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Solange’s New Album ‘A Seat at the Table' is A Balm for Black Suffering

In this review of Solange's new album, Gina Cherelus shares how this release came just at the right time for her and for the black community.

When you need something the most, the universe will often find a way of sending it to you.


When Solange released her second studio album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams in 2008, I was in high school—old enough to fully appreciate the early talents of the Houston-native. Between songs like "T.O.N.Y.," "I Decided" and "Cosmic Journey," her record was one of the things that helped me come into my own as an introverted teenager, just as she was herself following a divorce and the birth of her son at 18.

In 2012, when she released her True E.P., I had just ended a “situationship,” lost a few friends and was preparing to take a semester off of college to intern in New York City. Her eclectic sound mixed with fervent lyrics helped me get over my issues and remain content with my $1 pizza diet at the time.

This year, A Seat at The Table was released a week after my aunt passed away from cancer, a traumatic experience that forced me to face mortality and think about the neglectful treatment of black women who work tirelessly in America. For that perfect timing, I am grateful.

Solange’s third album in eight years, A Seat at the Table is a force on its own. Before the release, solangemusic.com appeared with a mysterious sign-up page that resulted in 85 of her fans receiving a physical photo and poetry book in the mail days before the record dropped.

But the the music is the real prize here. A mix of fragile melodies, striking interludes and a radical message, the album reflects a profound moment in black history. The album is Solange’s elixir to mend black pain—a 21-track dose of healing. Art suited to helping me through a period of grief.

In “Rise” and “Weary,” the two songs that kick off the LP, Solange begins with a request:

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.

She follows this by detailing how she plans to look for her body and that she'll back real soon, undoubtedly renewed.

The African diaspora have, for centuries, faced the crippling pain of racism and exclusion. The ongoing issue of police brutality plaguing the United States has driven this message home of late.

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson and, more recently—Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. All unarmed. All black. With the growing consciousness around the value of black lives in America, Solange has opened a door for unapologetic expression about the fight against racial transgressions.

Using her personal experiences as a black woman, she warns others to “be leery” of our place in the world and continues unpacking the overarching themes of the album: inclusivity, anger, pain, reclamation and power.

Her parents appear on interludes like “Tina Taught Me” and “Dad Was Mad,” where they recount memories of their struggles growing up in segregation and dealing with prejudices. These experiences mirror those of black people today.

Solange paying homage to the elders that came before us not only shows what shapes our lives today, but also points a finger at the poor way black people are treated in our society despite various achievements. On “Mad,” rapper Lil Wayne can be heard alongside Solange defending their right to be angry, so much so that he admits to attempting suicide at one point:

Then I walk up in the bank, pants sagging down

And I laugh at frowns, what they mad about?

Cause here come this motherfucker with this mass account

That didn't wear cap and gown

But the most illuminating voice on the album is hip-hop star Master P. The rapper turned entrepreneur discusses the worth of his blackness in America; the importance of safe spaces and the art that we create that is often stripped, copied and criticized.

"If you don't understand us and what we've been through then you probably wouldn't understand what this moment is about,” says Master P in “Interlude: This Moment.”

Strategically placed alongside the melancholic tone in each track is the feeling of empowerment and Solange makes it clear in my favorite tracks like “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “Cranes in the Sky,” “F.U.B.U.” and “Scales” where she calls for a reclamation of black pride and peace.

In a phone conversation published on saintheron.com two days after the album released, Solange and her mother Tina Knowles joined Judnick Mayard for an extensive discussion of her new music. On “Don’t You Wait,” the seventh track on the album, the songstress proclaims, “Now, I don't want to bite the hand that'll show me the other side,” and juxtaposes with the following line, “But I didn't want to build the land that has fed you your whole life.”

When asked about the song, she said that in past occurrence she has felt suppressed for speaking from the soul, a feeling that many black women face regarding potential repercussions that can come when we dare to express our opinions. “I spoke up on something that did not feel right, and I was essentially told to shut up or there would be consequences,” Solange explained in the interview.

Black people collect microaggressions every day and it’s hard to turn a cheek at the minor things that can grow, fester and turn into bigger problems later on. For some of us, this can weigh heavy for years as we carry the effects of this trauma and pass it onto the next generation. For others, there comes a time where the heaviness becomes unbearable, and we are motivated to gather around with our misery and unload. That’s what “A Seat at the Table” is about—making room in a special space for those who belong to talk about what really matters and begin to heal.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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