A Seat With Us: A Conversation Between Solange Knowles, Mrs. Tina Lawson, & Judnick Mayard

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On the eve of releasing her fourth studio album, ‘A Seat at the Table’, Solange Knowles gathered me and her mother, Mrs. Tina Lawson, for a celebration and a deep discussion about the powerful new LP. ‘A Seat at the Table’ is every bit as sonically intricate as expected from Solange, centering on her own journey of self-empowerment. In Black culture, the table is the unifier where family comes to talk and share over the bounty of what has been earned that day. Solange extends this seat as an invitation to outsiders to understand the truth of what it is to exist in Black skin and the labors that we take on for survival. The themes that permeate throughout the album – grief, anger, sorrow, power – can relate to anyone, but, here, she uses them to speak directly to Black womanhood and the attacks we face daily. Her story is rooted very much in her own family. With spoken interludes featuring both her mother and father, she displays how hers has always been a Black story; not just by accident but by the love, will, and the teachings of her parents.

It is an album for Black women made by one Black woman. In speaking her personal truth, Solange has created a meditation not just for herself but for so many seeking safe space, asylum, and peace, for those who seek to maintain their dignity and regality in the face of condescension, lies, aggression, violence and murder. For over an hour, I moderated a conversation between Solo and her mom that touched upon the history of their family, the process and incidents that led to the album’s creation and the stories behind the lyrics – the very narrative of Solange’s own empowerment. As we shared moments of our own discrimination, experienced every where from the first class cabin of an airplane to right outside of our own homes, it became clear that ‘A Seat at the Table’ had touched us all.

In the end, Mrs. Lawson surmised that ours “would be the first of many parties” amongst Black women to enjoy this music together. ‘A Seat at the Table’ will resonate as testament to the history, present, and future of us, the way we see ourselves and tell our stories. The Black experience is one that is inherently diverse, and we must remember that the uniqueness of our story speaks to our power and resilience. In a time of unrelenting grief, we must always remember to dream.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Tina Lawson: How long did it take you to complete the album?

Solange Knowles: I started writing the first song for the album four years ago, which was “Rise.” I wrote and recorded it with just me and the piano, and I actually did that for a couple of the songs on this album. Afterwards, I had a jam session with Questlove and Ray Angry, and we just jammed to the piano track and the melody. I realized at that time that that’s how I wanted to make the album. I just wanted to get musicians in the room and build off of the melodies and chords that I had already been building. I wanted the essence of the music to create naturally and set the tone for the songwriting.

Tina Lawson: Did that moment really establish the musical style and sound that you wanted for this album?

Solange Knowles: It did, but it happened over time. The first era of creating the music was just about me sonically creating and experimenting with sounds that really expressed what I was writing about. Essentially, that went on in different phases. We had that session then I went to Long Island with a different set of musicians and artists, and then went on back to New Orleans with another set of musicians. But, it wasn’t until I went to New Iberia that I started to actually write the album. I edited and built the song structures and wrote all of the lyrics there with just myself and the engineer. We set up a studio in New Iberia to listen to the jams and try to interpret what I wanted to say and sonically how I wanted to communicate that. From there, I took the album to Raphael Saadiq to help me amplify the whole experience and then to my friend Troy to help me just tighten up the whole story. It was kind of a long journey, and, at times, I took long breaks. It was important to work at my own pace and really tune in to what I wanted to achieve.

Tina Lawson: What about Louisiana inspired you for this record?

Solange Knowles: A huge part of me moving to Louisiana was to really have a moment of self-reflection and self-discovery. I’m a strong believer that in order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from. I think that I chose New Iberia based on that area being the start of everything within our family’s lineage. I heard stories about your mom and dad, what it was like growing up there and why they eventually left. I felt a strong sense of empowerment learning that they left under the circumstances that they did and that I was able to go back, reclaim that space, and create art and music that reflected their journey.

Judnick Mayard: Can you touch on your family’s history within New Iberia and what it was like?

