Solange, the Polymathic Cultural Force

Solange, the Polymathic Cultural Force

A MONONYM IS possessed of a certain celebrity: Prince, Madonna, Iman. No surname needed, thank you very much. Just a couple of syllables and the whole of the mononym’s grandeur flashes across our consciousness.

Solange. Two mellifluous syllables and her face springs to mind: the fierce, open gaze, those striking full eyebrows. Solange the singer, songwriter, choreographer, visual and performing artist, with four, soon to be five, albums to her name. Solange the 2017 Grammy winner: Best R&B Performance, “Cranes in the Sky.” Solange, who earlier that year performed for President Obama and the first lady at their final White House party. Solange, whose acclaimed 2016 album, “A Seat at the Table” yoked artistry to activism with its piercing inquiry into race and identity in America, with lyrics such as, “You got the right to be mad / But when you carry it alone, you find it only getting in the way.” Solange the culture maker, whose performance art, digital work and sculpture have been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the Menil Collection in Houston, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Tate Modern in London. Solange, named the Harvard Foundation Artist of the Year in 2018.

My editor arranged for the mononym and I to meet at her Los Angeles mixing studio. I am expecting full-throttle celebrity glamour — a gleaming glass structure, a state-of-the-art room with wall-to-wall equipment blipping and glowing like the inside of a spaceship. Instead, I find myself on a pleasant residential street in a sleepy part of town. As I step out of the car, a toddler zooms past on a scooter, harried mother on her heels. I think I must have the wrong address. Shortly thereafter a young woman steps through a gate at the end of a wooden fence and leads me through a patchy lawn, down a narrow concrete pathway to the doorway of the small bungalow in which Solange sits alone, humming, bathed in California sunshine. The glossy studio of my imagination is instead a sparsely furnished room with white wooden floors and white clapboard walls. Solange, 32, rises and greets me, not with the cool magnanimity of a mononym, but as one curious soul encountering another, one black woman meeting another.

She has come to this spare, meditative place to put the final touches on her album. What’s it called? How many songs are there? Who did she collaborate with? How will she tour it? The album’s release is imminent this fall, probably sometime soon. But, even within this studio, Solange keeps these details close: The record will likely arrive into the world fully formed at some mysterious and unexpected moment, like a meteor cratering into the culture. But she will not be rushed.

So let’s anticipate the album for a minute. We are only at the beginning of her story, the tale of a multitalented innovator coming into her greatness: an artist in the prime of her becoming.

IN THE EARLY ’90S, a young Solange Knowles went to church on Sundays with her family, like a great many people in Houston’s Third Ward, where she was born. The Third Ward is deeply African-American; it was a civil rights epicenter in the 1960s and the site of the city’s first nonprofit hospital for black patients during the harrowing decades of Jim Crow. The neighborhood has a habit of birthing great black women: The actress Phylicia Rashad and her sister, the director and choreographer Debbie Allen, grew up there. I can see Solange’s church in my mind’s eye. I went to a similar one as a girl in Philadelphia: black men and women in their finery — and hats, of course, always hats — the preacher’s syncopated call to souls after the sermon. After the white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black people in a South Carolina church in 2015, Solange tweeted: “Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?” The atrocity of the event would have been that much more visceral to her, more horrific, because she could envision that sanctuary and the people inside.

On those Houston Sundays, she sat in the pews watching the men and women of the church catch the spirit, as they say: The Holy Ghost would come down into them and send them speaking in tongues and dancing in the aisles. This is an uncanny experience: hard to describe if you haven’t seen it and impossible to forget if you have. Solange looked on spellbound — was it truly possible for people to be taken over in that way? What if the Holy Ghost came for her? Her fascination was mingled with fear, she says now. “I would go to the bathroom, and I would wait for the organ to quiet down, and then I would walk my little ass back in there after it sounded like the Holy Ghost had left the building.”

