AnOther:
Solange Knowles Cover Story

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cup­board. Not every­thing remem­bered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remem­ber when you sighed?”

In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, the poet, essay­ist and play­wright crit­i­cally unpicks modern race rela­tions. Modern in that it is not the lynch­ing, enslav­ing and seg­re­ga­tion of sto­ries past, the ones that have mud­died American his­tory books for cen­turies, but a much more subtle form of racism – one more com­pli­cated and unde­tectable than the bla­tant dis­crim­i­na­tion of Jim Crow. She med­i­tates on the insid­i­ous micro-aggres­sions; the glances, the indis­creet state­ments and the infu­ri­at­ing stereo­types that pepper the lives of people of colour. Framed in seven chap­ters, Rankine draws on every­thing from the media’s con­dem­na­tion of Serena Williams and Zinedine Zidane’s head butt of Marco Materazzi in the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final to a more sober­ing poem about the August 2011 shoot­ing of Mark Duggan that sparked that summer’s London riots. Probably most poignant is the book jacket of Citizen – a single grey cotton hood pinned to a white back­ground. This art­work, In the Hood, by David Hammons, was first shown in 1993 at the Mnuchin Gallery in New York but eerily pre­dicts the hoodie as a symbol of the fatal end met by Trayvon Martin in 2012 and a metonym of being young, black and male in present-day America.

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

Citizen, a col­lec­tion of poems, crit­i­cism and prose, is one of the cen­tral inspi­ra­tions of Solange Knowles’ A Seat at the Table, her Grammy Award-win­ning album that rumi­nates on those same themes of race, iden­tity, anger, fear, self-care and self-love. When I look back, there had been a number of things that had hap­pened per­son­ally. There were other explo­rations that I was work­ing through to just be com­fort­able in saying, You know what? This is the work of a black woman’, and being con­fi­dent in saying that and not trying to make it uni­ver­sal and dumb that down. I am so grate­ful to have other black women artists and writ­ers like Claudia who have helped me reach that point – to be able to have own­er­ship of my artis­tic jour­ney.”

That artis­tic jour­ney reaches its apex by way of A Seat at the Table, which in 21 tracks son­i­cally cap­tures the tem­per­a­ture of the times – sear­ing hot with racial ten­sion and cold with a lack of empa­thy. The every­day sto­ries and inci­dents I had been hear­ing all around me – all of those things were really embod­ied in those early ses­sions record­ing the album. I knew it was the album I had to write. Whether I felt fear, whether I felt unpre­pared to have the con­ver­sa­tion, whether I had major doubts, it was not up to me. I was not writ­ing any­thing else,” Knowles explains.

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

With cul­tural con­flicts and inter­gen­er­a­tional racism preva­lent in American head­lines, she chose to embrace the pain expressed in the media. Written around the time of Trayvon Martin’s death, a number of shoot­ings involv­ing black males mer­ci­lessly slain by offi­cers who were later acquit­ted and the sub­se­quent Black Lives Matter move­ment, Knowles enlisted A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip; soul singer Raphael Saadiq; her father, Mathew, who relates his own expe­ri­ences of racism as a young boy; her mother, Tina Knowles, who talks about racial pride in one of the album’s inter­ludes, Tina Taught Me; and the No Limit Records founder Master P, who recounts the story of his remark­able rise. Dispersed through­out the album, all tell the story of black joy and black grief. With it, Knowles has made her most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful album to date.

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

A Seat at the Table was writ­ten every­where from Ghana’s cap­i­tal, Accra, to Knowles’ cur­rent home in New Orleans and her mater­nal grand­par­ents’ former home town of New Iberia, Louisiana, from where they had been chased out by a thriv­ing Ku Klux Klan. She set up shop on an old sugar plan­ta­tion and used the expe­ri­ence to spir­i­tu­ally con­nect with her ances­try, which is rooted in the Southern state, embark­ing on what she called a pur­suit of truth and beauty”. The results are gen­er­a­tional anthems that cut through in a sim­i­lar way to Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit and Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted and Black. Take FUBU (an acronym for For Us, By Us) – a play on the name of the hip-hop apparel com­pany that made its work­ing-class founders multi-mil­lion­aires at the height of the brand’s pop­u­lar­ity in the 90s. Bluesy and unhur­ried in its tempo, FUBU’s lyrics include: When you dri­ving in your tinted car/​And you’re crim­i­nal, just who you are/​But you know you’re gonna make it far/​All my niggas in the whole wide world/​Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/​For us, this shit is for us”. Don’t Touch My Hair describes in detail the often fraught rela­tion­ship black women have with their hair, and the fetishi­sa­tion of that hair by other cul­tures. Growing up in her mother’s hair salon, Knowles knew first-hand the pol­i­tics of black hair and the issues that wear­ing it in its nat­ural state has raised for scores of black women. Don’t touch my hair/​When it’s the feel­ings I wear/Don’t touch my soul/​When it’s the rhythm I know/Don’t touch my crown/​They say the vision I’ve found/Don’t touch what’s there/​When it’s the feel­ings I wear”. In just over four min­utes, she per­fectly elu­ci­dates the pride and power in the puff of an afro, the regal­ity of corn­rows, and honour in a crown of tight curls.

