Solange Knowles' newest album, A Seat At The Table, is her most commercially successful yet — it hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts last month. It's also her most political. On the record, Solange explores what it means to be black in America today. The songs in this album celebrate black culture, confront prejudice and explore the trauma of witnessing black people killed.
This is Solange's most personal work yet, too. The album includes interviews she conducted with her parents, and she wrote most of the lyrics in the town of New Iberia, La., where her family has roots. "I wanted to reclaim that space," she says. "I wanted to be able to go back as a descendant of my grandparents and stake my claim and create work that honored them."
Solange shared stories about her family and about the healing process of making A Seat At The Table with NPR's Ari Shapiro. Read an edited transcript of their conversation below; hear an abridged version at the audio link.
Ari Shapiro: This album seems to reach into a lot of history: There's personal history, there's family history, there's national history. And you wrote some of it in a place in Louisiana called New Iberia, which sort of taps into all these threads. Tell me about this place.
Solange Knowles: So, New Iberia is where my maternal grandparents are from. And they built their home there, their family life there, they were really grounded there. 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.
What was that about?
Well, it's a really long story, but my grandfather was actually a miner, and there was a big explosion that happened; a lot of people really tragically died. They basically just kind of left him for dead, assuming that he had died, because most people did die. My family all got together and said, you know, "We will not just settle for you telling us that he's passed" — and believe it or not, my mother's cousins went in the middle of the night and they went and saved him.
They dug him out.
They did. And so, there were obviously 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, and my grandparents essentially left in the middle of the night ... And they fled to Galveston and they set roots there.
In Texas. So the album has a lot of layers, but one of those, and one of the important reasons that I wanted to write the lyrics specifically there, is because I wanted to reclaim that space. I wanted to be able to go back as a descendant of my grandparents and stake my claim and create work that honored them and honored their strength and their resilience and their fight — basically say, "No one's pushing me out of town. No one is going to stop me from telling my story, our story." And there was a lot of power that I found in that: It felt really good, and it also felt really good to just connect to my lineage. New Iberia has a lot of rich culture and Creole and Cajun culture. Growing up in Houston, I would travel to Louisiana a lot, but I never really got to experience that at the core of it. And it was something really great about just shutting myself off from the outside world. I actually wrote the album in a house that was on a sugar plantation, and a lot of my family were actually caners. So there were just a lot a lot of links in that way that really, really empowered me. And it felt great to be there and to have the freedom now to again, just reclaim the space and do it in that way.
What is New Iberia like today? And how were you welcomed there when you returned? Did people know the story that had driven your grandparents away from there?
You know, what's wild is I actually went there with the intention of connecting with all of this family — and my family actually still owns a cemetery there, which I did visit a couple of times. But I actually got really, really lost in the isolation there, which I think really helped me to write this record in the most true way and honest way. I think that if I would have just really immersed myself too much, then I might have gotten distracted.
Because it really was a fun time, the times that I went out. There's still a lot of traditional zydeco and Cajun music. I actually went to a place in Mamou, Louisiana, that was not far from New Iberia that actually still has a radio show that's been running, I think, for 30 years. It starts at, I believe, six in the morning, and it's live in a club. And you go there around eight in the morning and it's full-on Cajun dancing, and it's still done in French. All of the music is still performed in French. And so I did that, but I also went to a lot of zydeco clubs — I had experience growing up going to a lot of zydecos. And that was really, really, really fun. And then also, obviously the food was — killing me, it was so good. So at a certain point, I had to just say, "I need to keep my ass in the house for four days and write this bridge that I've been stuck on for the last week."
I feel like people listening to you describe that might expect to hear a washboard and a harmonica on this album. And there is none of that. There is no zydeco. Where do you hear the sounds of the place — even if it's not in a literal way — where do you hear on this album something that wouldn't have come out if you hadn't been in New Iberia?