We laugh, in part because I, too, sat in those pews, alternately awed and terrified by the grown folk catching the spirit. We laugh, too, because we recognize a fundamental truth in that girlhood memory: Every person who wishes to create art that has meaning must face the Holy Ghost, metaphorically at least; she must struggle with whatever she feels called upon to create, the thing that wishes to inhabit her. For me, fiction writing makes this extraordinary demand — talking to Solange is full of these moments of recognition. That recognition, that need to reflect back, is a fundamental aspect of her work. She makes art in which black people, particularly black women, see themselves. It is not just that her live performances typically feature solely black dancers and musicians, or that her lyrics describe experiences so familiar to many black people (just listen to 2016’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” with the lines “They don’t understand / What it means to me / Where we chose to go / Where we’ve been to know,” about that specific act of fetishization and presumption). It’s that her output is infused by a fundamental orientation — culturally, politically, psychically — to blackness. “I grew up in a house with four black women,” she says. “My mother [Tina Knowles Lawson], my sister [Beyoncé], Kelly [Rowland] and Angie [Beyince, her cousin]. That’s just where I feel safest. It’s what feels like home. It’s what feels inspiring.”

“MY DREAM WAS to go to Juilliard,” Solange tells me. Dance was her first aspiration and introduction to performance. As a child, she spent hours watching clips of Allen on the ’80s television show “Fame.” She went to see Lauren Anderson — one of the first black ballerinas to become a principal dancer in a major company — glissade across the stage at the Houston Ballet. In those years, Beyoncé’s group, Destiny’s Child, was rapidly becoming one of the most successful pop outfits of the ’90s and early 2000s, with a string of No. 1 hits and four platinum albums.

That stratospheric success presented an opportunity: When Rowland was injured, Solange, then 14, began touring with the group, primarily as a dancer. But a year in, she tore her meniscus. As her knee healed, she began writing songs, which “came out of a need to express another facet that my body couldn’t,” she says. This, too, is key to Solange’s artistry: Limitation leads her to discovery. So much of the artist she is now resulted from “feeling limited in how to tell my story,” she adds. This is how a polymathic artist is born: When one mode of expression proves itself insufficient, she looks to others. Visual art made an early, powerful impact. Solange’s first exposure was in the Knowles home: Her mother is an avid collector of work by African-American artists; her holdings include work by the 20th-century Abstract Expressionist Romare Bearden and the Harlem Renaissance sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. Solange made regular visits to the Menil Collection, a no-fee institution with a large collection of contemporary works. “That was one of the first art spaces I had access to,” she says. “I would go into the Rothko Chapel” — the nondenominational all-brick sanctuary completed in 1971, a year after Mark Rothko’s death, hung with 14 of the painter’s large-scale canvases in purples, browns and blacks — “and sit in there for hours.”


Dries Van Noten jacket, $1,480, and pants, $735, barneys.com. Sophie Buhai earrings, $585, sophiebuhai.com. Dorateymur shoes, $475, farfetch.com.CreditPhotograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Carlos Nazario

Those fine-art impulses would need a long incubation period. In the meantime, the teenage Solange concentrated her efforts elsewhere. At 16, in 2002, she released “Solo Star,” her debut pop album; its cover features her wearing a kufi-style beanie in red, black, yellow and green and a white belly shirt. The tracks include contributions from a litany of hip-hop and R&B powerhouses of the early aughts — Timbaland, Lil’ Romeo, Da Brat — but the reception was lukewarm: The website AllMusic called it “a state-of-the-art contemporary R&B album full of big beats, catchy choruses and gimmicky production effects.” Hindsight tells us that in those embryonic stages of her evolution, Solange was experimenting with sound and public persona, figuring out who and how to be as a recording artist, rather than merely mimicking her older sister.

