F.U.B.U. Its a sentiment that has found its way, in many forms, into great dialogues of the Black past. Every leader from Dubois to Public Enemy have concerned themselves with self-determination, lamenting over what cultural entrepreneurism means in the lives of everyday blackness. For Us, By Us, the unabbreviated name for a fashion brand that rose to prominence in the 1990s by promoting black entrepreneurship in concept and theory, has found fresh ears on Solange’s third album A Seat at the Table as the record’s central thesis in which she converses with diverse elements of lived black life.
“All my niggas in the whole-wide world” rings out. The song “F.U.B.U.” (Featuring The-Dream and BJ the Chicago Kid), appearing three quarters of the way into ASATT, summons the attention of black people throughout the African diaspora with a brash proclamation that “this shit is for us”—this song, these lyrics, this moment. The snare slams into the listener’s ear at a melancholy cadence, setting the pace to that of a 19th century railroad worker putting hammer to nail. Solange’s voice lightly enters the scene (“one for us” ) and dissolves into the atmospheric tone that pulls at the heaviness of the track’s message.
Tin-can descriptions like “unapologetically black” don’t quite capture what Ms. Knowles achieves with “F.U.B.U.” The term isn’t precise enough, it is empty of what might be intended to be its meaning: black art that isn’t watered down or whitewashed to appeal to white audiences. But the term falls flat because its fundamental idea is still concerned with engaging with and reacting to the white gaze. The “Us-ness” of “F.U.B.U.” concerns itself with fostering dialogue between black people, for black audiences, not pseudo-struggles to withhold apologies.
As twenty-five year rap veteran Snoop Dogg once proclaimed as he sat interviewing 50 Cent, “if it wasn’t for No Limit it wouldn’t be no money in rap…it was no money in rap until Master P came out.” In the track’s preface “Interlude: For Us By Us,” New Orleans rapper and businessman testifies to how he created a model for rappers as the first emcee that approached rap business with an entrepreneurial mindset, setting a serious tone settled in history. The interlude is Master P’s Oral History of the music business, describing how he bucked the system and made music for people who could relate to him. He chronicles rejecting a million dollar record deal that would have stripped him of the rights to his own name, with appearing on the Forbes “40 Under 40” list and having 20 number one albums.
Fighting with his brother over his decision to resist money now for opportunities later came out of his desire to affirm his identity on his own terms and create the music that portrayed his truest self. His brother urged him, “man you should’ve took the million dollars!” But P would have lost his rights to his name, his publishing, and endorsement deals. He would have lost the streams of revenue that actually created wealth in rap music, something that had up to the mid-90s been reserved for top music execs and the whiteness and maleness that comes along with it. P said, “No! What you think I’m worth? If this white man offered me a million dollars I gotta be worth forty or fifty or ten or something.”
It is that instinct that lead to the success of No Limit Records and a new label model that enabled him to have greater creative control over the content of his music and to reward his talent with a greater share of the profits. By rejecting one million dollars, he was able to generate 400 times that and keep Big Mama from working for “the white people on St. Charles Street.” His decision to hold on to his rights gave him his means to build wealth and the opportunity to liberate everyone around him, including his brother and Big Mama. He ends the interlude by crystalizing the guiding principal when creating: “ I tell people all the time, ‘if you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you.”
And with that, Solange’s music takes over, pounding our earbuds into a new stratosphere, at the composing guidance of the past. It is the same urgent current that pushed Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black” into the hearts of young black folk of generations past. It is the same urging that led Simone to declare that that the lyrics weren’t “addressed to white people” but “simply ignores” them, “for [her] people need all the inspiration and love they can get.” Just as Simone made music intended to heal her people, Solange has taken on the tradition, refusing to remake herself and music to appeal to the mainstream. Her concern with inner healing of black folk manages to dovetail into a truly translatable content that retains it’s appeal for listers who need no explanation. Her forceful declaration breathes out into the ears of the diaspora, landing on an archilapago of buds across the world eagerly awaiting her message.
Most of the mental lifting for what would become ASATT began stirring in Solange just as she released her previous effort, True. She received a firestorm of criticism on twitter, calling out so-called music journalists for not knowing their history and culture; for not knowing that “Brandy is a goddess to a lot of people” in the pantheon of R&B artists. “Frank Ocean would say it. Miguel will say it,” she continued.
Knowles was adamant that journalists need to “know the culture of R&B before they can write about R&B” and said as much in an interview with NPR Hip-hop in 2014. She explained she would find herself at parties that she DJed or went to where she would “come across a lot of writers who really, really had a love affair with R&B,” leaving her uncomfortable with the ironic leanings of of many indie outlets.
“I would have these conversations where I would…talk about Jaheim, just anything, anyone and getting nothing back. And I think if you’re going to be a writer about something or someone or a culture, really taking the time to study it” is important.
Frustration set in after her call for writers to know “deep Brandy album cuts” became a monument to the same ironic, token infatuation she had contested. In the end, she was told by a white male writer, noting her growing white audience, not to “bite the hand that feeds her.”
The conversation that haunted her was between NYT Podcast host Joe Carmanica about Solange’s “twit fit” and another white bruh. Carmanica’s guest said, “I went to Solange’s concert and I noted who her audience was, and if I were her, I’d be careful of making these statements because I’d be careful of not to bite the hand that feed’s me.” The host responded by referencing that her audience had become whiter with the release of her album True. There they were, two white men discussing who owns the the product of a black woman’s art and dictating the politics of her expression.
Three years later, on the heels of releasing ASATT, Solange spoke with Helga of the Q2 Music’s “Helga” podcast for an interview where she said she felt the two white men were saying “this [white] audience had ownership over [her].”
The album and “FUBU” specifically is a reaction to the New York Times Podcast that she declined to join to talk about the proposed subject of cultural tourism. “I didn’t feel the need to have a debate about something that I was culturally a part of,” she told Helga.
Those two white men bantering became the impetus for much of the subject matter on ASATT:
“That was kind of the turning point in the transition for me writing the album that is no ‘A Seat at the Table.’ I began to think a lot about that conversation and replaying it, and it haunted me. And it haunted my mother to hear someone telling her daughter ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ And also the racial subtleties—[that] are not so subtle—of what that encompasses when you say that to a black woman. Then you connect it by saying, ‘DO you know who’s buying your records?’ So I was essentially being told to shut up.”
In the “Black Lives Matter” era, responses to brutalized black bodies are met with criticism and calls for a need to focus on All Lives. In each era of the past, those who win, gets to tell their story and curated from their perspective. Solange’s ironic album title is just that, she is coming for every seat at the table by telling black art through experience, not theory. She has kept her ear to the tradition that Nina Simone once perpetuated for she knows now, as Simone did then, that her people need all of the inspiration and love that we can get.