Solange Knowles has earned her first No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart for her new album, A Seat at the Table. Her third full-length album, released Sept. 30, has topped charts and excited fans with such songs as “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and her unique musical expression of the pain, pride and sorrow that comes with being Black in America.
Solange’s album is a first-person narrative that expresses her pain as it relates to racism in 2016 America, as well as the injustice that Black people have been fighting for centuries. The singer-songwriter uses civil rights hymns to demonstrate the depth of the Black struggle, the history of that struggle, and the special place music holds in there. Solange even unearths the horrors, histories and indignities of her own family and ancestors.
The younger Knowles sister is not the first to incorporate social justice and issues of racism into her music.
Rapper and activist J Cole is generally revered for his blog posts, interviews and lyrics in which he addresses head-on the pressures, dangers and difficulty that being Black in a racist country places on individuals and the Black population as a whole.
J Cole released a lament, “Be Free,” after the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. Just this year, he continued to address police brutality, and the disproportionate killings of Black men, women and children by police in his song “Jermaine’s Interlude.”
Compton native Kendrick Lamar addresses police brutality from a different perspective, as he has had several run-ins with the police.
“[The recent police killings of young Black men] has really struck a nerve with me because when you experience things like that personally and you know the type of hardships and pain that it brings first-hand, it builds a certain rage in you,” Lamar told XXL in late 2015. This rage has greatly influenced his music, his performances, and his life.
One such performance was at the 2016 Grammy Awards, during which Lamar and other men came onto the stage handcuffed, shackled and wearing prison garb. All the while, a large picture in the backdrop showed a picture of the African continent with the word “Compton” written inside of it.
A few months later, Lamar and Solange’s older sister, Beyonce, stunned at the BET awards with a spirited, African tribal-inspired rendition of the song “Freedom” while ankle deep in water. The single, from Beyonce’s album Lemonade, was released earlier this year. The song has become a sort of rallying cry about fighting for the end of racism in America.
Beyonce has pulled a chair up for herself at the social justice table with the aforementioned Lemonade. Before releasing the entire album, Beyonce released the single “Formation” the day before Superbowl 50, where she subsequently performed the single while she and only the Black women from her group of backup dancers were dressed in Black Panther-style outfits. Because of the content of the song, and the fact that the Superbowl was played in the Bay Area, where the Black Panthers were founded, the implications of pro-Blackness were clear. So clear, in fact, that police departments across the country threatened to boycott Beyonce because they felt her message was anti-police.
Regardless of the racist animosity, Beyonce’s Lemonade hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, her sixth album to do so. Beyonce and Solange are the second set of siblings to both have an album top the Billboard 200 at No. 1 in the same calendar year. Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson were the first sibling to do so in 2001.
The mainstream love of Beyonce, Lamar, and J Cole, and now the strong start to Solange’s A Seat at the Table proves that social justice is here to stay. The messages of pro-Blackness and anti-police brutality are being heard on many levels, and including popular artists, popular music, and chart toppers into that foray only brings that freedom one step closer.