When an album is released, the quality of its life beyond that point is largely outside an artist's control. Solange Knowles understands this well. In the week before the release of her brilliant 2016 album A Seat at the Table, her nervous energy sparked a case of jitters that eventually cascaded into full-on hives. "It was terrifying," she recalled in an interview with her superstar sister. "This was going to be such an intimate, up-close, staring-you-right-in-the-face experience, the way people would see me and hear me."
Little trace of that concern can be found in her public work since then. In fact, Solange has made it a point to look directly in the faces of those to whom she's dedicated the album. Such was the calling of her most recent reimagining of A Seat at the Table, in last week's "An Ode To" — a multifaceted, multidirectional, interdisciplinary installation and performance in Frank Lloyd Wright's pristine rotunda at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (presented by the Red Bull Music Academy Festival).
The museum only housed its first retrospective by a black woman in 2014, with Carrie Mae Weems's indelible quarter-century of photography acting as ol' Solomon's debut foray into the beauty of black American plainness. Works like her acclaimed 1990 "Kitchen Table Series" stand in implicit opposition to the exclusive heroic narratives that foreground names like Douglass and Tubman so as to quiet the millions of other black people left behind in a perpetual cycle of silencing, non-recognition, and death. And the images captured by Weems act, in their way, as a precursor to Solange's recent music.
A synth siren bellowed us to attention as Solange, along with a bevy of artists, dancers, and musicians, descended from the upper rotunda's white billows like angelic foot soldiers passing by us in stoic step. A Seat at the Table found meaning in synchronicity, whether Solange was focused skyward or on more humanist matters. The monochromatic earth tones donned by Solange and her band, contrasting with more than 30 dancers (as well as hundreds in the audience) wearing all white, harkened back to that sweet spot. Their performance of "Rise" was rapturous, drawing us close to Solange in ways the album could only suggest. This gave way to a thunderous performance of "Weary" that featured beautifully loose jazz harmonies and a thick, ominous murk expanded out over six or seven minutes of bass booms.
The weighty acoustics of this version of "Weary" created a column of sound that poured over each groove of the museum's design. (I feel for those in the crowd who weren't sober.) The band's movements, choreographed by Solange herself, reflected the art and architecture's emphasis on modern stylings, though spiced by categorically black motion — simple and stiff right angles were juxtaposed against a flexible and frenetic flow that challenged our readings of improvisation. Dozens of dancers, representing the wide spectrum of colors and body types of black womanhood, snaked through crevices as the soulful harmony of "Cranes in the Sky" finally shook audience members out of their state of love and awe. A quick, twinkling rendition of "Don't You Wait" was repurposed to function as an interlude between "Cranes," a song that wallows in the experience of trauma, and "Mad," a song about being fed up with that painful constance.
Without Lil Wayne's kirked-out rap on the latter song, Solange and her adroit backup singers — Isadora Mendez-Scott and Franchelle Lucas — patiently teased out its ever-evolving emotional and political center, repeating the phrase, "YouuuUuuuUuu, got the right..." As if to answer for the time that's passed since its release, this version of "Mad" was a bare-bones wedding of synth and air that encapsulates the frustration of being both Black and Woman in a country that despises both. I watched as women across the room threw up praise hands and vibed out with guttural jerks as Solange and crew carried the entire record without the guidance of rhythms or electric noise. The high-pitched wails that haven't been heard so soulfully delivered since Minnie Riperton's heyday were no longer Solange's solo endeavor. Now everyone, from Solange to her background singers to the musicians themselves, let out visceral howls that, once again, radiated throughout the rotunda's rows — reconstructing the museum as more than just a symbolic representation of abstract artistic preeminence. On that night it was a newfangled Western Wall, for all those metaphorical Black Israelites dealing with the psychosis of a racist and sexist American state. "I'm not allowed to be mad," Solange sang in a new epilogue. "Isn't that sad?"
As much as black audience members felt the gripping tinge of American hurt on "Mad," the triumph of "F.U.B.U." bloomed in us a recognition of the vital power of the black spirit. We bounced, closed our eyes, and sang along in existential transcendence, finding ourselves no longer trapped under institutional glass ceilings. On the contrary, we were 10 toes deep in the dirt of black creative potential, with Solange acting as shepherd and hype woman — cutting through the crowd and singing with gorgeously overwhelmed black audience members. ("We built this shit," she'd say later on.) She would then return to the fore and break out in a praise dance that had her sliding all across the floor and twerking to a polyrhythmic romp that felt like it could last many eternities. A horn section, hidden behind the rotunda's pews, erupted and contributed to a joyous sensory overload that survived until the end of the show.
The dozens of angels who had introduced Solange's idyllic performance returned, with great adulation and fervor, for the boisterous elegance of "Don't Touch My Hair." Black women marched in front of us in perfect step, in what felt like a royal processional for a song and mantra that seems to tell the story of black feminine existence in America. The song tells us to honor, revere, and love them, but specifically in the ways that they desire to be — not merely as mothers, or sisters, or aunts, or friends, but with respect to their particular experience in this country and across the globe. "Don't Touch My Hair" is a record that will never lose its resonance, because the amount of respect bestowed upon black women will never match the creative and literal labor that black women are forced to put in for the sake of this great nation.
For now, Solange is working to push American institutions to begin to appreciate black folks' world-building fortitude. After a huge round of applause from the crowd, she took the mic and reminded us to "Hold our communities tight," while also answering the underlying and unspoken question of bringing such disruptive black art to such a decisively white space. "I'm not into institutions," she said, with daylight's rays careening into the room and refracting off our white outfits. "I care about seeing your faces."
Some might argue, sophistically, that Solange herself has been plucked from a multitude of quotidian black heroes — that given her family history, her lightness, and her supposed distance from black musical stylings, she too is an exemplar of black exceptionalism. But to do so would ignore the many turns and pivots that she has made to direct her audience's focus toward black realities. Whether she was shooting the 2012 video for "Losing You" in the South African township of Langa, still feeling the economic effects of antiblack apartheid, or giving us the ornate and interiorized plain-speak of A Seat at the Table, Solange has never lost sight of how she fits within the black global experience. Perhaps this is why she asked audience members to fill Wright's bleached rotunda with their black bodies draped in all-white looks. If only aesthetically, she put forth the notion that we are an ineffaceable part of white American art and history, even as we float underneath its deadly hand.