Tina Lawson: My parents were basically run out of town. My father worked at a salt mine where there was an explosion, and both my father and another man were trapped in a mine for two days. Unfortunately, the company was not willing to dig and search for them. Luckily, a big portion of the company included my father’s relatives, so they all worked together to go back and search for both and fortunately, after hours, found both of them alive. Afterwards, the company decided to fire and penalize all of them for not following the rules. They did decide to hire back half of my father’s brothers and cousins, which created a huge divide amongst the family. The remaining brothers joined the union, and as a result of those brothers communicating with the union, they were warned not to. A molotov cocktail was actually thrown into my parents’ home, and at that moment they decided to leave for Galveston.

Solange Knowles: This story and the idea of having a family, setting your roots down and then having to leave with nothing and rebuild is very powerful to me. Going back there as their granddaughter and being able to tell their story, my mom’s story, my dad’s story, and my story – that meant a lot to me.

Tina Lawson: With all of the recent killings and racial injustices, did these things shape the direction and subject matter of the record?

Solange Knowles: As a writer, you really can only write what reigns true to you at that time. It’s a complex thing to answer because in a sense I feel like this is the album that I was destined to write for a long time. The feeling of being extremely young and being extremely aware because of you and dad and because of the awareness that you constantly surrounded us with, that has inspired me. Even seeing back then, seeing that Black people were not seeing equality the way that I felt we should have. Growing up with you and dad nurtured me to speak out and be outraged with inequality for not just Black people, but inequality surrounding all types of issues. I’ve always been very passionate about that. When I first started to write the record, I had already been through so much internally with some of the ways that things were changing in my career and some of the experiences that I had both personal and public that I felt like I needed to express through the creation of this album. I knew that I needed to create this album to get rid and work through the anguish and the grief that I was constantly digesting. Then, the ugly backdrop of the state of America constantly reconfirmed that. In a sense, I feel like the album wrote itself. When I felt afraid or when I felt like this record would be so different from my last, I would see or hear another story of a young Black person in America having their life taken away from them, having their freedom taken away. That would fuel me to go back and revisit and sometimes rewrite some of these songs to go a little further and not be afraid to have the conversation.

Tina Lawson: Did you think or do you feel that you might lose some of your fanbase because they don’t understand the message or take it the wrong way?

Solange Knowles: I would hope that people would hear this record and recognize my truth and respect my truth, even if it isn’t exactly their truth, in order to allow me to have the space to expand in my evolution. If there is someone that is not on board with allowing me that space and allowing me to live and have it in my truth, then they probably were not fans to begin with. Some of the artists that I love and appreciate the most have had such strong evolutions within their craft that it almost feels impossible to bring everyone with you on a journey as an artist. My hope for this record is that it will channel and connect with whoever needs to feel empowered by the message.

Judnick Mayard: You’re a Black artist and your music will always be Black music. Your last album, True, was received as a record for more of a different audience. Was there any fear in writing this open and honest album?

Solange Knowles: When I created True, I remember having an intentional goal in wanting to exude joy and provoke happiness. I remember telling my band prior to my shows to bring happiness and give people a moment to escape from their woes. Now, when I look back at the scope of that work versus the scope of this work, I recognize that both records are so political and valid within themselves. I had to learn that activism takes on so many shapes and forms. When I think about Solo Star, my debut album when I was 15, that was during an era when I was that teenager and I connected with rastafarianism, became a vegetarian, and cut off my hair and did the whole thing. I didn’t understand at the time, although there are parts of that that are still very much so apart of me, that it didn’t have to define me. But, through my visuals and through the way that I existed within that space as a 15 year old girl signed to a major label, that was political in itself. My video was all red, black, green and yellow. My visual for “I Decided” from my album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams had images of Malcolm X, Angela Davis and touched on the revolution, and I think that the way that I occupied and took on space during that time was also very radical. I also remember being extremely experimental with my look during that time, and the overwhelming response I would receive from everyone was like, “wow, that girl is kind of weird.” In general, what I was doing wasn’t cool to a lot of people. When I think of True, I wanted my first video to be shot in South Africa and highlight the sapuer culture which proclaims joy amidst all of the hardships there. In some ways, sharing this record doesn’t feel scary to me because I’ve already done so many things that were considered scary for given times of my identity.