There are a lot of aspects of the album that draw so much from Louisiana culture, specifically the horn sounds. I think that there was a certain sense of triumph and glory and radiance and also regality that I wanted to convey with the horn sounds. And so much of that comes from me living in New Orleans and Louisiana and just brass bands and those brass sounds being sort of just the backdrop of the city. And then obviously with Master P narrating the album, I think he tells that through the lens very much so as a New Orleans self-made black man from the South. And I think overall the album feels very, very Southern in my storytelling, I feel.
What makes the storytelling Southern, especially?
Well, I think there's a certain sense of growing up in the South, I feel like storytelling is obviously universal — you know, we all share that. But there's something about the way that Southern men and women and aunties and uncles take their time with telling stories. And I think sometimes it becomes a matter of not caring how long it takes or how much you reiterate the message. I got concerned a lot of times that some of my lyrics and themes felt a little repetitious. But I think that that's something I grew up hearing so much from all of my family — the same story told in a thousand different ways.
Repetitious in what way?
Well, I think that I was concerned initially that maybe it wasn't as expansive as I wanted it to be initially — I had all of these feelings and thoughts that I wanted to work out while creating the album, and sometimes, you know, I would be working on "Mad" and then I'd be working on "Don't Touch My Hair" and I'd feel like — wait, are these the same messages? But that was my truth at the time, and that was what I felt, and so it was really about figuring out the different nuances in the way of telling those.
I want to continue this thought about the place of New Iberia and the history that you're wrestling with while you're also wrestling with the present-day reality of black people being shot in the street and protest and the sense that maybe things have not changed as much since your grandparents' time as you might have hoped. When you got to New Iberia, did you know the story of exactly what had happened to your grandparents or did you learn any of that while you were there?
I knew a little bit of it ... And when I interviewed my parents for this album, as you hear them on "Don't Touch My Hair" and "Mad," that was actually about a three-hour interview, both for just myself and me really wanting to close all of these chapters. I did it at the very end of the album.
And did you know at the time that you were going to include excerpts of these interviews in the album?
It was an idea that I had. I didn't know what would come out of the interviews.
And was it only at that point that you learned the full story of what had happened to your grandparents?
Yes, yes. So it was really, really, really powerful. I think having been there for so long and, you know, really getting down to the nitty gritty. It was a really, really long — and, even me telling it now, I shortened it and left out some of the details — but it was really shocking.
You know, I guess one thing that I wonder, given what your grandparents went through, given that your father integrated his school and got all kinds of abuse in the process, given that you have experienced acts of racism yourself and now you have a son — do you feel like this is a cycle from generation to generation that is doomed to continue repeating?
I think that while making the album, I actually gave a great deal of thought to how much responsibility I had to express optimism and hope. And ultimately, I decided that me expressing optimism and me expressing hope came from telling the truth — that gave me optimism that I was able to be explicitly honest about my feelings. And for it to have the reception that it's had, and for me to have people share with me that they listen to the album first thing when they wake up to empower them to get through their day and the micro-aggressions that we experience and the healing that, you know, they're expressing that they're feeling — that is the optimism. I think the optimism is in having the conversation and being able to have the conversation now. And people being open to having that conversation.
One of the tracks is called "F.U.B.U.," which stands for "For us by us." I read that your working title for the song was "Be Very Afraid." When you talk about choosing optimism over pessimism, "For us by us" versus "Be very afraid" is a pretty stark contrast.
It is, it is. And to be honest, "F.U.B.U." was the song I had the hardest time writing in terms of conceptualizing. Before, that song specifically was about people being afraid of us and fear being at the root of so many murders from policemen, so many murders that we have constantly seen in the past few years. And it was really, really hard for me to put that in a four-minute song. And I kept trying, and I kept trying, and it hurt so much and it was so painful for me and it was so sad. And one day, I put on the track again, probably the fifth or sixth variation of the song, and I swear it just felt like God speaking through me. I wrote it probably in six minutes. And it was just one of those moments where it really did not feel like it was just me.