Indeed, this question of how — of understanding the inner workings of Solange’s artistic becoming — raises curiosities about family influence. Her father, Mathew Knowles, the executive producer of “Solo Star” and her manager at the time, famously managed Destiny’s Child (and later Beyoncé as a solo artist) before a very public and difficult split from Solange’s mother in 2011. Theories began to circulate about Solange being pushed into the spotlight too early, a product of the Knowles pop machine. She herself has not commented on these aspects of her life, making it clear that we will not know what happened, exactly, or even the extent to which she wanted to make that first album when she did. These are family matters. And perhaps it is none of our business. (A desire for privacy is both the right of the artist and one of her defining, appealing qualities.) That is certainly how Solange — whose music proclaims the importance of black women’s ownership of the narrative about their lives and experiences — seems to want it. In fact, upon revisiting that album’s liner notes, it’s clear that that’s always been the case: “Solo Star” may have underwhelmed, but it would be a mistake to cast Solange as a pop-music puppet; she wrote most of the tracks herself and co-produced some of the songs.

What we do know is that within two years of the album’s release, Solange had left that scene behind. At 17, she married her high school sweetheart, had a son and moved to Idaho. She’d had a front-row seat to the sensation that was Destiny’s Child and had seen enough: “I was watching how much of yourself you had to sacrifice on a day-to-day basis, watching that journey in slow motion in my own home. …” She pauses, leaving me to infer the rest. Here it is, another moment of recognition, another nod from one black woman to the other: It was a little rough for a minute. Historically, the limelight has not been kind in its portrayal of black women. Eartha Kitt. Nina Simone. Serena Williams. Her own sister. Solange made the decision that fame was, perhaps, too costly.

Now, sitting in the sun-dappled mixing studio, some 16 years after that first album, I ask Solange if artistry and fame, in the conventional sense, are at odds. When I finish the question, she considers carefully before answering, plays with the ends of her cornrows. She is excruciatingly aware of her position and its privileges. A great many of her fans, she knows, are black women, her people. It matters to her what we think. Thus, she doesn’t wish to annoy with an overly precious answer about the rigors of celebrity. Instead, she defers to the pioneers whose legacies are her models. “There are people before me who have done the work,” she finally responds. “Grace Jones did performance art and navigated between those worlds decades before I was even a thought.”

WHATEVER HER reservations about fame, they did not keep her from the songwriting she loved. She began crafting what would become her second album, the retro-soul/pop “Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams,” released in 2008. In the six years between, her personal life had exploded: Her marriage ended, she left Idaho and returned to Houston, then eventually moved to Los Angeles. Her son, Daniel Julez Smith Jr., was just a few years old, and Solange was barely of drinking age, struggling with “what it meant to be a single black mom, especially in this industry.” She is referencing the stereotypes that surround single black women with babies. So much of what Solange has had to overcome, and so much of what she discusses in her music, are the narratives imposed on her: that reflecting back, so that she and other black women can more freely speak for themselves.

She moved closer to the more indie R&B sound that now defines her music — indeed, defines a great deal of contemporary popular music — by collaborating in 2012 with the British songwriter Devonté Hynes on a seven-song EP called “True.” Perhaps the break with the major label Interscope allowed Solange to follow her own vision: The songs are R&B to the core, but with an alternative bent (retro beats, twinkling sound effects) that breaks with convention. Pitchfork called them “compulsively listenable tunes that reference the silken grooves of late ’80s pop.” They still sound relevant, even modern, today. A limited-edition album cover features the artist Mickalene Thomas’s portrait of Solange lounging in a patterned leisure suit against a backdrop of a colorful, textured collage in Thomas’s signature, oft-imitated style. (It was one of the early visual-art collaborations that have since defined Solange’s work: She worked with the Barcelona-based photographer Carlota Guerrero for her previous album, and her company, Saint Heron, recently announced a line of furniture for Ikea with the American interdisciplinary artist Armina Mussa.)