Tina Lawson: Were you ever afraid of being put into a box and written off as an angry Black woman with this record?

Solange Knowles: I think that your interlude on the album plays an important role and you articulate that so clearly. One thing that people are just now seeing, with you being very public and on social media, is that we grew up very pro-Black. We grew up in a household with two parents who constantly celebrated Blackness and created forums and spaces to empower Black communities. This might feel new for other people, but it is surely not new for me.

Tina Lawson: You grew up surrounded by Black art, positive images of Africa and your culture, so Blackness has always been a part of your life. It helped to shape who you are, which I am very proud of.

Solange Knowles: Thank you! I also feel like I had a lot of encouragement when I was to stand up to inequalities. You and dad both nurtured my voice to stand up, which gave me the confidence to now continue that and to write this record. It is one thing to experience these situations, but then it’s another to go home and tell your family and have them not support you. Having that support definitely had a positive impact on me.

Tina Lawson: One of the songs that I really love on the album is “F.U.B.U.” Was there an incident or situation that influenced you to write that particular track?

Solange Knowles: Previously, that song was actually called “Be Very Afriad,” and the hook was, “Be very afraid of the color.” I named different incidents where I felt like society acted in fear of Black people and how that automatically escalates into violent, awful experiences along with the demonization of Black men and women. I continued to work on the song and it would make me really sad, and while I think that it’s a story that needs to be told, for me, there was nothing uplifting about the song. Every time that I would play the song or try to write the lyrics, for some reason, I couldn’t shake how sad I felt. After having the best night ever during Mardi Gras this year, which I spoke about in my piece “And Do You Belong? I Do,”, my friends and I were heading home after a parade wearing our costumes. Within our neighborhood you had to have a residence pass on your car to be allowed in, and when we arrived there were a line of cars to be checked in by police. We watched them, one by one, get checked in assuming that they had their passes on their cars just like we did. When they arrived at our car, the police officer said, “This is for residents only,” even though we had a pass. Although we shared that we lived in the area, she continued, “Well.. we’ve closed the area and you have to go around and walk. We aren’t letting any more cars through.” It was the police and we knew that the situation would escalate, so we went around and had to walk blocks. I had on these crazy heels and one heel broke, and I just remember actually being humiliated internally that we had to experience that. After that experience, I remember reflecting on the every day micro-aggresions that we experience on a daily and completely reconstructed the chorus, the track and freestyling that specific song. That song has resonated with so many people that have heard it because it is almost an allowance to just let it out. I named it “F.U.B.U.” because I wanted to empower, and I looked to people who have done that in their own ways. I thought of F.U.B.U. the brand, meaning “For Us By Us”, and what kind of power it had and how normalized it became to wear that kind of symbolism every day. I remember reading stories on the product placement, and seeing LL Cool J wearing a F.U.B.U. hat in a national GAP advertisement. F.U.B.U. exhibited Blackness in any space, on a huge global level, and that is what I wanted to do with the song.

Judnick Mayard: The very first line of this song is not a line that many people will be able to sing. For so many Black people within spaces, one of the micro-aggressions is being in a setting where the ‘N’ word is being used. With this track, it is almost a song that not everyone can sing, so you in essence did make a song “For Us By Us.”

Tina Lawson: With Jay-Z and Kanye West’s song, I’ll walk into a party and everyone, including people not of color, are saying “N-s in Paris.” Do you think that everyone will sing this song? Do you think that if you walked into a party everyone would be saying “All my N-s?”

