Turning The Tables
With her latest album, A Seat at the Table, Solange created not only an R&B masterpiece, but also a call to action. Here, the soul-singing superstar opens up about her upbringing in her mom’s salon, talks about her womanist awakening, and shares a tearful moment with our interviewer.
By Jamia Wilson
Photos by Nadya Wasylko // Styling by Peju Famojure // Makeup by Tracy Alfajora // Hair by Amy Farid // Nails By Mis Pop // Stylist Asst: Anna Estelle Flaglor // Shot at Attic Studios NYC
Top photo: Song Seoyoon Jacket; Wendy Faye Jewelry Earrings
Solange Piaget Knowles is a time traveler. At just 30 years old, she already represents a bold new synthesis of R&B, funk, soul, and hip-hop, expertly carrying the mantle of her creative forbearers while imagining whole new artistic worlds into existence.
Despite pressure to confine herself to fit narrow industry standards for female R&B vocalists, her latest album, A Seat at the Table, is her most overtly political, critically acclaimed, and commercially successful release to date. In it, Solange takes unapologetic ownership of her cultural pride, voice, and style. “All my niggas let the whole world know,” she declares on her song “F.U.B.U.” “Play this song and sing it on your terms/For us, this shit is for us/Don’t try to come for us.”
Clearly, Solange was unambiguous about her goals and intentions while making her third studio album. Beyond serving as a love letter to blackness past and present, A Seat at the Table is a call to action. A breathing piece of oral history, the album empowers listeners to share and celebrate their stories of triumph and tribulation, practice self-care, and reach back for ancestral wisdom while marching forward in the face of injustice.
I first meet Solange during her BUST cover shoot in Long Island City, Queens. Taking shelter from frigid winds, I confirm that I’m in the right place when I notice the shadow of her long silhouette and curly fro swaying on the bright studio wall. For the next few hours, Solange dazzles in a number of bold futuristic styles, including stunning designs by Issey Miyake, whom she’s credited on Instagram for inspiring the avant-garde aesthetic she and her mom, Tina Knowles Lawson, developed for A Seat at the Table’s visual elements. Lithe and graceful, Solange glides around the set with an air of purposeful lightheartedness, despite being tired from recent travel.
During a break, I stroll over to check out the pulsing playlist we’ve been enjoying, featuring Sun Ra, Sade, Outkast, Prince, Cassie, Michael Jackson, Animal Collective, and Marvin Gaye. When I notice the music is playing on Tidal—her brother-in-law Jay-Z’s streaming service—Solange’s team confirms that she made the mix. As I continue to listen, I recognize how whispers of this eclectic blend of intergenerational influences made it in to her emergent sound.
Solange’s recent tribute to the 20th anniversary of Erykah Badu’s iconic debut album, at Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Music event, is just one example of her reverence for the artistic lineage that inspired her own evolution. Of Badu, Solange remarked, “she is mother, she is sister, she is friend, she is auntie, she is chief, she is warrior of many tribes. She is a beautiful reminder that you cannot put us in a box.” Her words, while directed toward Badu, could easily be used to describe Solange’s own persona—one that centers the beautifully messy complexities of black women’s lives.
The next day, a few hours before Solange is due to “get back to [her] babies”—she lives in New Orleans with her husband, music video director Alan Ferguson, and her 12-year-old son Julez from a previous marrriage—we meet for breakfast at Hotel Americano in Chelsea’s gallery district. Illuminated by the sun streaming in from the patio, Solange sips decaf as if she hadn’t just spent the past 48 hours keynoting at Yale, modeling for BUST, and attending Open Ceremony’s protest-inspired ballet performance and fashion show.
Admiring her air of tranquility despite her demanding schedule, I note that she truly “woke up like this,” as her older sister Beyoncé—whom she affectionately refers to as “B”—famously sang on her self-titled album. After commiserating about the power of the protests at JFK airport that occurred following Trump’s Muslim ban, and our shared aversion to the cold weather’s effect on our Southern-bred sinuses, we dive into the deeper conversation.
“I was so invested in the visual storytelling, of wanting to see black men and women in the way that I see them every day, which is powerful but graceful but also vulnerable and also regal and stately.”
