“Who We Believe We’re Allowed to Be”: SZA Brings Arts and Scholarship to Princeton

Written by
Mollika Jai Singh, Department of African American Studies
Sept. 26, 2023

SZA strutted into Richardson Theater, stopped at the podium, and took off her high heels and blazer. “I just had to convince you all I was professional for like two minutes,” she said, laughing. This was the scene on the evening of Tuesday, September 19th at SOS: A Discussion on Race, Art, and Activism in America, an event hosted by the Effron Center for the Study of America.

The director of the Effron Center, Professor Aisha Beliso-De Jesús introduced Solána Imani Rowe, known by her stage name SZA, before the star gave a short talk on her Pan-Africanist and activist roots in New Jersey. After her talk, SZA surprised the crowd with an a cappella rendition of her hit single “Kill Bill.” Students at this point flouted the “no recordings” rule of the event and jumped to their feet to sing and clap along.

After the impromptu performance, Professor Beliso-De Jesús led a discussion of scholarly guests with diverse perspectives and fields: University of Washington’s Department of Law, Societies & Justice’s Professor Megan Ming Francis; Yale Professor of History, African American Studies, and Law Elizabeth Hinton; and human rights lawyer and author Derecka Purnell.

SZA spoke about her parents’ roots in Pan-Africanism, her mother’s living in Africa and work as a dancer with Katherine Dunham, and her father’s work with CNN and CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She said, “My parents reminded me everyday that I was Black and special and needed to be heard.”

The star reflected on her mother’s work in the education sphere and what she now understands about the impact of the education achievement gap: “When my mom was working so vigorously to close this achievement gap, I saw it, but I didn't understand: oh, when we’re grown and we leave this place, these experiences will shape us into who we believe we’re allowed to be.”

SZA talked about the activist issues she is interested in and has worked on, including environmental racism, redlining, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in the water in New Jersey, high cortisol levels in Black women, and food deserts such as in Camden. She expressed a feeling that she is not doing enough and the difficulties of dealing with these overwhelming issues, and she discussed how this relates to her newest album. “You don’t even know where to start on a human level, because things are eroding from the inside out, while people are telling you that it’s not happening. So, my beingness of a Black woman with elevated cortisol levels brings me to SOS, to making an album that may be more aggressive, that may fit into that weird spectrum of angry Black women, but I have a lot of experiences to share and say,” she said.

SZA also expressed that activist work can take place directly in her work, beginning with who she works with: “It’s also trying to involve people who look like me without being insensitive to their daily life, because I do understand that your cortisol levels are higher than everybody else. I do understand that you're trying to get your day to day. Those of us who have left these spaces of high stress still have family and friends all in those spaces and that becomes a focal point, but you wanna have a global view as well.” 

She also expressed what activism looks like within her field of the recording arts. “I know I can’t break the colonial infrastructure with an album, but I can show being a Black woman in a space that isn’t welcoming and that isn’t really supportive past a certain state. It’s like, ‘we definitely wanna hear what you have to say, until it's annoying or aggressive or abrasive or frightening.’ That is my act of activism: screaming anyway. It’s really important to try, even though it seems really idealistic and ridiculous,” she said.

When Professor Beliso-De Jesús took back the stage after “Kill Bill,” she was sure to refute one aspect of SZA’s presentation. “I think an album can break the colonial infrastructure,” she said, affirming SZA’s work as politically and academically valuable. “Every time you said ‘I am not an academic,’ I thought, yes you are.”

In a discussion of holding space for Black women and challenging traditional definitions of Black excellence, lawyer Derecka Purnell addressed SZA, noting the transcendent power of music: “We all are shifting what does it mean to have an experience at a place like Princeton, to appreciate the beauty of the music and the art and poetry, but then also what that actually does, how it actually transforms the world and all of us here. It was a tangible embodied experience of transformation that you gifted us and that you give every day to so many people and in terms of the books that we write can’t touch even a quarter of the kinds of hearts and souls that you transform with your power.”