Solange Knowles: The reality is that I have been in countless situations where non-black people sing and say the n-word around me or around a predominately Black group of people. That has been really traumatic for me in some ways, and I have constantly had to have that conversation. But, when I think of “F.U.B.U.,” and the album as a whole, I think of punk music and how white kids were allowed to be completely disruptive, allowed to be anti-establishment, and express rage and anger. They were allowed to have the space to do all of that, even if it meant being violent or destroying property and that wasn’t exactly inclusive to us even if we created the groundwork for rock and roll. If we were inclusive and we were violent and destroying property and able to express that kind of rage, then it would not be allowed in the same way.

Judnick Mayard: I want to ask you about two songs. One song, obviously, “Don’t Touch My Hair” because this is probably the number one thing talked about by any Black woman. It is a particular micro-aggression that I find to be utterly demeaning. I’ve always told people, “don’t pat my head because you make me feel like a dog,” and that’s a thing every one of my friends knows I’ve expressed. I heard that song and read the lyrics, and the aspect that really touched me was when you said, “don’t touch my head/it’s the feelings I wear.” You talked about when you went through your Rastafarian stage, you cut your hair off, how your mother saw you through your extensions, and you’re always talking about, “I hate when my edges don’t blend,” which is in many ways code for us. That’s something many people don’t understand. Can you to talk about how it was writing that as the daughter of a hairdresser? As Black women, we all come from families where hair is a huge part of the culture.

Solange Knowles: I believe that hair is incredibly spiritual, and, energetically, it really encompasses and expresses who we are. Obviously, my relationship with hair, being that I grew up literally in a hair salon, is very deep and very complex. I think that one of the things that I’m also trying to communicate through that song is the way that people see us through our hair. It’s almost my India.Arie “I Am Not My Hair” moment. I feel like when I cut my hair and I decided to wear my hair natural, I didn’t feel any more pro-Black or like I identified any more or less in my walk as a Black woman. That just wasn’t my personal journey. I think I’ve been on so many fashion shoots and anything in regards to fashion, which is still a predominantly white industry, and also feeling the void of tokenism through my hair being an afro and what that meant to the fashion world. There was a fashion editor of a major magazine who was white and for Halloween she wore an afro wig and had black face and called herself Solange. There was another magazine that composed celebrity-look-alikes, and they used a dog for me. They talked about my hair being like one of a dog, literally. So, hair just became so complex for me. I remember my mother came with me on a two-show run that I did, and all of the micro-aggressions of us traveling within those four days had me noting to her that whenever I would wear my hair straighter, I would typically have an easier time traveling. So, the song is as much as what it feels like to have your whole identity challenged on a daily basis, although physically touching the hair is extremely problematic!

Tina Lawson: When I heard the title of the song I said, “that’s genius,” because how many times has someone stuck their hands in your head and said, “is that weave?” or “does your boyfriend or your husband mind that you have weave?” or even, “how do you tie that up?” Questions that are so insulting and people just feel like it’s okay for them to come and stick their hand in your head, which is very offensive.

Judnick Mayard: I have had these experiences, and I think that every Black person can identify with any number of the micro-aggressions that you touch upon. Another song that I wanted to talk about was “Don’t You Wait.” This track is another favorite of mine. In the digital book, you have an entire page given to the phrase in the song, “bite the hand,” and I know that you have commented on the incident where you were told basically to not bite the hand that feeds you because you were speaking about R&B and not covering the culture the way it should. Can you touch on this a bit?

Solange Knowles: The fact of the matter is that I live, eat and breathe r&b music. What its done for me is give me light and life in the darkest of times. Its been the soundtrack to some of the most joyous moments of my life. I was seeing R&B culture be treated like almost a costume party. Disposable almost, something you could dress up in for a few nights, be silly, and move on, and that was unsettling for me. I spoke up about that from the soul. I spoke up on something that did not feel right, and I was essentially told to shut up or there would be consequences. That’s what it meant to hear someone say “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” in response to that. The hardest part was that person got to live in peace for years while I held on to those words for years. I think the overwhelming response was, “well, she can’t really face criticism” or “surely there are greater things to be angry about.” I actually reached out to him upon hearing that, very orderly and calm via email, and said, “I heard you say this on this podcast and I’d love to have a conversation about it,” via email. The response that I was met with was filled with so much snark. The first line read, “I’m assuming that you don’t want to talk about Tamia.” I was perplexed.

