It seems to be that the Obama Age has been a great one for lavish, luxurious, R&B production and its reception. Miguel, Beyonce, The Weeknd: the list is long of culturally significant lavish rhythm and blues. Solange’s has just added herself to that list, with A Seat At The Table, an album of music, sophisticated enough to stand beside the architecture of the National Museum of African American History and Culture though it as poignant as her sister’s Lemonade, that aims to bring more joy to the American everyday.
It’s a weird time for lavish but it is struggle music in the end. Music is sign like any art and exists to signify to others, along with its other properties. It’s especially the case in American society where we’ve produced far more identity music or ideology that defines music as being the sound of an identity, much more than even England does through genres such as Punk or Grime. We’ve produced electronica to match LGBT activism, Free Jazz to match black liberation, etc. Lavish R&B signifies wealth: either material or immaterial wealth and often black wealth. The Obama age has been pretty bad for many blacks in every way (especially economically) though blacks also reap the benefits of Obama’s turning the economy around and other great bills that have gotten passed. Professor Eddie Glaude has written a book about it as a “depression in black America,” in Democracy in Black, to add to the constant news reports of Police killings of blacks. It isn’t Obama’s fault necessarily: it’s what economist Lawrence Bobo calls “laissez faire racism” that is hurting Blacks.
Solange’s album speaks up, as if sermon, as would a pastor, to get the audience humming, screaming, and possessed. Her hair, today’s politics, black womanhood, are sung at the tribune (in the song,) to the kids in their Sunday best, the girls in church, the women in white large hats, and anyone else, of any racial descent, who is not a racist. It brings joy, the long lasting kind that comes from addressing what hurts.
Solange’s R&B is, by virtue of its genre, traditional music to pleasure one’s self with and to signify sophistication both churchiness and fancy nightlife dress up. It exists to signify sophistication to its listeners whom identify with it and produce together a grand ritual of communal, materialistic, joy. R&B, born as dance music in the South, after the lesson in American existence that was Great Depression, a region where folks cared and traditionally care about “high society” (as goes the name of an Alphonse Picou Jazz song from early 20th century New Orleans,) is no misery music. Given that blues sold really well at the time, especially female blues singers such as Bessie Smith, the jump blues, rhythm and blues, would sell like hot cakes and be true to our infatuations (o mama!). It is folk sophistication.
It’s a tradition with defining moments. A name not to forget in the history of R&B is Maxine Powell; she was hired to run a finishing school at Motown. She was hired to teach the singers how to be elegant. It is she who helped bring R&B into an era of magnificent sophistication through The Supremes and the other Motown artists. “Dancing in the streets” by Martha & The Vandellas is another great moment in R&B music: it was the soundtrack to a crucial part of the Civil Rights movement (it doesn’t matter what you wear / as long as you are there – though they were dressed beautifully as they sang it.)
A Seat At The Table speaks up and brings joy at this terrible time in American history for black Americans and as such is also a defining moment but esthetically, it’s not revolution, but it is music moving towards an evolution for the genre (as all artists ingest other art and re-formulate genres.) Harmony Holiday’s poem “Gazelle Lost In Watts” gets pretty close to Solange’s aesthetic: one that features both refinement and deep vernacular feeling and expresses it in an evolutionary shape, as opposed to the same old. The “I” in the poem is an I of folk sophistication, open to every reader, vector of a ritual rooted in a belief in self.
Gazelle Lost in Watts
By Harmony Holiday
I saw you painted on a ghetto wall last summer and thought don’t submit to this medium ... everybody’s running into the wall or running into each other and plagiarizing our future like mummies and nukes, I watched you hug the Mona Lisa. I wanna use the word pariah until it shrugs for us and even their disguises go limp as a fire tumbling down a hillside into the playfulness in my heart, acres and acres of a lean, almost spiritual vibe afraid of its own momentum and then not afraid again
R&B is unique and is the only form of true folk sophistication as black music. The painter Archibald Motley, a mediocre and prejudiced black painter of supposedly-black-bourgeois ideology, beloved by Art Historians, paints what we believe R&B does to black communities but what the music does is closer to what Jean Antoine Watteau paints as his “Venetian Parties” (Fetes Venitiennes) because it is what R&B descends from; R&B is a product of the American melting pot of cultures. As in Watteau’s parties, it produces a whole host of human activity enlivened by rhythm and blues. When Hip Hop tries to bring the materialist joy that R&B can, it is simply labeled materialistic. R&B can be materialistic without stating “car,” etc.: it’s works with the a priori that to live this sort of rhythm in the company of others, one must be able to afford it. May A Seat At The Table bring joy for years to come.