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F.U.B.U. World: Listening at Solange’s Table




By Shana L. Redmond | @ShanaRedmond | with thanks NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Saturday, October 29, 2016.



‘If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me so this is not for you.’

--Master P.



For us, by us. Abbreviated as F.U.B.U., it’s a beautifully simple but bold assertion that, in the face of offenses large and small, continues to mark Black cultural production. Successfully branded by four budding fashion moguls in the 1990s, the language has returned as a hallmark of Solange Knowles’s brilliant third studio album A Seat at the Table (2016) in which she speaks to blackness as a way of life.

More than halfway through the album, “F.U.B.U.” (featuring The-Dream and B.J. the Chicago Kid) announces to the diaspora that “this shit is for us.” “Us” is a claim and currency, the contradictions of which most musicians are unwilling to directly name or wrestle with. But Solange body surfs the crowd of listeners with faith that they’ll support her. (And we do.) The stately pace of the song marks its seriousness, as does its preface by “Interlude: For Us By Us” in which New Orleans emcee-entrepreneur Master P. (neé Percy Miller) juxtaposes his solicitation by corporate labels with his grandmother’s domestic work in a white woman’s home. By seizing the means of production and selling his music under his terms, he liberates his voice and builds a fortune, in the process emancipating Big Mama as well.

“F.U.B.U.” is more than a song; it’s the approach, worldview, and ethic of A Seat at the Table and exposes the satire of the album’s title. “F.U.B.U.” documents histories of ingenuity and resistance while also supplementing the labors of contemporaries like Killer Mike who is calling for a renewed and expanded “Buy Black” campaign in which Black folks use our purchase and saving power to advance our communities.

Yet Solange is also drawing on the feminist energies and archives of Black women performers who have long argued that their labors in culture are intended for particular audiences. Listen, for example, to Nina Simone who introduced her 1969 live recording of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by saying:

…this is our latest song. It’s on 45, RCA Victor. Now, it is not addressed primarily to white people though it does not put you down in any way. It simply ignores you, for my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get. So since this house is full and there are 22 million Blacks in this country, I only want one million to buy this record. Do you understand me?

Simone provocatively announced to her majority white audience that her anthem was not for them. Solange has, almost fifty years later, taken this impulse to unique heights; she refuses the digestible anecdotes used to streamline blackness and instead carefully documents its quotidian and fantastic elements for listeners who hear and know her cues. What Black woman can’t identify with “Don’t Touch My Hair,” one of two lead singles that, with the assistance of Afro-British musician Sampha, takes the mundane experience of unwelcomed touch and gives it transcendental meaning for those wearing the “crown.”

Solange provides a fundamentally different model for Black liberation that honors who we are rather than what we’re made to be. Delivered in a cool mezzo, her insights punctuate the album from the multi-voiced harmony and we-ness of “Rise” to “Weary,” which announces the fatigue of racism felt by those “weary of the ways of the world.” Even as listeners share trials and tribulations—those that affirm our “right to be mad” (“Mad”)—Solange offers A Seat at the Table as a group conversation in which we don’t hold fear, anxiety, sadness or joy alone. The perfect weight of Solange’s voice—not too light, not too heavy—draws listeners into an intense intimacy in which we become flies on the wall during her creation as well as her cherished conversations between family (her mother and father) and neighbors (including Master P.).

As curator, composer, and voice Solange designs difficult sonic and psychic connections that pilot the listener through collective fury, grieving, and healing. “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care),” featuring the golden era griot Q-Tip, follows “lovers on a mission” whose steps are accompanied by a beat drop that rocks the body, prompting the self-care of movement even as Solange acknowledges “I know you’re tired/ know I’m tired.” The following interlude is a brief, a capella session featuring Kelly Rowland and L.A. native Nia Andrews who, in under thirty seconds, distill an excess of Black girl magic into simple yet commanding triads. “Interlude: I Got So Much Magic (You Can Have It)” is a lesson in (vocal) fundamentals, collectivity, and pleasure as the women laugh together through the announcement that they’ll share what they’ve got if you’re short.

In a society where the call for “Black” is met by a response of “All” and where the victors still tell the stories, A Seat at the Table is an audible heiroglyph For Us, By Us. It’s a disappearing art to stand in one’s body and be fluent in its passion when so much of what we’re trained to know and be as Black people is based not in experience but in theories, not in love but in criticism. Solange tuned her ears and turned her sights to those who “need all the inspiration and love that they can get” and trusted that we would listen and understand. And we do. Solange didn’t take a seat at the table—she took them all, in the process revealing what is possible when we tell each other who we are.

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Shana L. Redmond is Associate Professor of Musicology and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014).


F.U.B.U. World: Listening at Solange’s Table

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