By Claire Wang
Musician Solange Knowles and public scholar Melissa Harris-Perry took the stage at CEMEX Auditorium last week for an intimate conversation about the #BlackGirlMagic movement. The event was hosted by Stashimi and Microphone Check, a hip-hop podcast series, and was sponsored by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) and Stanford Arts and Real Industry.
Together with Microphone Check co-hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Frannie Kelley and Stashimi, Knowles and Harris-Perry discussed what it means to live freely today, in what Knowles called an “era of great danger and possibility.” They touched on the merits of formal education, issues of geopolitical racism, family dynamics and more, all in the context of race and what it means to be an African American woman.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” said Harris-Perry. “I think America is still this extraordinary experiment. Your job is to stay in the struggle [even if] nobody promised you could win.”
Knowles also delved into the making of her latest full-length album, “A Seat at the Table,” which debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart. Knowles described songwriting as a process of spiritual triumph, even as she acknowledged that a “breaking point” lay at the root of each of her songs.
“When I think of the black aesthetic, I think of archiving all of these things, all these little fractures of moments of my life,” Knowles said. “It was one of the best things I could have ever done as a mother, as a wife – as a woman. All these things I had so much anger and resentment towards, I understood so much clearer. It brought my son’s father and me closer together.”
The interludes featured in Knowles’ album were composed of sound bites from her own parents, and she remarked that the process of interviewing her parents was her attempt at archiving a piece of family history for her son to keep with him as he grows older.
“My parents are no longer married, so it was a very emotional process for all of us,” Knowles said. “I heard things that I never knew. I heard things that my parents wanted to protect me from. I learned things that made me who I am. It was such a vital part of the process.”
As the conversation unfolded, the group discussed W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness, a term that describes the psychological struggle of perceiving oneself through the lens of a racist society dominated by white people.
Audience member Gabriela Guerra ’19 was most struck by Harris-Perry’s characterization of this concept.
“That difference in experience [between black people and white people] comes from when you are a problem,” Guerra said. “Your body is an inherent problem. Being black is a problem. Being an immigrant is a problem.”
Guerra added that Knowles was “unapologetically herself and unapologetically a black woman” in her latest album, lending recognition to the black experience in America. The focus on the personal as a way of illuminating wider political questions was a theme throughout the evening’s discussion, as Knowles drew on her own experiences with racism to broach the issue of discrimination in America today.
Reflecting on her experience of discrimination as she moved between New Orleans and New York, Knowles said, “When you showcase to me this liberal, fair, educated person [in New York], someone who has had the tools and resources necessary to be able to treat me with empathy, the way I should be treated … that hurt me more [than racism in the south].”
Akua Nyarko-Odoom ’18 was particularly moved by the chance to hear Knowles and Harris-Perry share their stories firsthand.
“Solange and Melissa had a unique and lovely way of talking about black womanhood, love and heartbreak, the artistic process [and] history and archiving,” Nyarko-Odoom said. “It was important to me, as a young black woman, to hear black women I’ve only seen on TV speak with such authenticity about relatable topics.”
As Knowles and Harris-Perry merged their commentary on the condition of black women in society with their personal reflections, they invited the audience to consider their own experiences and achievements alongside the social concerns.
“We’re told everyday what’s for us and not for us. But I’m very clear on what we’ve built, and we built this,” Knowles said, gesturing to the crowd.