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Solange has a voice of preternatural serenity, a Minnie Riperton-esque balm for the often bruising experience of Black womanhood in America. Her 2016 album A Seat at the Table was widely regarded as one of the best albums of the decade and a milestone in contemporary Black music. A ground-breaking performance at the Guggenheim Museum featuring several hundred Black performers descending the rotunda was held the following year, and Solange has since performed at the Getty Museum and the Venice Biennale. Through these interventions, which encompass music, dance, sculpture and architecture, Solange has carved out a space as a multivalent artist with unprecedented mass appeal.

Portrait by Rafael Rios

THEASTER GATES You are a performer, singer and songwriter, from a family of performers, singers and songwriters. But recently, you’ve shifted direction. How did you go from “Cranes in the Sky” to this design-, fashion-, art-adjacent life that you’re living?

SOLANGE KNOWLES I was fortunate to grow up in a very special neighbourhood, Third Ward in Houston, Texas, a community that is extremely rich in Black culture and Black art. Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen are from Third Ward, and so was the poet Pat Parker. The list goes on and on, and it really opened up the possibility of seeing and experiencing art as a child. There was Project Row House, a phenomenal arts organisation that was right in my backyard. All of these things really prepare the palate for the possibilities of art. When I was about eight or nine, I went to this theatre camp at the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, where I was able to open up to other forms of expression. They encouraged us to write monologues, poetry, to perform. There were all of these additional elements – set design, costume design, all of these different facets that piqued my interest. Maybe a year later, I had a teacher who saw something in me as a writer and encouraged me to go deeper and explore the possibilities of what writing from my worldview could look like. I entered a contest for United Way to write their theme song and I won out of thousands of kids. That was such an affirming thing for my self-esteem and for the way that I wanted to show up in the world. All of these things together taught me that there are so many ways to express the angst, the loneliness, the joy, the happiness, the safety, the fears, all of these feelings that I had as a child. As I developed as a singer, songwriter and artist, I realised there were parts of myself that I couldn’t express through song and I needed to create some kind of movement that could exorcise those feelings. That extended into set design, which was my first experience creating physical worlds. I want to create the feeling that every part and possibility that you’re experiencing – visually, sonically, emotionally – has been considered. That opened the door for me to say, how do I activate these emotions on a larger scale? That began the journey of myself as an artist.

I want to create the feeling that every part and possibility that you’re experiencing – visually, sonically, emotionally – has been considered

TG It’s beautiful that there were things that you couldn’t articulate in one medium. I called myself a potter but I got to a point where there were just more things I wanted to say: I wanted to lean on my history with poetry; I wanted to incorporate the Black Church; and I wanted to honour my own interest in architecture and sculpture – but I felt like I had committed myself. I was like, am I cheating on ceramics if I start installations? It took a long time to get comfortable acknowledging that there were other things I wanted to do. That was the beginning of an awakening.

SK I’ve been very lucky to be given the grace and community to do so. I’m appreciative that people have afforded me the space to evolve, while still offering me that support. That’s something that I don’t take for granted.

TG It is beautiful to have the benefit of a private community but also a public that wants to go with you through your transforming work. I was reflecting this morning on your performance and dance project with the Guggenheim and thinking about 2017 as a turning point because of its adjacency to a conceptual-art intervention. What was the moment when it felt like it crystallised that you were more than a singer?

SK I go back to SNL as a really strong pivot because that was a performance where there were a lot of eyes and ears on me. SNL is one of the pinnacles of live performance in pop music and I was really lucky that I also played Coachella and had these landmark opportunities to activate as a performer. I started to think about entertainment versus artistry. My mother and father were fans of the entertainment greats, so I watched videos of people like James Brown, Michael Jackson and Tina Turner growing up. I began to think about how much of a sacrifice it is to entertain, to be put on a stage, and for an audience to say: “Entertain me, fill me with joy; I wanna leave here feeling better than I can make myself; I want you to make me cry.” What a blessing and burden that can be on the artist. A Seat at the Table was a very quiet but loud project, and so I always wondered what it would be like to perform these intimate songs about race, identity and culture with a community, not an audience. Architecture has also been such a huge part of my safety – I grew up as a background dancer for Destiny’s Child and every day we were in new airports and hotels and music venues. I started to pay attention to light and shape and scale, all the ways that these different spaces made me feel. The Guggenheim has always been an architectural marvel and a temple. I wanted to bring all of these facets together and get rid of the lines between entertainment and audience by including the audience in the project. Scale became important. As a Black woman, I was not encouraged to think within scale. Even within that performance, there were challenges with me wanting to have 200 Black bodies walk down that rotunda and what that meant. As an artist, we go in sometimes expecting that we are answering questions, fulfilling this ambition, when really those experiences are a mirror. You learn in the process that so many things are being reflected back to you. It completely changed the way that I wanted to occupy space in my performance – it allowed me to really stand up with my spine straight and say, “This is performance art.” I was able to contextualise myself in the way that I have always seen myself.

