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How Solange Combines Music, Art And Activism

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Defy and Enlighten. Those are the best two words to describe Solange's presence at Pitchfork Music Festival.

The entire festival was jam-packed with high energy and activist-themed performances, and the common theme of the this year's lineup was the intersection of music and activism. It was present in Pitchfork's Beats>Bullet initiative, and in the performances of artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Madame Gandhi. Solange’s performance, however, went beyond entertainment or spectacle. Her performance was a work of art worthy of any contemporary art museum.

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In order to get a full understanding of what made Solange’s Pitchfork performance special and unique, we have to go back earlier in the week before the festival began. To say Solange is not a run-of-the-mill R&B artist is an understatement. Solange is an artist who is creating a whole new genre of R&B. She is forging this new path for herself and other artists of color with her label Saint Heron. Saint Heron was as much a part of the festival as the other performances. With a flurry of pop-art installations, film festivals, and readings, Solange helped create a space for art and open dialogue. The theme of this dialogue was women of color in performance. The most prolific of the Pitchfork/Saint Heron events was a poetry reading and discussion done in collaboration with the Young Chicago Authors. The reading was an indicator of what kind of artist Solange is, and what type of performance we would expect on Sunday.

saintherontalkA discussion at Saint Heron's film screening at Chicago's Black Cinema House, via Instagram/Saint Heron

teenvoguepanelSaint Heron's panel with Teen Vogue, via Instagram/Saint Heron

On Friday, during the poetry reading, many guests who attended the event felt Solange, and her company Saint Heron, were helping in creating a space where they can express themselves. The reading was moderated by Teen Vogue Editor-and-Chief Elaine Welteroth. Among those on stage were singer and CYA Associate Artistic Director Jamila Woods. The event was like a preview for the culminating Sunday performance. 

We did not get a chance to see Solange until Sunday, but her presence was all over the festival. Not only where there events before the festival weekend, but Saint Heron ran a small art installation/pop-up shop throughout the festival. The pop-up shop was multifaceted. On one hand, it was an art installation used to help facilitate conversations about the company and their mission; however, it also sold merchandise and allowed concert-goers to take a little bit of the magic home with them. 

Before Solange's performance began on July 14th, people were holding their spots in the hopes of being as close to the stage as possible. Some guests only bought tickets for the Sunday performance, specifically for Solange. When it came to performance time, those who waited were rewarded.

saintheronpopupinstaSaint Heron's Pitchfork pop-up, via Instagram/Saint Heron

saintheronpitchforkA Saint Heron pop-up detail; photo by Isabel S. Dieppa

Solange didn’t go up until 8:30pm, but the magic began unexpectedly at 6:00pm. The group that was supposed to perform before Solange, The Avalanches, had a family emergency and were forced to cancel their show. In order to fill the Green stage spot, Pitchfork made an executive decision and moved singer Jamila Woods, who was performing at the Blue stage, to the Green stage. Then, as if the Yoruba Goddess Yemoja blessed the rest of the night, both women filled the main stage with with their glorious voices. Woods prepared the audience for a night of soul, reflection, and artistry.

Two hours later, Solange came out onto a stage transformed in red and orange. The set looked like it was a time in space between a sunset and a sunrise. There were geometric shapes, and columns on the stage. Every part of the performance was precisely thought out, from the number of people in Solange’s band, to the height of all of the dancers. 

Solange is an artist who wants to transcend the norms that surround gender and race. She will not be held back by the expectations of society, and although her voice is bright and light, her words are weighty.

solangepitchfork1Solange performs at Pitchfork. Photo by Jackie Lee Young via Instagram/Pitchfork Fest

solangepitchfork2Solange performs at Pitchfork. Photo by Jackie Lee Young via Instagram/Pitchfork Fest

Every movement had a purpose, and every lyric had weight. This performance was not about showmanship, it was about expanding the range and repertoire of music. Who says concerts or pop music can’t also be artful? And why is it that artists of color are expected to fall into a certain mold when it comes to music? It is the mold that our society has created, the mold that has kept us stuck in our ways, that Solange and the artists of Saint Heron were seeking to break at Pitchfork.

One of the best moments onstage was when Solange and her dancers all stood side by side. Because they were all close to the same height, they were celestial, almost like a star cluster. They were an intricate formation of bodies moving through time and space. However, each dancer was also an individual, shining brightly. They moved with synchronicity, yet they all stood out, especially Solange.

Solange’s performance reminded us of unity, of working together in order to get ahead. More importantly, it teaches us that we shouldn’t be afraid of creating art we feel expresses our true voice. 

The performance left concert goers feeling like they could move beyond the expectations of society or even their families, it showed them there is no limit to what they can achieve. The sun will set on our old ways of thinking, and rise with a fresher, more wholesome, perspective.

Top photo via Facebook/Saint Heron

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Isabel Dieppa is a writer and actor. She is a part of the performance duo Of This World in Chicago, IL. Her interests lie in science, art, and history. Past writing includes interning for the Chicago Field Museum ECCO program, the national theater blog HOWLROUND, music reviews for UR Chicago, and in a former life was a beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She loves archaeology, kitties, and dancing. The next big adventure may include an archaeological dig in Peru. Follow her on twitter @isabelsdieppa

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