No Seats for Me at This Table

Julia Aldrich | Contributor

I have danced to Kendrick Lamar’s “M.A.A.D City” without considering the meaning behind the lyrics. I learned every word to Kanye’s “New Slaves” without taking the time to think about the message that the song portrays. Songs like these that deal with similar themes carry a message regarding the black community that I could not relate to, yet I still sang along.

When you are a person who does not experience racism, it is inherently problematic to enjoy music about race and choose to ignore the content and experiences that these artists meditate upon in a racist society. Blasting “The Life of Pablo” in your car is fun, but inadmissible if you dismiss the themes of racism Kanye addresses throughout.

When I listened to Solange’s new album “A Seat at the Table,” I began making the same mistake that I too often do: I enjoyed it blindly, as an easy listen of an R&B album without consideration for the subject matter. Not until I heard “Interlude: Dad Was Mad,” where a man explicitly talks about his experience with racism as a child, did I catch myself. “So I was just lost in this vacuum between integration and segregation and…and racism,” the speaker of the interlude says over piano music. This interlude, along with the rest of the album, was not written for thoughtless enjoyment.

In the song “Mad,” Solange discusses the constant questioning that she faces about the root of her anger as a black woman—questioning that minimizes and delegitimizes her anger. She answers simply that she has a lot to be mad about. Solange finishes the song with the line, “I’m not really allowed to be mad,” speaking to the cultural response to black anger as unnecessary and unfounded.

After our country’s racist law enforcement system excused the killers of Sylville Smith, Terrence Crutcher, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and hundreds of other black people, white people accused the black community of overreacting. As “Black Lives Matter” formed, the phrase “all lives matter” emerged soon after, which illustrates how racism persists when people with privilege choose not to act nor understand. “Be mad, be mad, be mad,” Solange sings, reaffirming the value of black anger, even in the face of so much resistance.

Seemingly inconsequential acts of appropriation reiterate the same racist effects. In “A Seat at the Table,” Solange strongly reaffirms that black beauty stands on its own––meaning that black features, like dreadlocks, are beautiful on black people despite the criticism that they so often face. When white people sport dreadlocks for the sake of fashion, they are participating in a part of black culture that black people are regularly criticized for.

In the interlude “Tina Taught Me,” Tina Lawson, Solange’s mother, speaks about this dynamic. “It’s such beauty in Black people,” Lawson says, “And it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being Black, and that if you do, then it’s considered anti-white. No! You just pro-black. And that’s okay. The two don’t go together.”

Solange ventures even further into the meaning of black beauty with the next song, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” White people frequently commit this microaggression against black people, and beyond the fact that no one should touch another person without their permission, we cannot reduce black hair to merely something fun and new to play with. In a broader sense, Solange is taking back ownership of black features that white people appropriate and enjoy thoughtlessly. She may as well say, “Don’t touch my culture.”

As Solange explores her experiences through the album, I must not belittle them as mere entertainment, and I may try to understand. Solange does not seek approval from me or any other white person, because black culture does not require my opinion. I never have and never will experience racism, but if I am going to sing and dance to music produced by black artists that address themes of racism, I have an obligation to acknowledge its existence and speak out against it.