An Aesthetic: Solange's Rise and Her Roots
Let’s start with “Cranes in the Sky” — Solange’s highest charting song off of A Seat at the Table and the prelude to her journey of self-discovery. Here, Solange lists the failed outlets of her emotional turmoil. Drinking, sex, reading, traveling and fashion are all listed as vehicles she used to escape “it.” In an Instagram post on October 4, 2016 Solange revealed that she wrote “Cranes in the Sky” eight years ago. Four years later, in her pursuit of inner harmony, she would start the curation of what would become A Seat at the Table and form an aesthetic that reflected her journey back to her roots and how that journey enabled her to rise to the throne of confidence and influence she now sits.
In January 2017, about three months after the release of A Seat at the Table, Solange was interviewed by her sister, the queen of the beehive, the most powerful woman in popular music, the commanding, the unparalleled Beyoncé. Solange and Beyoncé dive deep into their family history and the reader develops an understanding of how and why Solange made specific choices for the album. There is one passage I find particularly moving “ … the album really feels like storytelling for us all and our family and our lineage. And having Mom and Dad speak on the album, it felt right that, as a family, this closed the chapter of our stories. And my friends’ stories — every day, we’re texting about some of the micro-aggressions we experience, and that voice can be heard on the record, too. The inspiration for this record came from all of our voices as a collective, and wanting to look at it and explore it.” Solange’s search for her roots wasn’t one of pure self-discovery but rather a reflection on the culture “as a collective.” What was their past? What was wrong and what was right with the present? And how would they rise to a better future?
Care and calculation. Everything about Solange’s aesthetic is carefully assembled. There is grace in every action, every decision, every movement that she makes. The “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” music videos have said grace on full display. “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a soft portrayal of elegance. Solange and her backup dancers move in slow graceful movements, dressed predominantly in muted colors. Not only do these colors look beautiful against the backdrop of New Orleans’s buildings and swamps but it allows the viewer to focus on the hair of Solange and the dancers. From the beads flowing through the air in the first shot, to the straightened curls of her male backup dancers, to the iconic hair of the featured Sampha, the beauty of their hair is the subject of the video. One of the primary themes of A Seat at the Table is appreciating the beauty in being Black. As her mother states in “Don’t Touch My Hair’s” interlude “Tina Taught Me” — “I think part of it is accepting that it's so much beauty in being Black and that's the thing that, I guess, I get emotional about because I've always known that. I've always been proud to be Black. Never wanted to be nothing else.” In the music video for “Don’t Touch My Hair” Solange is able to express and draw attention to this beauty through her imagery.
The song and video “Don’t Touch My Hair” represent her roots while the video for “Cranes In The Sky” represents the rise. The colors and locations of some of the scenes in “Cranes In The Sky” strikingly contrast those of “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Solange and her fellow dancers are dressed in bright colors of pink, blue, purple and gold set against towering rock formations and sand dunes of the New Mexico desert. In several shots Solange sits alone atop a dark brown building in a white dress. These images elicit a sense of power. She looks epic. She is epic. As is the rise.
Similarly, in her live performances Solange is the essence of grace and power. When I saw her perform at Panorama Music Festival this past summer what amazed me the most about her performance was its patience. Solange, along with her fellow dancers and vocalists, moved through each song carefully, swaying back and forth until they broke the tension and erupted into sequences of high pitched notes and dance moves that emulated that of a paper crane. There was never a sense of urgency to the performance. Every movement had a purpose and nothing felt out of place. It reflected Solange’s message throughout the entirety of A Seat at the Table: the rise is only possible through carefully orchestrated movements. The goal is not to be satisfied with the status quo, but to recognize its advantages and indiscretions and use that awareness to periodically break through to the next step of social and artistic evolution.
The lyrics of A Seat at the Table are poetic statements. Solange expresses her views on race, gender, the music industry and society at large all while narrating her own story. So much so do they embody poems that Solange released a book filled with the lyrics of the album presented in pages layed out in the style of a book of poetry. Solange’s lyrics tell her story. First she had to remain true to herself, shown in the albums first song “Rise” where she asks her audience to “Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.” She then sings misgivings and faults about herself and society through “Cranes In the Sky” and “Mad,” but recognizes how she can improve “ ... You got the right to be mad / But when you carry it all alone you find it only getting in the way / They say you gotta let it go.” After finding herself and sanctioning her anger Solange takes a neutral tone sometimes expressing joy, other times frustration, chronicling racial issues in America in “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “Where Do We Go,” and “F.U.B.U.” After making her statements on American culture Solange warns against letting this culture, and others in general, determine your self-worth in “Borderline,” “Junie” and “Scales.” One step could not be reached without first climbing up the former. The entire album has this feeling that it’s building towards something. Solange doesn’t satisfy the listener with an anticipated climax, but instead the listener is left with a diminuendo of optimistic and confident horns and an epic statement from Master P “Now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones.” We are left with a rise, a rise with no climax, because the rise has only just begun.
Solange’s aesthetic has become fine art. She’s given acclaimed lectures at art museums around the country and works with some of the most respected musicians and visual artists in today’s world. Yet she clearly doesn’t exist solely in the art world; Solange has effectively bridged a gap between popular culture and art. All one has to do to witness the bridge is peruse through her instagram. Her most recent 10 posts as of Dec. 28th, 2017 are a perfect example. Six of the posts are dedicated to her performance of “Scales” in the same field as “Donald Judd, 15 untitled works in concrete.” these posts take place in the art world but are reaching millions of viewers. Sandwiched between posts about her “Scales” performance are two blurry mirror selfies, an aspect of popular culture all her followers can relate to. After the “Scales” posts are two concert photos, something any artist would post, but they’re highly stylized to fit Solange’s aesthetic, effectively making a familiar type of instagram post artsy. Solange frequently references “the rise” on her instagram posts.
The power of the aesthetic she has curated cannot be understated. She has created fine art as an African American woman that is recognized not because of its “otherness” or racial identity but on its own aesthetic merit. The merit just happens to root from Solange’s experiences with her identity. What makes her aesthetic feel so pure and well put together is that it’s all her doing. Solange writes her own lyrics, co-produces her songs, choreographs and stages her own performances and music videos, everything she does falls under the same aesthetic umbrella due to it all being her own expression of her identity.
The Diddy skits in A Seat at the Table contextualize the importance of Solange’s self-expression. In the interlude to “Where Do We Go” titled “This Moment” Diddy explains how important this moment is to Blacks in America. Master P states “If you don't understand us and understand what we've been through, then you probably wouldn't understand what this moment is about. This is home. This is where we from. This is where we belong.” Black artists and Black entrepreneurs for the first time in American history are beginning to have a seat at the theoretical table that the highest members of society sit around. Solange, through A Seat at the Table, has told the story of her community up to this point in history. The question now becomes, as she asks, “Where do we go from here?”
At its essence Solange’s aesthetic is a story that hasn’t ended; rather it’s a story that is just getting started. She’s not alone in reading the narrative, Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Jay-Z’s 4:44 touched on similar themes. Black artists are forming their own legacy and telling their story on their own terms. Nobody does this with more grace and narrative power than Solange. She deserves to be just as well known as her superstar sister.