And that is where I drew "For us by us." Because not only did I mean it, you know, in the obvious way. But it really was written by us. These are incidents that all of my friends go through on a daily basis. These are incidents that, by the way, you know, Oprah and Dr. Dre have expressed that they're going through — and they're billionaires ... And also there's a certain tonality of that song that also speaks to — when you exist as an unafraid and powerful black presence in this country, what happens as a result of that? And kind of the breaking down that people try to do on a daily basis when you present yourself in that way, which is something that I've really struggled with.
I was going to ask whether you thought about who the audience was. This album is obviously from a black perspective, and a black female perspective. But there are some songs, like "F.U.B.U.," that sound like you are singing to an audience of black listeners. And then there are other songs, like "Don't Touch My Hair," which clearly seem directed at a white person.
I think that honestly while writing the record, I was writing for myself, to be honest. I was writing for my family and my friends. I was wanting to be the voice of my group text chat. I was wanting to be the voice of my grandparents. I was wanting to be the voice of my son, my niece. So I think that's really the audience that I was writing from the perspective of. Some songs are received in a certain way, but I honestly was writing them for myself and for my healing and for my self-discovery. On some moments, that can be universal. And then some moments, I feel like that is for us, by us, and we deserve to have that moment.
Can we talk about "Don't Touch My Hair?" Your mother was a hair stylist — I guess you kind of grew up, almost, in a hair salon. The cover art for this album, your hair is this ornamented halo. Talk about the significance of this song — there's this lyric, "Don't touch my hair, it's the feelings I wear."
That is a really good observation in connecting my mother's hair salon with all of this. I think overall, black hair has such a significance in black culture. And also, it's such an insular experience. Growing up, being a young girl, transitioning to junior high school, then into adulthood, the hair journey of a black woman is so specific, and it's really hard. Your hair can send so many different messages to so many different people in the world that it becomes political. It becomes social. And I think that, you know, the hair part of the song is not just about hair, obviously. It encompasses a much bigger conversation of appropriation, of ownership, of protected space. And that all comes through in those things that I speak about.
But again, it's a broader message for black empowerment. And I think my mother's segment that happens before, her 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, in a wonderful and powerful way ... Allow us to be pro-black. Allow us to be beautiful and take pride in that. Being pro-black does not mean being anti-white. Stop making the parallels and the analogies of black history month vs. all of the other months in the year. Allow us to have that moment and, just like the album, really take pride and celebrate our journey and look at where we came from and look at where we are today. That was not that long ago. Let us relish in that and celebrate that. And so "Don't Touch My Hair" is really a moment to do that.
I can't even put into words how overwhelmed I've been with the imagery, even Halloween — I had so many people send me photos. And the album cover itself, it was much deeper than that. It was, you know, the functionality of putting those clips into your hair to transition into another style and then also saying, "No, I'm actually gonna live in this transition." And live in all of the moving parts that gets to the result. Because I feel like that's what this album is — it's me working through all of the moving parts — the ugly, the beautiful, the fear, the brave, all of that, to get to the end result.
So is that cover image you getting ready for something or you deciding that that in-between place is an okay place to stay?
It's literally, I was getting ready to shoot the album cover and we put the clips in my hair to prep for the waves that I wanted in my hair, and that helps to set the waves, those clips. And I actually just said, "Wait a minute. Let's actually shoot this." And everyone was kind of confused and scratching their heads for a minute, and that was really, again about me living and working through the transition and saying it's okay to expose yourself and the awkwardness and the uncomfortableness of working through the transition. Everybody always wants us to be packaged and ready-made and healed instantly from these instances and these traumas. And that was about me saying, "Hey, I'm working through this transition."
And I think that there's a thread of, again, regality that I was yearning for throughout creating the visuals of this album. I knew mood-wise that I wanted to project this almost Mona Lisa — black Mona Lisa — type mood and imagery and power and also vulnerability, but the clips just happened to be the transition point. And after that I was like, that's actually the cover there. We don't need to take these out.
Solange, you are really good at writing a perfect, radio-friendly, three-minute pop hit or a dance-y club track.