Solange starts out by describing how growing up in her mother’s Houston, TX, hair salon inspired her. “I saw women of all kinds, from doctors to teachers to strippers to drug dealers’ girlfriends to judges. I saw the entire spectrum of black women,” she muses, vividly describing the clientele who she refers to as her “2,000 aunties.” Passionate about the power of the salon as a convening space for women to care for themselves and tell stories about their lives, Solange noted the common threads between their experiences. After nibbling on her plate of smoked salmon and eggs, she says, “I would see them come into the salon, and carry these woes of whatever they were dealing with in the world, whether it be career issues, relationship issues, self-esteem issues, or whatever they were working through. And as you know, a black hair salon is really kind of a mediation and therapy session between you and your stylist and the other women in the salon,” she says with a laugh. “I would hear these conversations,” she continues, “and I think what I was hearing, outside of the triumph and the resilience and the grace, was also just how hard it is out in the world for us.”
That female bonding didn’t end once the salon closed for the night. From the way Solange describes it, the Knowles family home was also a place where sisterhood ran deep. “I grew up in a house with five women,” she says. “My mother, my sister B, Kelly [Rowland, of Destiny’s Child] actually moved in with us when I was five. And my other—I also consider [her] my sister, but she’s actually my first cousin, Angie—she moved in when I was 13. So this household was all women’s work. Literally. And there was absolutely nothing that couldn’t be done between us. My father was super smart and brilliant and instilled many wonderful qualities in us, but my mother was really the heart and soul of the family.”
Chatting more about how she “felt the sisterhood of black women everywhere” as a result of her upbringing, I share with Solange that her conscious lyrics have created for many, including myself, a sense of spaciousness and possibility in the midst of a tense and traumatic social climate. “Thank you for recognizing that,” she says. “I think that as women, and as black women in general, we’re always having to fight two times harder.” Solange straightens in her seat. “And you know, even with my videos, I was so invested in the visual storytelling, of wanting to see black men and women in the way that I see them every day, which is powerful but graceful but also vulnerable and also regal and stately. And how we use style as a language, and our pageantry, and how we communicate.”
Storytelling is just one way Solange leverages her platform to lift up her community as she climbs. Like Prince—the late artist whose activism inspired Solange’s January lecture at Yale—she walks her talk by investing in women and people of color, in public and behind the scenes. For example, her collaboration with hairstylist Nikki Nelms inspired a tidal wave of YouTube and selfie memes celebrating and emulating her natural black tresses that became known as the “Solange Effect.” The phrase was coined by writer Doreen St. Felix in Vogue to describe a phenomenon that both elevated public conversation about black women’s beauty, and helped Nelms cultivate global recognition. Solange has also been compiling a directory of black-owned businesses, curating a crowdsourced A Seat at the Table syllabus, and speaking out about moving her money to a black-owned bank.
This past February, while accepting her very first Grammy for Best R&B Performance for her song “Cranes in the Sky,” Solange recognized the far-reaching impact of performers with social justice legacies like Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone, who “push political messages through their music and artistry.” In a media and political landscape that is becoming increasingly fraught with fake news and “alternative facts,” she used the Grammy stage to call for truth telling and community building. “I think that all we can do as artists, and especially as songwriters, is write about what’s true to us,” she said. “I felt like I won far before this, because of the connectivity that the record has had, especially with black women and the stories that I hear on the street.”
Although Solange’s political voice is more amplified on this latest album, I learn during our talk that she’s been building support systems for black women and girls since she started a group called “The BF club” in middle school. She reaches for her phone and shows me an image of her 13-year-old self, posing with other young brown girls with cornrows and delightful smiles. “I realize, looking back, that it was really about creating fellowship in a space that felt like it didn’t belong to us, because it was a predominately white school,” she says. “We were giving each other sisterhood and camaraderie and just creating safe spaces for ourselves.”
Since Knowles speaks so much about how powerful women inspire her, I ask if she identifies as a feminist. “Yes. I am a proud black feminist and womanist and I’m extremely proud of the work that’s being done,” she says, referring to the school of thought put forth by writer Alice Walker in her 1983 essay collection In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, in which African-American women are placed more centrally in the struggle for women’s liberation. “I’m a feminist who wants not only to hear the term intersectionality, but actually feel it, and see the evolution of what intersectional feminism can actually achieve. I want women’s rights to be equally honored, and uplifted, and heard…but I want to see us fighting the fight for all women—women of color, our LGBTQ sisters, our Muslim sisters. I want to see millions of us marching out there for our rights, and I want to see us out there marching for the rights of women like Dajerria Becton, who was body slammed by a cop while she was in her swimsuit for simply existing as a young, vocal, black girl. I think we are inching closer and closer there, and for that, I am very proud.”