Tina Lawson: Were they making fun of it?

Solange Knowles: Well, the New York Times invited me to be a part of a podcast on “cultural tourism.” There were other Black writers who were complaining about the way that a Chief Keef album review was written, and there were some people really outraged and equally upset about the way that hip-hop music was being written about. Although the podcast was to discuss all of that, I declined because it didn’t feel like a safe space to me. It didn’t feel like a healthy discussion, and I felt like it was going to be a debate. During the podcast they brought up my tweets from Twitter and what I had shared about the way R&B was being written about. One of these speakers said, “I just want to say that there would not be a Solange if there was no Grizzly Bear. I went to the show, I liked her album, and it made me feel good, but after reading her comments..if I were her, I would be careful not to bite the hand that feeds me.” He then made the title, “Does Solange Know Who’s Buying Her Records?” The statement being made was “does Solange know that her audience with ‘True’ is predominantly white and you’re making enemies of us by speaking out on this, and don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” I had to live with the fact that someone on a very large platform was allowed to say this and not suffer any consequences while it literally kept me up at night.

Essentially, when I was writing “Don’t You Wait,” I feel like the overall essence of that song, outside of that singular incident, was also to friends of all colors that I had that I may have had to exit from my life in order to evolve and heal. These were people or friends, in general, that I felt like were maybe holding me back from being my greatest self. A lot of those people love me and are great people, but sometimes people are meant to be in your life only for an era of time. Originally, I started writing the song about that specifically and then I transitioned to writing it about whoever felt like I was biting the hand that fed me or whoever felt like they were the people who were buying my records and weren’t going to allow me that freedom to express myself. One of the things that I’ve explained to the journalist, who has since apologized, was that by him stating that Grizzly Bear made me, who are friends of mine and awesome people and an awesome band, he was being extremely reductive to a lot people who supported me before True, who were young Black people. What he was basically trying to say is that even though Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams actually reached more people from a numerical point of view than True, I am only relevant to him because the people who he aligns himself with are saying that I’m relevant.

Judnick Mayard: I think, even deeper than that, what I would say is the sheen of being a Grizzly Bear is that you are beloved, but you are beloved by people who think they’re smarter than others. That’s a part of being in the indie scene. It wasn’t just that you have arrived or how many albums you’ve sold or who is your sister or your family. The point was that you’re lucky to be an indie darling. You’re lucky that white people care about you. You should be happy that they’ve culturally marked you as relevant, and I think that is the extra insulting part of it, but is also a great segway to one of my last questions for you. The powerful name of your album: A Seat at the Table. There are no club songs on this album. There is no joyous pop music like we found on True. You keep it meditative, steady, and you soak it almost like a tea with the layers, sonic and lyrics. What does A Seat at the Table mean to you?

Solange Knowles: I think that A Seat at the Table for me is an invitation to allow folks to pull up a chair, get very close and have these hard uncomfortable truths be shared. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be fun, you may not get to dance to it, you’re not going to breathe easily through it, but that is the state of the times that we’re in right now. It’s my invitation to actually open up those doors and to have that voice, get messy and lay out my truths and stand firm in them. It’s funny because I was in my room with my son and one of my best friends, Chris, and I had just finished the record and hadn’t given much thought to the name of the album, and it was time! For an entire day, I gave it thought and I had a little session where I just threw out every single name that I wrote down and my son would say, “no that’s not it,” or “oh, that one’s kinda good,” and it was actually Chris who threw out A Seat at the Table. I immediately remember feeling in that moment that that was the name that really encompassed the entire project. My openness and my willingness to really have these very personal intimate conversations was my way of saying, “yeah we ‘bout to get real close.”

Tina Lawson: When you get an actual seat at the table, it’s like an honor. It is like you have the right to be here, that you are equal and that you can sit at the table with kings, Presidents, or the best table in a restaurant. It means that you’ve arrived. And whether you have or not, you demand that you have a seat at the table. That is what I’ve taken away from it, which I think is really amazing.