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

Born in 1986, Solange Knowles rose to promi­nence as the younger sister of Beyoncé Knowles, who through her roles as lead singer of girl-group Destiny’s Child and a record-break­ing solo artist, sped through the 90s and early 00s to become a cross-cul­tural super­star. Solange Knowles, in her own words, was always cre­at­ing some­thing” whether it be a play, a song, or a chore­o­graphed piece. I mean this sort of thing started when I was prob­a­bly about three. When I got to the fourth grade, there was a statewide con­test in the dis­trict. United Way was look­ing for a new jingle and they had a con­test for ele­men­tary and middle-school stu­dents to submit a song to be debuted on a com­mer­cial. I had always writ­ten my thoughts and poetry in my little jour­nal but I guess I had never thought about the con­struct of song­writ­ing that much. I was nine. So I came up with the melody first, and I felt really strongly about my melody and still remem­ber it today. Then I went back and filled in the lyrics, which were really simple and straight­for­ward. I recorded it and sent it in and about two months later found out that I won. That instilled a lot of con­fi­dence in me in terms of how I could com­mu­ni­cate musi­cally. I grew up in a house full of women, so being the youngest I felt it was increas­ingly dif­fi­cult for me to convey my per­spec­tive and point of view.”

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

She honed in on both song­writ­ing and dance as a means of self-expres­sion. Encouraged by her par­ents, she spent sum­mers, from the age of five to 13, in a dance studio in her home­town of Houston, Texas with dreams of going to Julliard. I was happy going to that dance studio and really pas­sion­ate about it. And I think for my par­ents, as long as they felt I was gonna work hard and ded­i­cate myself to it, they were really stoked.”

At 13, an oppor­tu­nity arose for Solange to take her tal­ents to a bigger stage with Destiny’s Child. One of their dancers was preg­nant and I was asked to fill in for the summer as I wasn’t at school. I was super stoked – I would get to dance all summer, be with my family, and do what I love to do. I was immersed in being in Tokyo one day and in Berlin the next. I was given space to explore. I would go to London, and Björk and The Chemical Brothers were on the radio, things that were shap­ing and mould­ing me in a way that they might not have as early on if I had not been trav­el­ling.” Enamoured, Knowles begged for a home tutor to con­tinue danc­ing with the band until, in her mind, I could audi­tion for Julliard and go to col­lege”. Devastatingly, a torn menis­cus in her knee halted her plans.

I began writ­ing really depress­ing songs about my world col­laps­ing,” she laughs in ret­ro­spect. She shared one of these songs with Beyoncé’s band­mate Kelly Rowland, who asked a then 15-year-old Knowles if she would con­sider writ­ing some songs for her forth­com­ing solo album. Knowles asked her par­ents to book her studio time and in eight hours she had laid down six songs, three of which were so per­sonal to her that she didn’t want anyone else to have them. I never thought that I wanted to be a singer until that point. But it was through writ­ing those spe­cific songs that I realised I could not imag­ine anyone else per­form­ing them and that is really how I evolved into want­ing to be an artist.”

Knowles believes to this day that her accom­plish­ments as a musi­cian come from the song­writ­ing first rather than the act of the vocal, maybe because it was never some­thing I felt that strongly about, my abil­ity or my voice or my tone. My charge as a musi­cian always comes from the sonics, from the sto­ry­telling, from the scenic visu­al­i­sa­tion, and it wasn’t really until A Seat at the Table that I really even felt like I fig­ured out how to use my voice, and even still, it is a work in progress.”

