Female empowerment by way of Solange and Sheila E.

On Thursday, January 26 and Friday, January 27 respectively, musicians Solange Knowles and Sheila Escovedo delivered keynote addresses at Yale’s Blackstar Rising and The Purple Reign conference.

The topic of Solange’s speech was, “Everybody still wants to fly: activism in pop from Prince to Solange.” Solange discussed her prolific album, “A Seat at the Table” track by track, addressing her protest lyrics and the risks she took to make an album that is not your “typical” female R&B record. The tracks she discussed included, “Rise,” “Weary,” “Cranes in the Sky,” “Dad Was Mad,” “Mad,” and “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Solange told the gripping story behind “Dad Was Mad,” illustrating that her father, Mathew Knowles, was one of six black children from Gadsden, Alabama randomly chosen to attend an integrated school. As a child, Mathew Knowles witnessed his classmates’ parents donned in KKK robes, marching with signs filled with racist slurs, throwing cans and spitting at him and his fellow black classmates.

I fully began to grasp how terrifying it was that our country used children as guinea pigs in the process of integration. As someone who grew up in the Northeast, I always think about how positive integration is as a concept, but it never hit me until now that the first people to integrate were schoolchildren, and these schoolchildren were traumatized by integration, because it meant living in fear everyday of bullying and harassment from their peers and parents of their peers.

I was also moved by Solange’s explanation of the track, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” This song is an anthem to young black women, stating that no one has the right to dictate how they should style their hair and how they should live their life. The song has a soft R&B melody, delivering the powerful message in a gentle way. This alone is a message to black women that they do not have to choose between being brash and confident or gentle and soft. This song delivers a critical message about body autonomy and female empowerment.

In Solange’s words, “I do feel like there has been […] expectation for women to be pretty and delicate and sexy and sensual, and anger is not really one that has been allowed to be expressed unless it’s at the hands of a man, and that was definitely a perspective of mine within the protest that everything does not relate back to the men.” This, of course, was followed by thunderous applause.

On Friday, the legendary Sheila E. delivered her speech under the topic, “Modern love: Bowie & Prince & the art of collaboration.” Sheila E. discussed her career, the challenges she has faced as a Mexican-American female percussionist, and what it was like to collaborate with Prince, specifically on “Erotic City,” as the opening act for the Purple Rain Tour, and as his band mate for the Sign O’ the Times Tour.

On being a woman in the music industry: “‘Growing up being a woman and being told most of the time that I wasn’t allowed to play drums – not within my household, it was never said, never mentioned – outside of my home, ‘why are you playing a male instrument? You can’t do this, you’re just a girl.’ Every time someone said that I couldn’t, you know I had to prove them wrong because I’m from Oakland. It was more so that I had to learn that ‘no’ meant opportunity, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t capable. ‘No’ meant ‘you’re not going to let me through the front door, I’m gonna come through the back door then, or the window, wherever I need to come in and show you that I am capable and I am strong and I am confident.’”

On female unity: “As musicians, as women, we have to talk about things, we have to be okay about talking about things and not being afraid to say how we really feel, but we have to support each other and encourage each other, and we don’t. A lot of the times, we want to step on each other – ‘well, it’s just about me’ – no, it’s not, the bigger picture is about us. Us as a family, as a village, as a people. It’s not just about you. But it takes one person to make that happen, but it has to be about love, and music does change people’s lives, and it’s healing, if it’s done the right way.”

Both musicians’ speeches left me feeling empowered as a young woman in the music industry. Professor Daphne A. Brooks was a superb moderator and event organizer. Her questions were equally intellectual and thoughtful. This truly was a once in a lifetime experience, due the crossroads of academia, activism, and popular culture, as well as the extremely small audience. Solange’s venue, Levinson Auditorium, has a maximum capacity of 450, whereas Sheila E.’s venue, Sudler Hall, has a maximum capacity of 200. The takeaway I got from these two events is that now, more than ever, is the time for women to be strong, confident, and empower each other.

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