Solange: a new and understated Queen. “A Seat at the Table” review.

 

1191136.jpgEverywhere I go nowadays it’s like, cranes in the skyyyy. Ya’ll probably noticed the Solange craze on this webpage lately. Like streams of echo, Solange’s enchanting R&B voice keeps playing in my head. Her new album A Seat at the Table, released on October 5th, comes like a hypnotic wave, a fused composition of acapella-like vocals with touches of synth and funk. The production is as stunningly pleasing as the aesthetics of her music videos, all together in a paradise of percussion, brass and strings.

Solange carries an air of soul with a surprising lightness, which is interesting because it sticks somewhat in contrast to the topics she brings across her album. Much attention has been given to themes regarding black experience, most noticeably in its interlude pieces such as, “Dad was Mad” or “The Glory is in You,” where you have excerpts from both her parents talking about racial violence, racial integration and black pride.

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Similarly, the song “Don’t Touch My Hair” that features singer, songwriter and producer, Sampha (an African Diaspora artist mentioned in an Ayiba blog post about A Seat at the Table) brings to light the artist’s defiance and unwillingness to compromise her identity. 

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The album bounces back and forth dealing with bigger themes and personal struggles. This is more visible in songs like “Cranes in the Sky” and “Rise.” Beyond race, Solange also reveals dealing with what appears to be depression, a foggy relationship, as well as the compromising sacrifice that is being an artist. In an interview with Vibe she talks about going through a nervous breakdown while producing the album: “It’s more than an album to me. It’s a transitional time in my life…I literally gave up my sanity for a while to do this record. […] We literally were waking up in the morning and just making music all day and all night. […] It just started to wear on me in so many different ways. I started having these crazy panic attacks.”  

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There is nothing more captivating than hearing the beat of drums with the violin and piano reaching highs and lows as she sings in a harmony that is purely magical. In her own words, Solange defines the album as “a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief, and healing.”

After its times of glory, when we thought the age of electronic R&B and pop were over we are seeing now more and more, artists like Solange, Frank Ocean and even on the other side of the spectrum, the more experimental FKA Twigs, begin to change its face. Unlike the kind we used to know from the 90s and early 2000s—Aaliya, Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake, to name few—whose music brought in creative and catchy sounds that made it impossible not to move your hips and sing along, the R&B of today carries more of an experimental touch. Its lyrics engrave deeper emotional sphere and its melodies are adequately lower key; mellow and slow beats are chosen over what was once hyper and catchy. This more experimental progression of the genre allows the listener to pay closer attention to the instrumental techniques in play, as well to the stronger devotion of composing music that tells a story, lyrics that carry struggles of racism (Solange) or abuse (FKA Twigs). These singers are changing R&B in a way that is beyond light and fun but shallow responses to heartache or other personal problems. In contrast to her sister, pop and R&B diva Beyoncé, Solange stands on her own, paving the way for a more challenging outlook of what is perceived as rhythm and blues, thus, making her an ascending yet still understated Queen.

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At the Border

On the floor, lay those documents. They stare back at me, we fixate on each other, both with no clue what to do. It’s been exactly a week since I was refused entry into the UK which by now makes it a second time. The first time was about a month ago, a week before I had all of my belongings ready to depart and start the new life I had set out for myself. A Masters Degree in the most fitting university, Journalism, like I so often imagined absolutely doubtless, right and perfect. But then, I am home, back from an entire day of greetings and goodbyes, what would have been one of my last days with friends in the city where I finished my Bachelors. There lays on the table a yellow package- luckily my housemates were home and received it for me- finally, a decision had been made. Excited though also slightly nervous, I open the package with an air of confidence, ripping off its seal to then the papers, eggwhite color, held now in my hands. Shaking, I turn them over to face the look of the sharp edged words: REFUSAL OF ENTRY CLEARANCE, head of page, in bold black letters. I read again to much disbelief. I cannot take it, deep somewhere I was always afraid of this happening but certainly everything assured to me it would go fine: I had more than enough financials, I had a letter of acceptance from my university, it would have been a yes, no doubt. 