In the years after “True,” as Instagram was fast becoming one of the internet’s primary visual mediums, Solange was transforming into a style icon of sorts, notable for her vibrant, pattern-mad looks (often sourced from up-and-coming designers of color, including Virgil Abloh and Darlene and Lizzy Okpo) and for incorporating other artists into her oeuvre in a way that was more successful, and more natural, than, say, the cover art that musicians such as Kanye West had released. In 2013, she launched Saint Heron, a firm that produces a website that chronicles fashion and culture aimed at women of color and also serves as a community organization, an events company — throwing street fairs across the country — and a label, Saint Records, that debuted some of the earliest tracks by Kelela and Sampha, two of today’s most in-demand R&B talents.

In 2016, “A Seat at the Table,” Solange’s fourth album, released jointly by Columbia and her own record label, announced an artist who had come into herself — or, perhaps, come out as herself. “I constantly called it my punk album because it was like, this is my time to shake things up and be loud,” she says. Featuring frank interviews with her parents on race and history, many of the songs are about American blackness, black womanhood, grief and outrage in an openly political — or, some might say, “woke” — way that aestheticized that ongoing national conversation. The track “F.U.B.U.” (“For Us, By Us,” after the black-owned New York clothing label founded in 1992) became an anthem of the ascendant Black Lives Matter movement: “Play this song and sing it on your terms / For us, this … is for us / Don’t try to come for us.” And while a very justifiable black rage has a voice in this work, it would be a mistake to characterize it purely in those terms. “A Seat at the Table” is also about nurturance: “Be leery ’bout your place in the world / You’re feeling like you’re chasing the world,” she says in the track “Weary.” It is a balm offered to those of us who are bereaved, imperiled, mentally and physically, by living in a black body in America. But it also uplifts and celebrates: It’s an offering to those who despair over the nation’s divisions.


Alexandre Vauthier dress, price on request, alexandrevauthier.com. Stetson hat, $1,005, stetson.com. Manolo Blahnik shoes, $625. Agmes earrings, $480, agmesnyc.com.CreditPhotograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Carlos Nazario

SOLANGE PROMOTED the album with a conventional national tour, but something else was happening quietly behind the scenes. She began choreographing in her downtime. Staccato or swaying movements, many of which developed from iPhone videos she made of herself daily — sometimes without music — formed the basis of a radically new kind of live performance: art events, composed entirely by Solange, presented to small audiences in elite art institutions. In them, the aspects of her artistry that she had developed separately coalesced: music, movement, sculpture. The result is fully immersive. Solange does not merely perform in the spaces that host these intimate events, she takes them over.

In April 2017, she executed the first of these compositions, named for one of the album’s tracks, “Scales,” at the Menil Collection. In this intimate performance of selected songs from the album, she choreographed minimalist dance movements and dispensed with a stage, so that she and her two backup singers (all barefoot), along with a five-piece band, were hardly separated from the audience. Others followed: “Seventy States,” named after one of her own poems, included interactive digital pieces for the Tate Modern inspired by the assemblage artist Betye Saar and her role in the Black Arts Movement; in it, Solange projected clips of herself and a few other women lying in the ocean and trekking up a mountain, some scenes of which were originally concepts for her music videos. “An Ode To” was performed in May 2017 at the Guggenheim Museum. The show opened with Solange and her few dozen dancers marching down the museum’s grand, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed spiraling ramps to the rotunda. The young black New York-based fashion designer Telfar Clemens dressed the troupe in utilitarian white and camel-colored two-pieces: “She had her hand in all aspects of the performance — from the music, choreography and styling to the documentation — and I was blown away that all of the parts came together in about two or three days,” he says. “It was a historical moment.” Solange’s sculptures, white geometric totems, completed the scene. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the audience of 450 was the crowning element: Many of them were people of color, who were requested by invitation to dress in white apparel.

With these events and others like them, Solange emerged as a legitimate multimedia artist, unveiling a kind of performer the public had not yet seen. She released herself, and her talents, from the constraints of category. She expanded the context in which her music is usually heard to include more traditional concert settings as well as the halls of high art. In doing so, she radically reframed herself, her music and representations of African-American womanhood. She understands black music and black experience as art in its own right, venue notwithstanding.

