Grammy Award-winning artist Solána Imani Rowe, better known as SZA, commanded the stage at Richardson Auditorium this past Tuesday as she discussed growing up in suburban New Jersey, being a Black woman in the music industry, and seeing her work as a form of activism.
The event — titled “SOS: Race, Art, and Activism” — was sponsored by the Effron Center for the Study of America and took place one day before SZA relaunched her sold-out North American tour, “SOS.” The event consisted of a keynote presentation by SZA and a roundtable discussion with scholars and activists from Yale, Columbia, the University of Washington, and Princeton.
As she came on to the stage, SZA was welcomed with a loud roar and a standing ovation. Students erupted with cheer as she kicked off her heels, took off her coat, and made herself comfortable before approaching the lectern.
SZA began her presentation by reflecting on her childhood in Maplewood, N.J., just an hour away from Princeton. Her parents are Pan-Africanists, and her mother performed traditional African dance. She said she never felt ostracized because of her racial identity. “I didn’t know that all these things were going to be different until I left my town,” she said.
SZA began her rise to fame as a songwriter for multiple artists, including Beyoncé and Rihanna, before releasing her own music. In 2017, she released her debut album “Ctrl” just weeks after signing her first major recording contract. The album garnered SZA five Grammy nominations, and Time called it the best album of the year.
After much anticipation, SZA released her sophomore album “SOS” last December — the event’s namesake. Six years after “Ctrl,” SZA has a changed perspective of the music industry and how her identity as a Black woman fits into a space that is not welcoming to women like her.
SZA discussed how she felt boxed in to the expectations of iconic Black female artists.
“Everybody keeps telling me that I need to make music that sounds like Jennifer Hudson, or I need to make urban music, or I need to look this way,” she said. In reality, she aspired to other artists, such as Blink-182. It was during this time that she thought about one of her favorite artists from her youth, Lauryn Hill (who coincidentally attended the same high school as her). Hill’s ability to break the boundaries of Black female artists pushed SZA to branch out and do the same.
However, even after successfully venturing into other genres, SZA still recognizes that there is a long way to go and that stigma against Black female artists still exists. SZA said that one of the most controversial aspects of the music industry is how the racialization of genre is reinforced during award season.
“I was nominated for [eight VMA] awards and only won an R&B award, selling more records than my counterparts. That’s a conversation we’re not going to have to have,“ she stated.
Moreover, SZA was not featured in the VMA category for Artist of the Year, despite the commercial success of “SOS.” The snub resulted in her pulling out of the performance lineup for the show and her manager calling the move to exclude SZA from the category as “disrespectful.”
In her presentation to students, SZA recalled responses that she had lots of other accolades or should be grateful, but said she should have the same opportunities that are given to her white counterparts. In particular, she hopes to be able to present her music in other music categories such as in pop, as well as be given the opportunities to promote her music on the radio.
“There’s this pattern of feeling like you have to engage with white acceptance, which includes working with people [who] don’t respect you or artists who don’t respect you,” she said. SZA argued that in such an environment, the act of standing up for oneself is a form of activism: “It becomes an act of activism just by saying ‘no.’ I felt valuable on my own. Everybody needs that reminder if you are a creative of color.”
As she approached the end of her presentation, SZA finished with a bang — in lieu of a full concert set-list, she offered an acoustic version of “Kill Bill,” live from the lectern.
Following her talk, SZA engaged in a roundtable discussion with professors Aisha Beliso-De Jesús of Princeton University, Elizabeth Hinton of Yale University, Megan Ming Francis from the University of Washington, and Scholar-in-Residence Derecka Purnell from Columbia University.
The conversation was centered around Black activism. Specifically, the panel discussed what it means to be an activist, their personal experiences as Black women working in activism, and the future ahead. When it was SZA’s turn to speak, she discussed how she hopes to be the muscle of the movement. “Pushing boundaries of what we can talk about, working with a company to open their purse and give to charities — all I want to do is shine [on] what’s important, to try even if it’s really idealistic and ridiculous,” she said.
However, SZA also noted that there is still a long way to go. She recalled her experience of performing in Ghana as an example. “I thought, I’m gonna go to the place where everyone looks like me, it’ll be so restorative,” she explained. However, when she saw how global warming was impacting the environment and livelihood of the locals, she felt disheartened by the lack of care surrounding the issue: “I’m still supposed to perform at this festival and feel really privileged to be broadcasted on major channels — it just feels like the work is not done.”
When thinking about problems like systemic racism or climate change, the singer argued that it can feel overwhelming. So how does SZA take down these seismic issues? Simple — she doesn’t. Indeed, she joked that she cannot “break down colonial infrastructure with an album.” However, she tries to do her part through small acts of resistance.
“I can show what it’s like being a Black woman in a space that isn’t welcoming. It’s like they want to hear what you have to say until it’s annoying or aggressive or abrasive or frightening,” SZA said. “That is my act of activism — screaming anyway.”
Kerrie Liang is a head editor for The Prospect at the ‘Prince’ from Brisbane, Australia. She can be reached at email@example.com, or on Instagram at @kerrie.liang.
Matthew Suh is a contributing writer for The Prospect from Santa Barbara, California. He is a junior majoring in SPIA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Justus Wilhoit is an assistant News editor, Prospect contributor, and assistant Audience editor for the ‘Prince.’