Encore: Solange's 'A Seat At The Table' Honors Her Family

Dec 26, 2016
Originally published on December 26, 2016 5:35 pm

Solange Knowles created an album of self-healing, family healing and ancestral healing, but it ended up being her most commercially successful to date. A Seat At The Table is NPR Music's No. 1 album of 2016, which is a good reason to hear her November interview with Ari Shapiro again.

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When our friends at NPR Music sat down to list the best albums of 2016, they gave the No. 1 spot to an artist who we spoke with on this program back in November, Solange Knowles. "A Seat At The Table" is her most political album yet and her most commercially successful. It hit number one on the Billboard charts.

Like her sister Beyonce's recent work, Solange is exploring what it means to be black in America today. The songs on this album celebrate black culture, confront prejudice and explore the trauma of witnessing black people killed.


SOLANGE KNOWLES: (Singing) You got the light. Count it all joy.

SHAPIRO: When I spoke with Solange, she told me this is also her most personal work yet. The album includes interviews she did with her parents, and she wrote most of the song lyrics in a small town where her family has roots called New Iberia, La.


KNOWLES: New Iberia is where my maternal grandparents are from. And there was a series of really, really awful events to where essentially in the middle of the night they got pushed out of town.

SHAPIRO: What was that about?

KNOWLES: My grandfather was actually a miner. And there was a big explosion that happened. And they basically just kind of left him for dead. And my mother's cousins went and saved him.

SHAPIRO: They dug him out.

KNOWLES: They did. So there were a lot of people embarrassed by the situation. It was kind of a town scandal. And it became a little bit of a race war. My grandparents - they fled to Galveston.

SHAPIRO: In Texas, yeah.

KNOWLES: In Texas. One of the important reasons that I wanted to write the lyrics specifically there is because I wanted to reclaim that space, basically say no one's pushing me out of town.


KNOWLES: (Singing) Fall in your ways so you can crumble. Fall in your ways so you can sleep at night. Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise.

When I say fall in ways so you can crumble; fall in your ways so you can sleep night; fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise, that was really about honoring my lineage, my past. And that's why it's first on the album - because it's almost like a meditation to just prepare yourself to go through this journey. Honestly, when I hear that song, I can feel my roots. It feels very, very spiritual.


KNOWLES: (Singing) Walk in your ways so you will wake up and rise.

SHAPIRO: And so did you find by writing this that there was some kind of - I don't know - catharsis or healing or closure? Or was that even what you were looking for?

KNOWLES: It was. I mean I wanted to honor my family by creating work that I felt that we could all heal from and have the conversations. But I also had a lot of personal healing to do. And I needed to empower myself. And I think that was really the goal.

SHAPIRO: Can we talk about "Don't Touch My Hair"?



KNOWLES: (Singing) Don't touch my hair when it's the feelings I wear. Don't touch my soul when it's the rhythm I know.

SHAPIRO: Your mother was a hairstylist. I guess you kind of grew up almost in a hair salon. The cover art for this album, your hair is like this ornamented halo. Talk about the significance of this song.

KNOWLES: Black hair has such a significance in black culture. The hair journey of a black woman is so specific. And it's really hard. And your hair can send so many different messages to so many different people in the world that it becomes political. It becomes social.

And the hair part of the song is not just about hair obviously. It encompasses a broader message for black empowerment. And I think my mother's interlude that happens before that song is so powerful. And I think that she articulates what I'm trying to say in a totally different way.


TINA KNOWLES: It's such beauty in black people. 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 OK. The two don't go together.

KNOWLES: Her saying, allow us to be pro-black; allow us to have that moment, just like the album, to really take pride and celebrate our journey and look at where we came from and look at where we are today. And so "Don't Touch My Hair" is really a moment to do that.


KNOWLES: (Singing) What you say to me? What you say to me? What you say to me? What you say to me? What you say to me?

SHAPIRO: You created this album out of a personal need for self-healing, family healing, ancestral healing. And now it has hit number one on the Billboard charts, which suggests to me that a lot of other people needed the same kind of healing that you and your family and your ancestors needed.

KNOWLES: Absolutely. Right now, this generation - we've been through a lot, and we are still going through it. And we are still fighting for our voices to be heard. And then we're fighting for action to happen after our voices are heard. And I think that it was important for me to not just vent and cry and mourn. That's important, too.

But I also wanted to end this album saying, we have been chosen to go through this journey. If you believe in some kind of force that is with us, there has had to been for us to go through what we have been through for these centuries.


MASTER P: Now, we come here as slaves. But we going out as royalty and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones.

KNOWLES: And I think the best part about it is just feeling like through my healing, that I might have reached someone else that really needed to hear this. And that's just been the most powerful part of it all.


KNOWLES: (Singing) I tried to drink it away. I tried to put one in the air. I tried to dance it away. I tried to change it with my hair.

SHAPIRO: Solange, it's been great talking to you. Thank you so much for coming on the program.

KNOWLES: Thank you so, so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: The new album is called "A Seat At The Table."


KNOWLES: (Singing) Thought a new dress would make it better. I tried to work it away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.