Solange Turns “The Table” At The Guggenheim
"Inclusion is not enough. Allowance is not enough. We built this shit."
Many different colors of people filled Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum last night for the Red Bull Music Academy Festival performance of Solange’s An Ode To—most of them covered in white clothes from top to bottom. The color of their attire was requested by Solange in advance. What was the significance? Could the white wardrobe have been a sign of purifying all races into a single hue? Could it have been Black and Brown people counter-appropriating whiteness, just as she addresses in her song “F.U.B.U.”?
Perhaps it was simple as wanting everyone to match the white facade of the circular foyer of the venue? The fact that the show took place within a museum, or as Solange put it, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Temple,” played perfectly into the visual symbolism of the night.
Solange Knowles-Ferguson’s performance of her Grammy-winning album, A Seat at the Table, at the Guggenheim was very much anticipated; selling out within moments—and prompting Red Bull to add a second show. Described as an “interdisciplinary” performance, it was expected that complementary components—dance, sculpture, etc.—would be present. Not only were they, but the artistry of the unseen—the reactions of people affected by art—proved to be the biggest show of all.
Knowles may have appeared to dwell in the shadow of her megastar sister Beyoncé, but over the years she’s made music (2008’s Sol-Angel & the Hadley Street Dream and 2012’s True EP) that’s ignored trends, transcended time and amassed a loyal fan base. When her latest album dropped last fall, it was apparent that she had made yet another turn in her career. A Seat at the Table was a reconciliation of serenity and shock. Solange’s lyrics had the weighty command, honesty and arrogance of a Chuck D or a KRS-One, but her and Raphael Saadiq’s production made the incendiary emotional and social messaging lilting and soulful. More than just topping the Billboard 200, Solange had reached a new audience—on her terms and at her pace. Solange’s embrace of hip hop on this album (which features appearances by Master P, Lil Wayne & Q-Tip) gave it both a grit and historical density that bolstered its success. All those elements shone brightly during this presentation. Indeed, An Ode To could be considered the coronation of Solange’s celebration of Black and female empowerment—and her condemnation of racial exploitation.
Dressed in dark orange, Solange descended to the floor accompanied by her two background vocalists in matching hues—and eight brown-skinned of varying shades, also dressed in all white. They looked stoic, unnerved, and focused as the sonic ambience of “Scales” swelled with each rotation they made around the museum until they reached the bottom. Once on the floor with rghe band, the 10 women initiated a sequence of choreographed movements that could be described as part Japanese Kata and part Baptist praise dance. Everyone was barefoot, including the six musicians. Can’t help but think that this may have illustrated the removal of any barrier between the artists and the art around them—becoming one with the grounds that hold the spirits of visionaries hanging on the walls above and behind them.
Soon the ladies in white walked away, allowing Solange and company to kick into album opener “Rise.” The richness of the three-part harmony carried over from the LP, but soon that harmony transcended mere singing, as the all male band members began to move with them during the brooding “Weary,” and later on “Mad.” The synchronicity of them all during these two songs in particular drove home a notion of solidarity in the face of paranoia and rage. During “Mad,” Solange and her singers incorporated a blood-curdling screams that seamlessly fused with the crescendo of the hook. Knowles’ vocals quivered as she ad-libbed over icy piano chords, “I’m not allowed to be mad, but we deserve to be mad,” she sang in a well-earned catharsis, shared by all in attendance—all who have heard the album and felt all the pain the song is inspired by.
In between “Weary” and “Mad” came the album’s cornerstone hit “Cranes in the Sky,” a song whose opening drum pattern sent the crowd into its first frenzy. The simplicity of that composition’s groove, coupled with Solange’s emotive testimony of holding back heartache, is timelessly powerful. The flailing of her hands during the chorus called to mind metaphorical cranes in the sky in a city where real cranes often loom, confining one’s spirit and one’s desire to let go of pain.
By the time Solange began playing “F.U.B.U.,” the album’s damning indictment of culture vultures, she decided to go to the people. Moving from one audience member to the next, she sang with them as much as to them. Then a massive brass section (14 players deep) materialized in the raised curvatures of the museum, blasting the melody home with anthemic power. Solange sashayed and twerked—much to the crowds delight, a sight hailed by both the ratchet and the dignified.
One of the more surprising and satisfying moments in An Ode To was Solange’s incorporation of “Black Maybe,” a Stevie Wonder/Syreeta–penned tune that fit just immaculately into the narrative of the performance. Accompanied only by keyboards, Solange sang “Black maybe, it’s time to wake up.” Solange had previously posted a cover of the song to her Instagram the same week that police officers murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The song was as powerful as it was plaintive, a perfect segue into another A Seat at the Table highlight, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” The song, which warns alien hands from intruding on personal space and disrupting inner spirit, served as the perfect climax to the presentation.
The eight in white, the massive brass section, and nearly 20 more women in white once again descended from the top of the archway. In three lines, they all joined Solange, moving in synch, making waves, extending their arms, their hands fixed at right angles. The band slid into a reprise of “Rise” and Solange moved about the area, writhing on the floor, jumping in the air, rejoining the women for an exuberant African dance. It was a release of power that reached each member of the audience.
In the final analysis An Ode To was, well, an ode to people of color responsible for the foundation of human creativity, which is to say all people of color, period. Solange addressed the room before leaving for good, speaking with truth with the freedom that makes her music so infectious: “Inclusion is not enough. Allowance is not enough. We built this shit.” She made it clearer than ever that the shit that we built is the very table she singing of. And with a tour of more museum dates across the country planned for this summer, it appears that we’ve all been invited back to a table that was ours to begin with.