”You know this hair is my shit.”
It was 10 minutes into my 27th birthday when it happened.
I was at a lounge in Cape Town with my cousin and another friend having drinks. South African house music blared from the speakers in the establishment with a mixed crowd of Black and white party goers. By this point in the night, I was more than content with wrapping things up (washed) but it was my birthday so you know, you only live once, so I stuck it out.
While sitting at the bar, a white woman came up and tried to grab my drink. She was likely drunk. Not sure. Don’t care. Why are you touching what’s not yours? I stopped her and then she smiled and tried to play it off by joking with my cousin and I. A couple minutes later, she pets my fro.
I texted my friend back in the states. “I can’t believe some white lady just patted my hair in Africa, f――ing Africa!”
“WTF!” my friend responded.
This is just one instance of many ways black people are seen as a spectacle, exhibit or costume in the eyes of our white supremacist society and aren’t seen as fellow human beings who should be felt, understood and loved.
“Don’t touch my hair.”
This is why Solange’s newest record A Seat at The Table is so necessary and timely for me. The 21-track album released this past Friday is a collection of soulfully airy, spacious, intimate tracks that pour out the afflictions of Black people. Each song expresses a grievance, release and/or motivations that arise from living this experience.
“When I felt afraid or when I felt like this record would be so different from my last, I would see or hear another story of a young Black person in America having their life taken away from them, having their freedom taken away,” Solange said in a recorded conversation between she and her mother Tina Knowles on her site Saint Heron.
“That would fuel me to go back and revisit and sometimes rewrite some of these songs to go a little further and not be afraid to have the conversation,” she continued.
”Don’t Touch My Hair” featuring my audible bae Sampha in particular, unraveled a knot of frustration I often feel trying to accommodate the ignorance of non-black people and even sometimes other black men and women (internalized hatred) when it comes to my autonomy.
It brought me back to many moments of my life when not just my naps but also my name, my skin color, my body, my mere presence made others uncomfortable because I was not conforming to white supremacist ideals or patriarchy. Hair is used as a metaphor for our entire essence on this track and is the perfect symbol, as our hair is one thing that has always been policed throughout history and into the present.
“Don’t touch my hair When it’s the feelings I wear Don’t touch my soul When it’s the rhythm I know Don’t touch my crown They say the vision I’ve found Don’t touch what’s there When it’s the feelings I wear.”
On the song, Solange lays out these rules and speaks for many Black people when they say they want to be left alone and BE.
But there is one specific moment on the song that describes the stand-off that happens between black bodies and outsiders when a violation occurs. On the hook, backed by pulsing horns, Solange and Sampha chant:
“Whatcha say to me?! Whatcha say to me?! Whatcha say to me?!”
It is a rhetorical question, so she is not requiring an answer. It more so means “GET BACK!”
The act of checking violators, an often burdensome labor, is necessary not so much to enlighten the offender, but so that the victim can reclaim their power, stand their ground and set their boundaries. I am not here to deliver you, but I am also not going to accept you disrespecting me.
We are in sensitive times. More and more people are becoming aware and educated of the plight of black people. But do know it is nothing new for us. We carry burdens and pain passed down over multiple generations. Our expression is result of that pain. We suffer from post-traumatic stress from absorbing content that shows us being treated like animals in the streets of America over and over and other forms of discrimination that are too long to list here.
And then many of us have to go to work, raise families and look to find some solace from all the nonsense. This sometimes means we have to wear masks to conform. It sometimes means teaching and laying out facts over and over to show others where they are wrong and how they need to grow in their understanding of the experience of Black lives.
It's genius work we do, without the reward. But with this song and record overall, Solange reminds us to be proud of the magic we somehow conjure up daily and beautifully to survive.