An album ​​​​​​​can decolonize.

Written by
Genesis Manyari, Effron Center for the Study of America
Oct. 11, 2023

The walls of Richardson Auditorium reverberated with  energy. The vibrance was unique and tangible, creating a welcoming space for students, faculty, and community members. On Thursday, September 19, 2023, the Effron Center for the Study of America hosted, “SOS : A Discussion on Race, Art, & Activism in America.”  The Princeton community was able to engage in a thought provoking dialogue with Solána Imani Rowe, also known as Grammy award winning artist, SZA. Solána was joined by esteemed scholars and activists, including political scientist, Megan Ming Francis, social justice lawyer, Derecka Purnell, and American historian, Elizabeth Hinton in a roundtable thoughtfully moderated by Effron Center for the Study of America Director and Olden Street Professor of American Studies, Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús. The event served as  an act of activism and a source of healing, cultivating a transformative space where students of color could be seen, and women of color could lead. 

As the audience settled into their seats, an unspoken aura of respect permeated the room. It was as though all eight hundred audience members had committed to embracing the discussion with care. When Solána was warmly welcomed onstage by Professor Beliso-De Jesús,  the room erupted in love.  In an unguarded manner, Solána shed her blazer and heels to simply be with those in the room. This moment set the stage for the themes she would explore. She boldly discussed her early experiences of empowerment, fueled by her connection to nature and the humanities.  How her parents' social justice activism in New Jersey, and their celebration of pan-African heritage reinforced her belief that she was, “Black and special, and needed to be heard.” In leaving her hometown to launch her successful music career, she came to a poignant realization: the world and the industry’s inclination to view her differently as a Black woman, would shape the categories she was allowed to inhabit as an artist, but she did not have to let them pigeonhole her.  

This year alone, the world has seen SZA rise to the pinnacle of music streaming charts as one of the most prominent artists of this generation. Her much anticipated second album, SOS, made a significant impact, dominating the Billboard 200 charts for ten non-consecutive weeks. Only one of eight albums have ever achieved such a feat, a testament to the extraordinary influence and connection SZA holds with her fans. Despite her undeniable talent and relentless efforts however, she acknowledges that there is still so much work to be done. Sharing with us that she had just received six award nominations this year but only took home one, specifically in the R&B genre, Solána openly discussed the constraints that Black women face. In comparison to her white counterparts, SZA isn’t afforded the ability to be seen as a multifaceted artist. This brought her to the point of SOS, what she described as a cry of resistance.  “In a way that is my act of activism, screaming anyway,” she told the captive audience.

During the event,  Solána graced us with her voice, leading the entire audience through an impromptu rendition of her hit song, “Kill Bill.'' It was an unforgettable and cherished moment. The roundtable then proceeded with a conversation about how to nurture and create spaces for Black women. In a beautiful moment of recognition, the esteemed scholars agreed that the knowledge Solána had shared earlier, should be acknowledged as valuable in academia.  The scholars discussed their own experiences of exclusion. Princeton alum, Megan Ming Francis, shed light on how when she was a student here it was difficult to find safe spaces for Black women. The panel discussed  the need to affirm  a deep commitment to ensuring such spaces continue to be forged through daily study, practice, and understanding. 

Elizabeth Hinton's response noted that the event itself served as both an answer and a demonstration of the  possibility of allowing women of color to take center stage. Derecka Purnell emphasized the power of art in envisioning and shaping these spaces. Megan Ming Francis closed by highlighting the essential bridge between political movements and art, “political education cannot exist without art and activism.” Overall, the event was a  collective experience of liberation and healing on campus. In response to Solána’s assertion that she knows an album cannot undo the capitalist patriarchal world system, Professor Beliso-De Jesús responded, “I think you’ve just  shown how a song can decolonize colonial infrastructures.” 

In one last amazing moment, before leaving the stage, the audience rushed the stage, showering Solána with love and gratitude. She responded by accepting a students’ phone handed to her, turning to include herself with her fans, and taking a collective selfie photograph with the assembled guests. She also promised Princeton students with complimentary tickets to her upcoming concert in Newark, New Jersey. True to her word, Solána provided the Effron Center tickets to distribute. On October 1, 2023, the Effron Center took a bus full of Princeton students to Newark joining together with the hundreds of thousands of other concert goers to witness her SOS liberation music in practice. After the concert, Princeton attendees expressed their gratitude to Solána  through photos, videos, and messages, which the Effron Center compiled into a memory booklet and presented to her on behalf of our community. In response, Solána shared a heartfelt video, underscoring the deep impact our event and sentiments had on her. This experience marks an important example of how art and activism connects and transforms America.