Judnick Mayard: I think that you speak to only yourself like when you say, “I’m going to find my body,” or even when you speak about being yourself so you can sleep at night. I think when you’re Black in this country, so much of you has to be hidden so that you can survive. You have to remember who you are when you get home, unpack and take off your clothes to get ready for bed. You have to remember that the parts that you keep hidden from yourself and the things that keep you up at night are not who you are. They’re done explicitly so that they get you off of the table and you never get back.

Solange Knowles: Yes, Nikki!

Judnick Mayard: I love when you say, “I hope my son plays this.” As Black women, we are aware of how things are carried. During one of the first conversations that I had with you, you told me about how your mother had raised you to know about civil rights and to understand who you really were as a Black woman. I think that for you to say now, as a grown woman, that you are going to pass it on to your son and that you are already teaching him as you were taught, I wonder how it makes your mother feel? I wonder how it makes you feel, to be able to now speak that truth?

Tina Lawson: It makes me very happy and very proud. When you pass on messages to your kids, it says it in the Bible, you keep your child and they won’t depart from it. This means that they might leave for a while, but it will never leave them. So, I know that I did a good job because she’s talking about passing it on to her child and I’m the most proud of that.

Solange Knowles: Thank you, mom.

Tina Lawson: There’s nothing better than to express yourself, your feelings, and your thoughts through art because no one can argue with that. It’s your art. This record is beautiful, and I think that it will create many dialogues, like we’ve had today, with other Black women. I can just see them having A Seat at the Table parties like they did for Waiting to Exhale [laughs]

Solange Knowles: By the way when I turned my album in, my mom cooked! This was just a few nights ago and I thought, this “seat at the table” thing has so many algorithms. It takes on so many different meanings and spaces. The reason why it was so important for the first time for anyone to hear an interview or to hear me talk about this record be in connection with my mother is because the album is also a tribute to both my mother and my father. I think that I feel extremely privileged that my parents went through all of the pain, trauma, and the weight of being two young Black people who came from not much at all and who were able to dream big and manifest it. When I think about this record, I think about my mother starting her hair salon in the garage of our home and the amount of countless hours that she spent on her feet to take it from there to a place with twenty-five employees and becoming one of the most popular, successful salons in Houston. I think about my father growing up extremely poor and in poverty and dreaming big enough to become who he is and taking a spare office in our house and turning it into a record label and a management company.

When I was making this record, so much of it was about telling our story, healing, and having a time to express our anger, but so much of it was about the feeling of empowerment and Black empowerment. That’s why I have Master P narrate it, and that’s why the song is called “F.U.B.U.” I feel like I grew up with two leading examples of people who never let anything stop them from dreaming. When things become heavy and weary, as they are now, we forget to dream. We’re trying to make it every single day. We’re trying to pick ourselves back off the floor and put one foot in front of another, and we don’t have the time and the energy to do that. I just thank my parents so much for everything they went through so that Julez and Blue are a step closer to not having to endure that. I also want people to listen to the record and say, sorry mom, but, “fuck that!” With the state of our country and all of the messages that we are constantly being fed about not being good enough, not being beautiful enough, not being smart enough, not having the economic power enough, and constantly being told that we’re not enough, I wanted this to literally be an hour long PSA that we are beyond enough. That we have always been and we are not asking for your permission. We are building our own. We are creating the opportunities and communities that we want to see.
The album ends with Master P saying that we are the chosen ones. That shouldn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable because, for us, as a people to literally go through the journey that we have, endured what we have, and to be where we are right now, we have had to be chosen in a sense. I think that there’s a thread of regality that I wanted to constantly project through the horns, through the sonics of the record, or through the visuals because we are typically not projected as such. But we have always been just that. And a huge part of the record is just honoring and giving a tribute to my parents.

Tina Knowles: Well you know I got tears in my eyes right now. That’s beautiful.

A Seat at the Table, now available.

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