Sometime passes and eventually, I get over it. Immigration authorities are strict, I made some mistakes with my documents in the application, I should’ve foreseen it if only had I looked closely. I guess that made it my fault which meant I couldn’t study this year as it was too late to apply again and registrations were right around the corner. But that was OK, I choose to defer my studies and wait for another year.

With still positive thoughts I decide to go there anyway, my nationality entitles me a 3 months tourist visa: I could stay at a friends’ place, go sightseeing, see the university, take some time to know whether that’s the place I wanted to be, perhaps make use of my network and try to arrange an internship so I can apply for a visa before my studies begin. Nothing major or illegal, just curiosity and excitement, a grandiose feeling of having the world at your fingertips no matter what comes your way (mostly due to privilege or what I believed to be my privilege).  Anyway, tickets booked, I can’t wait for that week to pass. The departure date comes, hours and hours of waiting on the bus I am in line at the border control in Calais, France. Again, I feel the same nervousness I had while opening the decision letter, a fleeting horrible thought comes to mind but confidently I think, everything will be fine. No reason it shouldn’t, right?

“So, visa refusal last month?” says the officer, scanning my passport. I see a look of satisfaction appearing on his face as he stares straight at me. Affirmed, I resume to explain the reasons as requested. He fumbles through some papers beneath the counter too far for me to see and proceeds to ask some direct questions:

  • Why are you coming to the UK?
  • How long  do you plan to stay?
  • How come you’re coming now, a month after your visa was rejected?
  • Are you in the process of applying again?

Unsatisfied with my answers, he calls his colleague over, they talk omnisciently towards my presence to then finally turn over and say: “OK, we will need to do a more thorough investigation.”

“This means we will get your things from the bus now, and then you can depart on the next one.” chipped in his colleague.

“OK, is there a problem?”

“That is what my colleague is now trying to find out. Is it the first time this happens to you?” she retorts with some hesitance. In awe of such question I quickly respond with a firm and definite “Yes”.

At this point I am a little alarmed, but still calm, no big deal. They will just ask me a few questions and soon let me go, I think. First: a body search. She explains we are in a high security area and so had to make sure I was not “dangerous”. Then, the wait. I wait in this relatively big room, here are some books, toys, even crisps and a machine to get coffee or tea-  nonetheless, everything remained still impersonal. The door locks shut behind me, one of those with a number pad and again I recollect her saying high security. In the room I am with two Others: of all people put to stay behind it was me plus two men, both also of color and non-European.

Until this point I cannot fully grasp the situation I am in, still in much disbelief I hope things will go as planned. I wait for exactly two hours until I am called in for more questions. The man who interviewed me seemed decent and also, slightly nervous. I remember finding it funny because his hands were shaky the whole time he scratched questions on a notepad. I responded and observed him write every single word I uttered. I remained honest, not one single lie. I didn’t think any truth would compromise my reasons for visit. From what I understood I was acting within my rights as an X citizen to travel to the UK. I have no clue whether things would have been different. Now, still baffled, I think bout the situation in wonder if I should have said or done things differently. But really in the end I think regardless what you say to them or even documents that you bring, a no is still a no. Nothing you can say or do, all there is is to pick up your things and wait to be brought back somewhere in the middle of absolutely nowhere by two non-English speaking policemen.

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The letter received when I was told I wouldn’t be able to go in. Note that as a tourist to the UK I don’t require to bring any other documents besides my passport. Besides, I did have the documents requested only not as a paper copy.

Now I write from a small stylish cafe in the center of Gothenburg, the city where my step-father works. The inside is toned with patches of brown and beige furniture. Outside: grey, those October days, a shade that’s been filling in the streets for what seems like forever. It’s my second cup of coffee – a machiatto, sometimes I like a change. I am in this country with a strange language but at least friendly with a high sense of social equality and fashion, the Swedes really got it all figured out, which in the end I guess is not so very “least” in the least.

