were the first inklings of it?
I grew up with two parents who have a very rich, heavy and complicated history. I was engaged in a lot of those conversations very early on. Our household was very open about black empowerment, spirituality, and independence. I think that you’re very ripe to certain things depending on the conversations that you had in your household growing up. It’s funny, I see that with my son now – if there’s something that’s spoken about very honestly and vividly all the time, of course that’s going to shape the experience of how you look at the world. I remember being really eager to break down and learn the history of my existence, outside of my gender or my race or my class. At a very young age I wanted to understand the entire lineage. I always thought there was so much power in knowing where you came from, [in order] to know where you’re going. I remember writing poetry about this, and performing “Strange Fruit” at the talent show when I was 10 years old, which is pretty crazy.
How does living in Louisiana impact all of that and make its way into the album?
I actually moved to where my grandparents are from for a summer [to work on the album]. I moved to a house in New Iberia, I lived on a sugarcane plantation while I wrote the majority of the album. I grew up in Houston, which is a major metropolitan city. Living in New Iberia for that time, I was so isolated, and it was also such a spiritually heavy experience – you literally could feel this heaviness surrounding this house and land. At first I had all these ideas, that I’m going to go and try to find my family, and retrace where they grew up and where they’re from. But I actually ended up feeling the essence of all of that in that home. And what’s really, really eerie, is that I rented the home from a friend of a friend of a friend that I only met one time. But the town is so small, that he of course ended up being a relative of mine. So it was a bunch of serendipitous things that happened throughout the process of the album that let me know that I didn’t have to look very far if I was looking to reconnect and discover that part of myself. It was all around me.
So much of your album explicitly discusses racism and celebrating blackness, and one of the interludes talks about taking all the anger and metabolizing it through the work. Does that start with you through the lyrics or the sounds?
The writing process of this album was not more unique than any of my other processes, in that it typically starts with the melody idea and the words evolve based off of what I listen back to. Nine times out of ten, you’re freestyling, but you’re piecing the puzzle pieces together after you settle on a melody that you like. I definitely had concepts I wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to make a song experiencing and communicating the exhaustion, the feeling of being weary and tired and energetically drained. I knew that I wanted to discuss this idea of the “angry black woman” in society, and dissect a conversation that I’ve had one too many times. I knew I had these concepts that I wanted to communicate, but I was resistant to letting them lead the creative process. So the first layer of making the album, I just jammed in a room with some incredible musicians. It was a great energy in the room, because it was not so much like, ‘I’m going to make this album about this specific thing. It was just music-making. Then, I took that music and I went to New Iberia for that time, and I needed that insular time to break down what I was saying, what I was going to communicate and how I was going to do that. From there, I spent that summer writing lyrics. It was an interesting process because I’m a mother and I had to balance making an album and raising a preteen. And having my hands in all these different pots, so it was either all or nothing to me. I spent three months in New Iberia, and I recorded some of the album in Ghana and Jamaica. I had to have these isolated experiences creatively in order to turn off and listen to myself.
For all of the continued awareness of systemic violence and oppression, there isn’t a lot of talk about that psychological toll of racism, at least in white circles and white media. That is so heavy in the album, and I’m really excited for people to have that to turn to.
That is such an ignored part of the conversation. I feel there were a lot of traumas that I had to experience during this creative process, that I didn’t identify as traumas until I realized just how much weight and how many triggers [there are] like constantly seeing the images of young black people lifeless in the street, and how many cries of mothers that you’re constantly hearing on a daily basis. Outside of those traumas, just the nuances that you have to navigate through everyday as a black person living in this country. It absolutely has a psychological effect on you. There are clinical and scientific studies that show the brain dealing with the same type of PTSD that we know of in other traumatic instances and experiences, but society has not yet come to terms with applying it to race. But I have a lot of optimism in the fact that we’re even able to have this conversation now. This isn’t something that my mom and one of her white friends would be discussing in their time. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable, and the person leading it usually gets a lot of shit for it, but that’s with any revolution.
You have a song in the album called “(Borderline) An Ode to Self Care.” What does self care look like to you?