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

She shopped a small col­lec­tion of songs to record labels that did not show much inter­est, until one decided to take a shot on her. Knowles released her first album, Solo Star, in 2002 at just 16 and at the height of the R&B-pop hybrid’s reign over the main­stream charts. The album’s recep­tion was luke­warm and Knowles and her then-hus­band Daniel Smith had a son together less than two years later. I was a new mother, I lived in Idaho with my hus­band at the time, in the middle of nowhere, in a little town called Moscow. And I was so far away from my family. And having a new­born and basi­cally being a baby myself, I missed my mother tremen­dously.” She spent lonely days play­ing the hits of the 60s and 70s that her mother favoured. The period pro­duced Knowles’ second effort, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St Dreams. By the time it was released, in 2008, she had divorced and was back living in Texas.

I was talk­ing to some of my friends about the dis­tance between each of my albums, which aver­ages at four to five years. They were asking whether I was con­scious of that. But I really don’t seek out to make a project unless I feel like I have some­thing to say, some­thing to dis­man­tle, some­thing to explore.”

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

Post Hadley St, Knowles went back to writ­ing music for other per­form­ers, which, she says, was really frus­trat­ing for me, because I had been writ­ing pop music for my sister and Destiny’s Child, as well as other artists. I love writ­ing pop music, I just wanted it to cel­e­brate some of life’s intri­ca­cies and I felt like they could be inter­nalised within pop music.” So came True, a seven-track EP, pro­duced in tandem with her close friend and fellow musi­cian Devonté Blood Orange’ Hynes, which was a per­fectly formed anti­dote to the usual homogenised pop. Undoubtedly penned from per­sonal expe­ri­ence, she con­fesses to an ill-fated rela­tion­ship on Losing You; admis­sion of a losing game in Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work and painful intro­spec­tion in Lovers in the Parking Lot; songs with lyrics so inti­mate they almost feel ripped from the pages of her diary. I recorded that album in ten living-rooms across America and it allowed me a lot of free­dom. It was the first time I recorded with a hand­held mic, which is a very per­sonal way for me to record my vocal. After True, I had over­whelm­ing feel­ings about how it was talked about, who it reached, who felt own­er­ship over it and that was kind of the impe­tus to create A Seat at the Table.”

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

To con­duct this inter­view, I call Knowles a week or so after her 31st birth­day, which she spent in Oslo – more specif­i­cally in the garden of Vigeland Museum, north of the city centre, where she had head­lined a small fes­ti­val that couldn’t have held more than a few thou­sand people. The audi­ence was young and mostly white and, when Knowles broke out into pow­er­ful inter­pre­ta­tive dance in Weary or crooned about her right to feel Mad on the epony­mous track, she was met with roar­ing cheers. I sense that she has become a con­duit for a pre­vi­ously unspo­ken mes­sage: the tired­ness that black people feel every day about the lack of progress there has been since the sto­ries told by their par­ents’ par­ents, and in these admis­sions she’s appeal­ing to a black audi­ence with­out alien­at­ing a white one.

It has been quite a jour­ney to tour this album, to say the least,” she says. To be able to con­nect on the road with people who this album has reached and touched is incred­i­bly reward­ing. Especially because in some places, I’ve seen very few people of colour. It has over­whelmed me in such a pow­er­ful way. I have the utmost grat­i­tude that essen­tially myself and my band can just be used as ves­sels for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

It is rain­ing. Occasional droplets at the start of Knowles’ per­for­mance become a solid down­pour about halfway through. At that very moment, a young Somalian girl named Nadifa, who lives ten min­utes from the fes­ti­val venue, touches my shoul­der, tears in her eyes. When I ask why she is crying, she explains, over­come with emo­tion, This means so much to me. Everything she says has hap­pened to me and I have had no one to listen to my story, par­tic­u­larly here in Oslo. She says it all for me.”

A scroll in com­ments under Knowles’ videos and per­for­mances on YouTube tells a sim­i­lar story: streams of com­men­da­tions, shared expe­ri­ences, ado­ra­tion of her pow­er­ful lyrics and the free­dom of expres­sion they give their lis­tener and yes, love of her hair. She has com­pounded a per­sonal nar­ra­tive and has taken it public, cre­at­ing a dia­logue with Nadifas all over the world – those who not only just get it, they live it. Knowles empow­ers them through any indig­nity suf­fered, imbu­ing them with the con­fi­dence to be unapolo­get­i­cally black.