This album is not that kind of music.
No, it is not.
And then it goes on to be the first album you've had hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. So this is something that is specific and challenging and comes from a particular perspective and has a lot of talking. And yet, it's the biggest success you've ever had. What does that tell you?
I don't know. I'm still working through that — just like the clips, I'm still working through that! As a songwriter, I started writing professionally, I guess you would say, at 15. And I always took a lot of pride and joy in my versatility as a writer, but I think that yeah, most people would say that a lot of my strength lay in writing more pop-oriented songs. But in a sense, I feel like these are pop songs.
Really? Explain that to me. Show me the pop song on this track list.
I feel like that term, in the literal sense, it literally means popular music. And when I think of the trajectory of popular music over a three-year span, I mean, D'Angelo was popular music. Lauryn Hill was popular music. Erykah Badu was popular music. Kate Bush was popular music. The list goes on and on. I think it's really about creating something that reaches people — and not only reaches people, it connects with them. And I don't think that this album is alienating in that way sonically.
But I guess what I'm trying to get at is — you created this album out of a personal need for self-healing, family healing, ancestral healing. And now it has hit No. 1 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.
Absolutely, absolutely. Timing is a huge part of this album's success. I think that right now, this generation — we've been through a lot. We've been through a lot and we are still going through it. And we are still fighting against these internalized messages. We are still fighting for our voices to be heard. And then we're fighting for action to happen after our voices are heard, after we're documenting these incidents, after we're speaking out about them, we're fighting for action. And I think that it was important for me, throughout the duration of this album, to also feel active in working this stuff out and not just having a platform to vent and cry and mourn.
I think Master P did that so beautifully, with the "Chosen Ones" outro, saying, you know, we are chosen, we have been chosen to go through this journey. If you believe in a higher power or some kind of force that's with us, there has had to have been, for us to go through what we have been through for these centuries. And I feel really good. I feel like 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.
So the album is called A Seat At The Table. At this point, do you feel like you have one?
Absolutely. By the way, I've always had a seat at the table.
Okay, good. Then explain the title.
We've always had a seat at the table. I think that title has a lot of different subtexts. I think one of the seats at the table is also saying that, you know, I'm inviting you to have a seat at my table. And it's an honor to be able to have a seat at our table and for us to open up in this way and for us to feel safe enough to have these conversations and share them with you. I think that, you know, so many times, black people — or any people who are oppressed — have to constantly explain to people what's right and wrong and what hurts and how to approach this. And I think that even me, I'm still learning so much about other cultures and I think that when you have the opportunity to learn from that, you are gracious and you are appreciative and you listen. And so that was also my way of saying I am opening myself up to everyone to have a seat at this table. We've been doing these listening sessions where we set up this literal table and it almost looks like the Last Supper. But the conversations that happen around the table and the sense of pride that happens --
Is it all black women at these listening sessions?
No. There's people of all races, there's men and women. We had one in New Orleans, we had one in New York and one in L.A., and there's been all kinds of people. And it's been interesting to watch the album listening process — L.A. was before the album came out and the other two were after the album came out. And it's been really funny, a lot of feedback that I had is that most people actually like to hear this album alone. So a lot of these people had not heard the album in a group setting. And some of them really enjoyed that and some of them were like, "Actually, I really think this album is for me, you know. For me to digest and be insular and work through these things." So it's interesting how the music is manifesting very differently the experience in everyone.
Before we wrap up, I want to loop back around. Tell us about one of the tracks that can take us to this sense of history in New Iberia, Louisiana.
I think "Rise" really expresses the need to know where you come from in order to know where you're going. I think that when I say, "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." That was really about honoring my lineage, my past, my bloodline in order for me to evolve into the person that I need to be to create this album. And that's why it's first on the album, because it's almost like a cleanser, a meditation to just prepare yourself to go through this journey. And yeah, I honestly feel like when I hear that song, I can feel my roots. It feels very, very spiritual.