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Of all countries I could go, there are two viable options: one with the highest living standards in the world, where I have a temporary residency, and another where, it is not the safest place but it is my birth-place. Surely not on war, meaning, I could go back to the worse case scenario. That doesn’t necessarily mean I wish to go back there though. That is because, options, aspirations, privileges. Point is, regardless of what happened I am still lucky not to be in a situation where I could be falling through the cracks. But somehow, for me that doesn’t feel enough. It doesn’t feel as quite fine as it should be. I cannot seem to put this behind me and simply “carry on”. I am still pissed, angry and as if a huge injustice has happened to me. Maybe that’s the price of having years of a sheltered environment where it always felt as if I had the “world at my fingertips”, a “global citizen” with no barriers ahead of me. To be completely honest, it feels as if I’ve been tricked. As if a sick joke has been played and I am the only not laughing. It makes me feel horrible when I know in perspective, I really shouldn’t. But like said, I can’t seem to recognize that just yet, so bear with me as I indulge in this self-pity a bit longer.

Suddenly it is like I am stuck in that place again. As if I am somehow waiting for something spectacular to happen. Together there is this looming feeling that I will carry this with me forever which, perhaps, again in retrospect, might not be such a bad thing. Hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger eh? Right. From now on, I’ll maybe be more diligent, extra cautious and organized- perhaps more of a grown up than before. But so, that’s it? Now that I am away from that locked room on the border and have the best of comfort at my disposal- thanks Dad- it does a pretty good job in numbing that memory but still, is this how it’s suppose to all end? One would think cmon it’s fine, at least you get to be in Sweden, where you have the best of health care and social system; at least you have a nice house and at least you have a country you could go back to in case you really have to. It could always be worse: you are lucky. Just change your plan, I mean, how easy could that be when you think about it all? 

I suppose that’s correct. I open my laptop to then find myself with the news: the “UK actually wants to build a wall on their border”, “refugees are trying desperately to get there by jumping on lorries”, “protests in Calais only escalate as France plans to dismantle the entire camp within the next coming months”. I ask myself again, is this it? What the hell am I supposed to do with all of this? Am I supposed to just brush it off? Besides scrapping some frustrations in a somehow coherent manner on my Macbook, I really don’t know.

The sad thing is that not everything just goes away, nothing just disappears as most of us would want to. Coming back to this house where I can sit, eat, drink, sleep as much as I want won’t take away that experience from my memory and all the negative feelings that come with it (this no matter how many mind numbing Woody Allen films I aim to watch). It surely does make things more comfortable for me though, no doubt. With much less fortune than mine, there are many who don’t have the same privilege but similarly, won’t have their problems and experiences to simply disappear. There is still hundreds and hundreds of people waiting for an all-holy, almighty bureaucratic decision to fall from the skies so they can finally join their families and a safer place on the other side of the channel. Young men, women and children – waiting in precarious conditions, cold and wet shelters as the weather now only gets tougher and if that’s not already bad, tear gas upon them as they try to merely show they deserve some rights. I think although most politicians would also wish that, you know, placing some people with real lives randomly around a country and not taking into account their needs would solve the problem – it won’t. Because unfortunately, it doesn’t all just go away and you simply can’t just brush it off. At the same, ask me for a solution and I tell you now, I wouldn’t be able to give one either.

When something like that happens it reminds you of everything you somehow always knew but never too much in touch to actually realize that the world is, surprise, surprise: not fair. Never will, never was. Thinking about what so many people must be going through makes my troubles seem trivial even though that doesn’t make much less painful or easy to remember. When I think back, it gives me a certain weight, a feeling so heavy and lonely it is horrible to think that many must go through this on their own (not to forget the much worse, serious and harming conditions). I won’t go into boasting about how strong they must be because I now know that doesn’t really help anyone- to talk about how strong they are. Because of course they are, they must be.

But in the end, what difference does that make? Besides of stating a simple given, obviously the human being is capable of enduring much more pain than we’re able to imagine. A good friend of mine told me something I only now realize how real and true it is. She said that once in the situation of being stuck, limited by a document, nationality, this can make one feel very bitter and if not able to control this bitterness, such person can end up hating others a lot.

I now feel some of the weight in those words.