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Self-care, as it relates to Black women, is best defined by poet and writer Audre Lorde. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
The implications of Black women caring for ourselves above all else are, as Lorde said, political. As the world continues to expect more and more from us, we owe it to ourselves to take care — whether we are given the room to do so, or have to create it from nothing. The rise of self-care gave way to three records in the last decade of R&B music: A Seat At The Table by Solange, CTRL by SZA, and Shea Butter Baby by Ari Lennox. These records carved out three distinct paths in the same lane, creating space for Black women in the idea of preserving the self.
Solange’s A Seat At The Table, released right before the 2016 election, remains a monument of the time. The record’s centerpiece songs, such as “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Weary,” were instantly topical, acting as a comfort blanket to protect against the increasingly fraught energy surrounding, well, everything. Originally conceptualized as an homage to her family’s Southern roots, and taking up space through documenting Black personhood, Solange lays out all of her failures and triumphs on her fourth record, giving way to truths that are ultimately universal. Her pillowy voice, warm bass, and delicate neo-soul keyboard sounds provide a soft place to land as we confront all of the things that are ugly in this world.
Solange gave the Black image a distinct place in the self-care movement as we know it today: the album cover features her best Mona Lisa, smiling slyly with multicolored hair pins holding the perfect waves framing her face. She presents the idea that before we can care for ourselves, we have to be sure that we are safe. Solange asserts this idea on “F.U.B.U” (which stands for “For Us By Us”), envisioning a world in which it is safe for Black women to rest, to live.
Establishing self-care as both a political and artistic act set the stage for SZA — Solange’s protege of sorts, and the adored singer behind CTRL, her well-loved debut and one of 2017’s most successful albums.
SZA’s video for “The Weekend,” directed by Solange herself, was a beautiful, slow-moving affair. The sleek, minimal track is about a mixed-up love affair, with multiple people vying for the time and attention of one person. This sounds like normal R&B fodder: a relationship gone wrong, a narrator who is upset at the way they’ve been treated. But, “The Weekend” became a beacon of sorts (and a platinum hit without being a single) — it is an admission of weakness if you look further. SZA admits that she is lonely, wanting to replace all of the someone elses in question.
CTRL was not a planned concept. After signing a major deal, SZA wrote and recorded as much material as possible, condensing it down to fourteen songs. And this is evident in the way it plays out; CTRL is a confessional booth, a diary, the ear of a best friend.
On “Supermodel,” the album’s show-stopping, sparse opener, SZA lets us know that she wants to be beautiful for us, and she has a hard time believing that she can. This admission of her lack of confidence establishes honesty as another important tenet of self-care. The album’s closer, “Pretty Little Birds” is a beautiful manifestation for good after everything that SZA has told us went wrong. She has covered the good, the sensual, the messy. She tells us that everything that she needs from her lover, and from us is to see and to be seen. When SZA sings, it is deeply about the self, with feelings examined from each angle with a goal in mind: to grow.
By the time Shea Butter Baby arrived in 2019, Ari Lennox was gaining attention for being the first woman to be signed to J Cole’s Dreamville label. Self-care had been largely established as a worldly, commodifiable interest, rather than a way to create comfort. Shea Butter Baby served as a balm to this concept, a reminder that the journey to self is messy.
Shea Butter Baby is distinctly feminine, the album’s title track featuring Cole himself serving as an ode to the beauty that is Black self-care on a physical level, silk sheets and soft, shiny skin. But, self-care is more than skin deep and Lennox makes sure that we do not forget this. On “Speak to Me,” Lennox is at her most vulnerable, wishing to know the truth about where she stands with someone who she loves. The delicate punch of “I Been” tackles the allure of escapism, Lennox so desperately wanting to be somewhere else while everything is going wrong. On “Static,” the album’s closer, Lennox implores us to save ourselves from drowning beneath all that is unimportant — reminding us that we are in control of our own destinies. Shea Butter Baby finds and cherishes the freedom that it takes to care for the self.
These three records charted distinct journeys for each of these artists on the same course to understand the self. The portraits of Black womanhood that each of these records paint represent different people at distinct points in time, striving to understand what it is that makes us who we are. That quest for closeness to the self is what makes self-care so important, and what makes each of these records a crucial snapshot of what that means for us. These records highlight the need to seek community, growth, and comfort: all necessary pieces to the self-care puzzle.