Her mission to bring largely black audiences to typically white spaces is, in itself, transformative. The Guggenheim did not host its first solo exhibition by an African-American woman until Carrie Mae Weems’s retrospective in 2014, just three years before Solange’s “An Ode To.” It would be an understatement to say that the rarefied temples of Western art have not typically been welcoming to black women’s artistry. Her efforts, Solange hopes, will set precedent for other black performers like her. In a photograph taken at the Menil show in Houston, a little black girl looks on, awe-struck. She is too young to grasp all the nuance of what she sees, but she knows it is monumental, and she knows the people doing it look like her. At a series of small performances at Vancouver’s Rennie Museum last year, the venue covered the cost for members of Black Lives Matter. “The front lines,” Solange says, “are open to my people.”

AT A PICNIC table on the scraggly grass beyond the bungalow, Solange’s all-male band gathers. She’s known some of these musicians since she was a kid; she went to middle school with one of her drummers. The men wait patiently, but I can feel their anticipation. The new album calls. The making of it has taken Solange to New Orleans (where she often lives), Jamaica, California’s Topanga Canyon and back to a kind of Houston of the mind. “There is a lot of jazz at the core,” she emailed me a few days after our meeting. “But with electronic and hip-hop drum and bass because I want it to bang and make your trunk rattle.” The sound and feel of the album are set in her mind, but this project, so close to being finished, is still very much in progress — and will be until the very end. “I like to be able to tell the story in 13 different ways, then I like to edit,” she says of her process. Many of the songs on “A Seat at the Table” were 15 minutes long until the final stages of production, when, with surgical decisiveness, Solange cut them down to three or four. She’ll do the same as she completes this yet unnamed album. The record will be warm, she says, fluid and more sensual than her last one. But, seasoned as she is, she’s still nervous. “I have this fear living in my body about releasing work,” she says. “I don’t know any artist that doesn’t feel that before they hit the send button.”

These months leading to the album’s release have been a period of reflection and preparation for the work that is to come. It is not that she has suddenly become a hybrid artist, it is that she has discovered how to execute the hybridity she has always imagined. In assembling a 2017 outdoor performance piece of “Scales” at Donald Judd’s sprawling Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Tex., she encountered spatial difficulties that she says gave her new perspective: “I realize how much wider, figuratively and literally, my work could be if I took myself away as subject.” She is still evolving, finding herself at that point between inspiring others with her activism and art — peers like Janelle Monáe, Questlove and Zoë Kravitz have attended her museum performances, and it was no less than Beyoncé who sang in 2013, “My sister told me I should speak my mind” — and honing her own craft.

Recently, Solange has embarked upon a kind of self-guided apprenticeship. She has been watching the director Busby Berkeley’s elaborate movie musical-production numbers from the 1930s to understand the complexities of large-scale, high-drama choreography. She studied movement with the modern dancer and choreographer Diane Madden. “I want to continue to learn about all of the mechanisms of theater,” she says. “I want to spend a month going to Vegas shows, just being backstage and learning the logistics.” Perhaps that is a sign of her performances to come. Her instructors are wide-ranging and eclectic: Joni Mitchell, in whom Solange found lessons in balancing a career as a musician with the demands of visual creation (Mitchell’s first, never abandoned love was painting); Missy Elliott, whose music videos are genre-defying and imagistically striking. Solange is drawing sonic inspiration from the ’90s singer Aaliyah, the experimental 20th-century musician and composer Sun Ra, the ’60s psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection and Stevie Wonder’s 1979 album “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.”

Now, though, it’s time for the artist to return to the work at hand. As we rise and she leads me out to the yard where we’ll say our goodbyes, I feel the tide of her focus turn toward the band. Making this record, she tells me after our parting hug, feels every bit like those long-ago Sundays in church watching the grown folk taken over by the spirit, carried off into something greater than themselves. With this alchemic mix of multivalent aesthetic expression — grounded in her blackness and, yes, her pop appeal — Solange has finally found her Holy Ghost. And now there’s no use hiding from it.

Published by NYtimes.com