“I want to see us fighting the fight for all women—women of color, our LGBTQ sisters, our Muslim sisters. I want to see millions of us marching out there for our rights.”
Reflecting on how she developed her black feminist identity, Solange ruminates on how both the women at her mom’s hair salon and writers and activists online helped inform her perspective. “I feel really grateful that I’m also a student of black feminists and womanists,” she says, “and of women who have created this terminology for us to use as we carve out our space. That is one of the beautiful things about the Internet. I’m a high-school educated woman. And I rely on incredible women like the ones you mentioned [we had spoken previously about the groups Crunk Feminist Collective and Black Women’s Blueprint], and women like yourself, to really guide me through the process of carving out my feelings, and how I articulate them.”
Solange’s remark about carving out her feelings leads me to thinking about the ways she’s literally rewriting the rulebook for women vocalists, and transforming the cultural narrative as a composer. Above all of her other talents as a singer, actor, model, and producer, Solange prizes her identity as a songwriter most of all. Her eyes light up when I ask about the role of writing in her life and work. “It means everything to me,” she says. “I consider myself a songwriter first, and in the trajectory of what I’m trying to create, singer comes last. I’m really invested in storytelling.”
Her longtime writing prowess has flourished since she won second-place in the United Way’s jingle-writing competition in elementary school, and expanded into an impressive songwriting and production resume that includes, among many other achievements, writing, arranging, and co-producing every song on her new album, and serving as music consultant for Issa Rae’s HBO show, Insecure. Although I’ve observed an increased focus on this aspect of Solange’s talents in recent profiles, many features about her are more eager to focus on her personal relationships, vocal abilities, and fashion sense than on her formidable composition skills. It’s with this in mind that I share with her my frustration with a longtime trend I’ve observed in mainstream music coverage. “Solange, I’m exhausted by it,” I say, “but why is it that mostly white women vocalists get praised for writing their own music?”
Solange responds thoughtfully. “I don’t know the answer to that,” she says. “I think that the black female voice, especially in R&B music, has always been kind of accessorized. Because I guess it’s supposed to be just so easy and effortless for us, as vocalists.” She sighs. “[Singing] is something that a lot of people think that we are all just blessed with. And so, maybe that’s it. But I do know that there are so many black women who paved the way for me as a songwriter. I think about Missy Elliott, and what she achieved not only as a songwriter, but as a producer in such a male-dominated industry at the time. I mean, you can’t get any more feminist than what she was writing.”
Despite Solange’s magical ability to make it feel like she’s bending time and space in her performances, we aren’t able to shape shift our way out of the reality of her impending flight departure time. I thank her for taking a risk by speaking truth to power, and for providing affirmation and solace at a time when so many are in the throes of alienation due to the prevalence of sexism, racism, and state violence targeting people of color. “I’ve literally just been immersed in gratitude that the work that I feel like I was the most afraid to do, in the beginning, has been received in this way,” she says, wiping away a few tears. “What this project has done for me is more than I could ever—I’ll start crying—but more than I could ever do for anyone else.”
Heartened by Solange’s vulnerability, I realize that the resonance and connection her album provided for countless women means just as much to her as it does for us. Humbled, I placed my hand on my heart and share that A Seat at the Table moved me in a way that felt similar to when I read Ntozake Shange’s award-winning choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide /When the Rainbow is Enuf. Tears well up in my eyes as I say, “Thank you for your assertion of self and for the knowledge that I’m not alone in my experience. We’re persevering.”
Our eyes meet, and she declares, “Well, that is what women are doing for me. When I read [poet, essayist, and playwright] Claudia Rankine, that is what she’s doing for me. I feel like black women go through so much on a daily basis, we need to tell each other, ‘Hey girl, you’re not crazy.’”
And with that, we end a conversation that has traveled across our shared experiences, raised our consciousness, and brimmed with therapeutic reflection. As she walks out the door in her silky, pearl-colored Tigra Tigra shirt, I notice the writing on her back for the first time. Embroidered in scarlet are the words, “GOOD LUCK.”
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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