You know, I probably wrote that because I need to manifest it more in my life. Even in the midst of this last week with the multiple murders of young black men that occurred, I chose this time not to watch. Just for the sake of being able to exist in that day, to exist without rage, and exist without heartbreak. To be able to get up and tell my child to have a wonderful day and know that he’ll be protected and nurtured and loved and treated like an equal contributor to society, I sometimes have to choose to not look. My husband and I share a lot in common in our yearning to see equality in this country. Sometimes throughout that, [self-care] becomes a mission within itself. That song was an ode to how our home becomes a safe space, where we can just love and not deal with some of the intensities that go along with existing in these spaces. That means so much to me.
I think listening to this album will be a form of self-care for a lot of people.
I know how it feels to be called crazy when you speak out on these things. I know how it feels to wear the weight of that. That’s not new for me. I was doing that in junior high school and in high school and writing petitions and organizing in my own little way. When you dedicate yourself to anything, there’s going to be those times when you second-guess yourself really strongly. I hope there are songs on this record that anyone having self-doubt could hear, and feel empowered to fight through it.
How did all of the interludes of people talking about their experiences come about?
That’s interesting that it took such a strong presence on the album, because originally I wanted to speak to my mother and father. I knew that my father endured a lot, a lot of trauma and really, really painful experiences growing up. He was one of seven to integrate his elementary and junior high school – and that’s in Alabama. He made history. He experienced everything you could think of, from parents spitting on him, to throwing food at him in the cafeteria, to hosing him down, to tasing him with cow prodders. I think that growing up hearing those stories and hearing those experiences made me understand him and understand our family that much greater. Quite frankly, it was a yearning but it was also not a choice to seek independence – I knew that I wanted to talk to him about that. When I started the record I knew that was one of things I wanted to work through, because as parents you do pass down emotional traumas. I thought I knew so much about his experiences, but it was not until I actually asked that I really fully understood – and same for my mother. She speaks before the song “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and I think it’s one of the most incredible moments of the album because she so eloquently breaks down black pride. And the fact that black pride does not mean anti-white. We had to do this out of necessity. We had to find that rhythm, that glory, given the circumstances and the cards that we were dealt. We have to be allowed to celebrate that. It just turned into a much bigger idea – outside of them I wanted to speak to other black men and women who really saw the sense of seeking independence and empowerment, like Master P.
I remember being a teenager and Master P and No Limit Records coming around, especially because I grew up in Houston, and I remember he did an MTV Cribs and it was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. I couldn’t imagine that a black man could live like that. Outside of the wealth, basically the protest that this was never going to lie in anyone else’s hand. He started No Limit from absolutely nothing, and every record label in the industry came to him with multi-million dollar deals, and he constantly spoke about self-empowerment and not giving yourself to the highest bidder and having the foresight and the rebellion to own that and to stand firm. Especially at that time for a black man, it was just really, really mind-blowing to me. So I actually wanted him to do one intro for one song, but when I interviewed him, I knew very quickly that this had to turn into something bigger. I wanted to use more of what he said to narrate the album – I’m so happy that happened. He’s a hero.
A lot of this album seems to be about artistic integrity. Maybe I need to make a change, or maybe it’s living here in New York, or using social media, or working in media and entertainment, but I feel like I’m constantly trying to maintain this sense of, why do I do what I do? This album is such a lovely expression of that for you. How do you maintain your footing, when you are put on a pedestal, when there are people looking for you, when there are people looking to criticize the political messages you might have?
It’s tough. And I face every single one of the challenges that you just said. And I definitely don’t have it all figured out or together. One thing that I do know is that life is way too short to not reach your highest potential because of what you fear. There have been enough incidents that have happened to me, that I realized that I was experiencing trauma very publicly. One moment was when a writer did a piece and wrote that I should know who was buying my records, and that I should be careful not to bite the hand that was feeding me. I remember growing up, my mom and my aunts and other black elders in my life talking about biting the hand that feeds me constantly – it’s a term that everyone uses, but explicitly in the context of race. It was deeply, deeply hurtful to me. He tweeted out the piece by saying, “Does Solange know who is buying her records?” I asked him, do you have Soundscan? I don’t have one that tracks my album sales by race. It was a very jarring moment for me. I had experienced some things like that, but not from someone on that scale, where it was like, ‘Joke’s on you’ and it felt like everyone was in on it. That was a moment for me like, I have to write this album, no matter how scary it is for myself, so that I am releasing myself from this trauma, this rage, this pain. It had to happen. I actually had a conversation with him later, maybe about a year ago, and he took full accountability, he understood – it was a great conversation, and I’m open to that. I don’t expect everyone to have a handbook or a guidebook on how to deal with certain issues – I certainly don’t. But there is this idea that we as black people should just be an open-ended book of resources, when we are having to heal ourselves, let alone teach everyone how to deal with us. That was a turning point where my art had to reflect what was happening to me internally everyday.