TG Your platform Saint Heron is a community and an enterprise that celebrates Black and brown designers in as sophisticated a way as a huge design company would. Can you talk about that part of your life?

SK I started Saint Heron out of frustration, of feeling like I didn’t know or couldn’t connect with the people who I share space with on an everyday basis. Ten years ago, we were in an entirely different landscape in terms of the opportunities we had to reach our people. I was on an indie label; I had just released an EP, True. It was a real turning point for me as an artist. I wanted people to connect with that project in the right way. I worked on the “Losing You” video with one of my best friends, Melina Matsoukas, who’s an amazing director. I wanted to tell the story of the La Sape culture in Africa, and I ended up going to South Africa and met an amazing community there. We shot the project and when it was done, there were all these conversations about where we would release the video. I just thought I needed to make my own platform to directly reach the people who speak like me, who see the world like me, who have the nuances that I may have in terms of what we’re watching, how we’re showing up in the world. Other artists started to say, I’d like to premiere my music there, so the community was growing. I actually put together a compilation of 12 Black artists who were at the time redefining what the R&B landscape could be like. To this day, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. To look back ten years later and see what these artists have accomplished in the space of music, art and culture, it feels like such a phenomenal timestamp. People like Kelela, Sampha, Jhené Aiko. That evolved into me saying, we need a physical record; we need to hug and meet and interact with the people who are buying this record. I reached out to Rashaad Newsome and asked him to create an album cover and an installation for people to experience this record. We wanted to pay homage to the way that these iconic Black labels put their footing on the ground, so we had a trunk sale. That was the founding moment of seeing the way that community, art, installation and music could come together to create a tangible space. Over the next eight years, we created experiences, we created installations, we had Barkley L Hendricks make a Saint Heron playlist. There hit a moment where I thought, OK, I’ve answered these questions, I’ve done the work, what comes next? That turned into a conversation about how we could create our own tangible objects to occupy these spaces. I started to talk to Black designers and I saw that the world was way behind in terms of how Black folks are taking up space. Stories like Jason McDonald, the glass blower who has expressed that sense of loneliness, never seeing anyone who looked like him in the hot shop. To be able to create objects that go from Black imagination into product development into reality, all through the hands of Black people, is something I am so honoured to be part of.

TG You’re right that there’s a kind of lag in the Black design world, but that means you were able to bring all of this knowledge from this other world. The advantage of the entertainment world is that it moves very quickly. It requires a ton of resources and it understands how to metabolise resources to get an outcome, whereas as designers, we might sit for four or five years with an idea. Often what the challenges have been is that there aren’t the resources, the platform, the distribution mechanisms, the friends, or the angel investors. The reason that a designer sits on an idea for five years is that they’ve not had any of the basic infrastructure and support necessary to bring something to the market. You and I talked when you were in Chicago and what I could deduce from your experiences was that there were moments when if we haven’t seen it done before by a person of colour, it becomes really difficult to trust the process and to trust others, to not immediately be like dog-eat-dog. It’s just tough when you’re working hard to try to deliver something.

SK There was really a turning point after visiting you, seeing the work that you’re doing at Rebuild, seeing the tea house, seeing the way that these objects occupied those spaces. In that same trip I went to Detroit and visited the techno museum, which was one of the best museum visits I’ve ever had. Both of those trips really reaffirmed standing firm in our principles of Saint Heron. I went back home and thought about what this space could evolve into, and what the tangible artifact could be. Something that is both used and admired and something that could be contextualised as both art and object. I thought about my mother on Thanksgiving and on Easter pulling out the nice glasses and plates and tableware, and how that signalled to me to dress my best. It has been such a beautiful journey to go from a place of feeling overwhelmed and like I can’t do this, to starting with one special object – the glass – and seeing it come into the world. It has really been some of my most fulfilling work. ◉