THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE WHEN A BLACK WOMAN IS IN CONTROL OF HER VISION
When Solange released A Seat at The Table at the end of September, it felt like an unexpected gift I hadn’t known I’d needed. From the first notes of “Rise,” the album lifted me. It’s what I play in moments of reflection when I need clarity. It’s what I play for inspiration. It’s what I played after a tumultuous election year, when I needed a reminder of the things I know to be true.
What struck me about the album was the simplicity and effortlessness of Solange’s expression. The album is a soft exploration of depression, racism, self-care, and self-love. These are difficult topics to tackle, but Solange’s delivery is almost deceptive in how easy it is to embrace. I hadn’t taken the time to appreciate the effort Solange put into making the album—the lyrics, the arrangements, and even the visuals of both her music videos and live performances—until she sat down with big sister Beyoncé and broke it down herself in Interview Magazine.
Beyoncé’s interview with Solange is aptly titled “In Control,” and that’s the running theme of their conversation. The Knowles sisters are two powerhouse musicians, and they’ve both achieved a level of ownership over their work that’s inspirational. That ability didn’t come from nowhere. From the interview, it’s clear that the sisters’ upbringing in Houston and their mother, Tina Knowles, played important roles in establishing strong foundations for Solange. But it took years for Solange to be able to build the confidence into an album as assured as A Seat at The Table.
Solange explained that she established that control through her vocal intonations, a technique she explores with Beyoncé:
BEYONCÉ: Your voice on the album, the tone of your voice, the vulnerability in your voice and in your arrangements, the sweetness and the honesty and purity in your voice—what inspired you to sing in that tone?
SOLANGE: It was very intentional that I sang as a woman who was very in control, a woman who could have this conversation without yelling and screaming, because I still often feel that when black women try to have these conversations, we are not portrayed as in control, emotionally intact women, capable of having the hard conversations without losing that control. I had not really explored my falsetto as much on previous works. As you said, I have always loved Minnie Riperton, and I loved Syreeta Wright and really identified with a few of her songs that she and Stevie Wonder did. She was saying some really tough shit, but the tone of her voice was so sweet that you could actually hear her more clearly. I wanted to find a happy medium, feeling like I was being direct and clear, but also knowing that this was a conversation that I was very much in control of—able to have that moment, to exist in it, to live in it and ponder it, not to yell and scream and fight my way through it—I was doing enough of that in my life, so I wanted to make a clear distinction of me controlling that narrative. Aaliyah was also a huge influence and has always been. Her vocal arrangements with Static Major are some of my favorite in the world.
There can be power in “yelling and screaming,” but as Solange has demonstrated, there’s also power in quiet confidence. Her music in no way softens her bold declarations (“Don’t Touch My Hair,” the title and thesis of the album’s single, is a pretty strong and necessary assertion), but instead it resonates with confidence and clarity. It’s a quietness that’s affirming, not in the way that says “this is how I must speak to be heard,” but “this is how I have decided to speak and you will hear me.”
The album pushes back against the conditioning of women to apologize for being sure about what they want and know, something that Solange notes that women—especially black women—are rarely able to break free from. She dismisses labels such as “control freak,” instead emphasizing a “very distinctive, clear vision” for her work. The interview makes clear that Solange has labored to reach this level of control, and nobody can take it away from her. In her interview, she helps us understand what it took to get her there, and why A Seat at The Table perfectly embodies that journey.