Living in a racist world, the hand that feeds you is also the hand that holds you back, keeps you down, oppresses you. There are some lyrics on the album when you say, “Play the game just to play the boss.” I am wondering if you might have any advice for a young artist of color trying to negotiate “playing the game” with also saying what they need to say artistically.
It is one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned the past couple of years, thatevery form of activism is so valid and so necessary. Every forum, every voice, even just existing is a part of activism, and the way that you demand space in the world and I would tell a young artist that. There’s so much validity to every single type of way of communicating your feelings and your outrage, during this time especially. And we need people to cause a ruckus, we need people to protest, we need the people who are going to be super vanguard and academic about the subject. But we also need to acknowledge that there are people protesting everyday by just existing in the spaces that they exist in. That’s one thing that I wish someone would have enlightened me on long ago. I would have learned so much sooner that yes, Twitter is a voice, but that’s probably not going to be the most direct way for me to communicate a situation to someone in that many characters. There’s no way to reduce the racism that we experience in this country and have for centuries and centuries in a tweet. But it is valid in that moment, it’s real feelings, and you have to exercise whatever feels right in the moment. That’s what I would say. I don’t regret any of it, because I feel like it’s all valid.
It’s a huge privilege to get to go through your life like I can, like “How do I want to express the things that I’m thinking about?” and not have to worry about what’s the most effective way to change people’s minds or have to educate people. I want everyone to have the freedom to make art that is just about the self and is indulgent or fun and doesn’t have to always be a form of activism.
I agree. And that’s one of the interesting things about the record. I like to think that I made a punk record. A highly honest, disruptive, angsty record with all of the nuances that I wanted to express. With punk music, white kids were allowed to be disruptive, have rage, destroy property and provoke riots. I like to think that this is my punk moment, and that I’m doing that through this album. I’m giving myself that freedom to go through that. It’s not a coincidence that so many artists – both pop and underground or whatever – are creating art that is reflecting the times. This is the time that Donald Trump is going on television and saying black people are poor and uneducated and we don’t have anything to lose. Art is always going to reflect the times and it’s not always going to be pretty and hand packaged and delivered with a bow on it. I feel really good that I allowed myself to do both. That I allowed myself to, as young black woman, provoke black joy, and black happiness and show that yes, we can be in a space and be happy and be exuberant and we can also provoke pain and rage and anger. We are a nuanced people and we should be allowed to express both without having the context of the “angry black woman.” I feel great that I did both.
My friends and I joke that so much of punk music made by dudes or white people is like “MOM GET OUT OF MY ROOM” or “MOM ARE THE POP TARTS READY.” Similar to when I was younger, living in the suburbs, kicking up some rubble, and being like “Let me out!” And then you realize, ‘Oh that wasn’t punk, this is punk.’
I honestly was that kid too though! I acknowledge that I grew up privileged. But my experiences are still my experiences. There are so many people who don’t understand black oppression on a wide scale, and don’t understand that Dr. Dre is a billionaire and Oprah is a billionaire, but he got arrested in front of his own home and people in the store wouldn’t help Oprah because they assumed she wouldn’t have money. There are so many people who cannot understand how someone privileged and black could endure these situations. But I do acknowledge my privilege in many ways. I understand that in some instances, I can be just as much a part of gentrification as white people can be. 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. It’s funny, I can relate to loving punk music as a young black woman. And even looking back on it in the same way, like where is all this rage coming from? But I will say that there was something very interesting about that era of my life. Going to a System of a Down concert, and being one of the only black people there, and how that felt. I just had an incident happen that was really insane at a concert not long ago, and the direct connection that you have to feeling like an outsider in any place. How so much of that response was, ‘Well, you’re pointing out that you’re one of the few black people, which means that you are actually being racist by counting that.’ And I’m like, you could never understand how it feels to even be brave enough to enter that space, or to want to teach your son that society isn’t going to tell you that this is for you, but it’s all for you, whatever you’re interested in can be for you. I too have so much to learn, and so much to evolve from, but I think the first step, and all that so many people ask, is the acknowledgement. That it’s there, and that it’s problematic, and what can I do to stop this?