It’s been just over a year since Solange dropped her seminal album A Seat at the Table. The unapologetic love letter to black women and black culture marked an evolution not just of Solange’s sound, but of her artistry itself, with tracks like the down-tempo anthem “F.U.B.U.” (an acronym for “For Us By Us”); the ever important statement for any black woman, “Don’t Touch My Hair”; and the emotionally vulnerable “Weary.”
Solange has been very candid about how creating A Seat at the Table was necessary for her to become a better daughter, sister, mother, and wife, and how it served as a balm for healing the racial tensions that continue to rip this country apart. A year-plus later, the political and social climate for women and minority groups seems to have hit a new low.
“I obviously set out to make [A Seat at the Table] during a process of healing. But I think I would not be telling the full truth if I were to say that I put this out and all of this burden and weight left my shoulders,” Solange says during a backstage interview with Fast Company after participating in a recent Success Makers panel discussion and art exhibition held by American Express in New York City.
The strife of the past year hasn’t nullified the serenity Solange gained from A Seat at the Table, but she did feel a need to find new ways to respond creatively to the increasingly polarized culture. And so began her evolution from performer into performance artist.
The select live shows that Solange did to support A Seat at the Table after its release last year were just as poetic as the album, with abstract set design (a giant staircase flanked with inflatable shapes) artfully married to modern dance choreography. Every move Solange and her dancers made were intrinsically tied to an emotion–there wasn’t one outstretched arm or dip at the waist that didn’t support the song on some deeper level than just being on beat. Taking that artistic exploration a step further, Solange re-conceptualized the album through a series of exhibits at the Tate Modern, Guggenheim, Menil Collection, and Chinati Foundation. Whether digital installations or vocal and kinetic showcases, Solange’s foray into becoming a performance artist was overwhelmingly well received, with The New York Times praising her Guggenheim dance piece as “sublime.”
“In the beginning of performing this album live, it was almost like throwing salt on the wounds–having to open up and relive that rage and that trauma or that sadness and vulnerability,” she says. “And it was at that moment where I decided I wanted to live out my show as a conceptual piece of work–the storytelling that I wanted to convey, the landscape, the scenography, the architecture, the movement, and approach to the show as a meditation for myself.”
“Once that happened,” she says, “then I was able to find so much solace and just so much comfort. Taking the gaze off of myself as a performer and putting the conversation in context of me as an artist–that’s really when things started to change for me.”
Solange has also funneled her creative drive into her music label, Saint Records, and Saint Heron, the artists collective she oversees that spotlights black creators. What started as a compilation album in 2013 has sprawled into a e-commerce site and blog focused on music, art, fashion, and beyond.
“When I set off to start Saint Heron, it was made out of a response to the lack of spaces that I saw that related to people who looked like, who spoke like me, who listened to what I listened to, who were experiencing the art I was experiencing. It became important to me to create that space that I would have wanted to be a part of as a 16-year-old girl or as a 22-year-old who was finding out so many different facets of myself, but just didn’t have the resources to find my tribe,” she says. “And so with Saint Heron, we have been having those conversations. And we’ve been enlisting other black entrepreneurs through our store–everything from apothecary to sculpture to ceramics to clothing and design. It’s been really about sharing that sense of community with other likeminded people.”
Given the roiling turmoil of this past year, where does Solange go from here? It’s a fitting question she asks on a track from A Seat at the Table, and one that she has an answer for going into 2018.
“On the artist front, I’ve been working with a couple of other institutions on bringing my performance piece Scales [to them]. I also want to expand on design,” she says. “For so long, I was working within these traditional channels of live performance, and when I started drawing out these ideas [for stage sets] myself and sitting down with these design houses, we weren’t speaking the same language. It took me enlisting an actual architect to sit down with and view this as sculpture.”
To that end, Solange says that Saint Heron might add set design to its growing repertoire of creative services. More immediately, she’s focusing on her music: She started writing new material for her next album a month ago. And if the new record continues in the same bold direction forged in A Seat at the Table, we can look forward to another jolt of creative energy that’s so vital to our fractured culture right now.