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

A missed flight and packed sched­ule means my Oslo time with Knowles is cut short, and so begins a pro­longed cat-and-mouse game to put us in touch. It’s under­stand­able, as she is zig-zag­ging between Europe and the US, quench­ing demand for her emo­tive live per­for­mances. When we speak on the phone, she’s in tran­sit, on the road from Slovakia to Vienna, to catch a flight to Rotterdam, where she will stay for a day before a fes­ti­val gig in the South of France, then a jazz fes­ti­val book­ing in Switzerland fol­lowed by a top-billed slot at London’s Lovebox. In her live shows, she brings on a tight edit of back­ing vocal­ists, drum­mers, key­board, bass and guitar play­ers as well as two hor­nists who all join her in wear­ing white ensem­bles against a blood-red back­drop and play­fully inter­act through­out the set, co-ordi­nat­ing dance moves one moment, spon­ta­neous gig­gles and jam ses­sions the next. And wher­ever Knowles calls, her fol­low­ers will come. She recently put on a part-musi­cal per­for­mance, part-instal­la­tion in the Guggenheim’s famed rotunda (a space she had par­tic­u­larly requested) that was enti­tled An Ode To, in which she asked spec­ta­tors to wear white and sur­ren­der their phones on entry as a troupe of more than 60 dancers, musi­cians and vocal­ists cre­ated sonic and phys­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of her vocals. A review in The New York Times called it a sanc­tu­ary of dance… she skit­tered across the stage and con­vulsed on the floor, a sug­ges­tion of the tear­ing down” of the art world’s noto­ri­ous his­tory of exclu­sion of people of colour.

It was such a phe­nom­e­nal expe­ri­ence,” she remem­bers. and all about com­mu­nity. It was an ode to all of the expe­ri­ences that have nur­tured me lead­ing up to that moment. An ode to all of the black women artists who have come before me who made that per­for­mance a pos­si­bil­ity.

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

It was really about the idea of who belongs in some of these spaces and insti­tu­tions that have his­tor­i­cally told us either we don’t belong or if we do belong we have to behave and look a cer­tain way,” she con­tin­ues. There were a lot of chal­lenges that came up [with the Guggenheim per­for­mance] that made me feel like I couldn’t do it, that I had taken on a load that was much bigger than I could handle, but I knew I was gonna pull through, and it was just phe­nom­e­nal. Much bigger than me. I will revere and remem­ber that feel­ing for­ever.”

Commonality is cen­tral to Knowles’ output; she keeps her people close. Her list of col­lab­o­ra­tors are tight and double up as some of her dear­est friends – Sampha, Adam Bainbridge (aka Kindness), Moses Sumney, and fellow vocal­ist Kelela. Her web­site Saint Heron cham­pi­ons musi­cians, artists, design­ers and cul­tural events that fit into a Solange Knowles style ecosys­tem – and has swelled to include col­lab­o­ra­tions with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and black-owned busi­ness direc­to­ries. I cre­ated Saint Heron to be a ref­er­ence point to dis­cover artists of colour and create con­ver­sa­tions that I felt really needed to be had. That sort of stuff really brings con­fi­dence to what they are doing.” If ever proof were needed that Knowles is a symbol of her times it is here. Because whether through her dig­i­tal plat­form, her live shows or her inti­mate albums, she offers many a sense of belong­ing they have never felt before, a feel­ing that they are not alone. Through a move­ment spear­headed by unyield­ing black women such as Solange Knowles, they can go on to define what has always been defined for them, whether it be their hair, their past or their futures. All while fol­low­ing her own agenda, Knowles has cre­ated songs that seep into the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and matter so much to black women that have long been mar­gin­alised. In 1962, Malcolm X gave a speech at the funeral of the Nation of Islam offi­cer, Ronald Stokes, in which he said that the most dis­re­spected woman in America is the black woman. The most unpro­tected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” A Seat at the Table sug­gests that sadly this may still be true, but as a heal­ing, fem­i­nist record and cul­tural sig­ni­fier, it is undoubt­edly aural ther­apy for all those who press play’. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, balm for the open wound.

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer

Despite its crit­i­cal acclaim, Knowles con­cedes that, to her, the album is a stop, albeit a notable one, on the slow and steady ascent that has defined her career. She admits, through song, that she’s fig­ur­ing it out as she goes along. I’d love to say, Yes, I worked on the album, deliv­ered it and it solved all of my prob­lems and all of the com­plex­i­ties for me,’ but it didn’t. I’m trying to work through every­thing I felt on the album; it’s a work in progress.” Describing intense panic attacks after per­form­ing her first six shows – having to relive words from the album each night – she realised that she had been reopen­ing old wounds.

I thought I had been healed from them. I made this record to find some sort of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with myself and how I acted in the world. It’s been really inter­est­ing trying to figure out how to have that con­ver­sa­tion with the people who love this record because, really, I had to do this album to try to make myself a better human – so it’s been so won­der­ful and hum­bling when you start at the root of that and then see how it can grow.”

Photography by Peter Lindbergh, Styling by Robbie Spencer