Take me to church

Solange Builds a Cathedral of Vulnerability at the Guggenheim

In a special performance that was part campfire sing-a-long, part hipster art event, Solange claims her seat at the table.

We looked like a cult of vestal virgins, all arrayed in white, per request of the artist. We were lined up outside the Guggenheim, also dressed in white. And when our goddess appeared, barefoot, walking proudly, defiantly, down the spiral ramps, her apotheosis seemed complete.

But Solange Knowles’ deification is a peculiarly millennial one. Her breakout album, A Seat at the Table, which came 10 years into a career of being someone else’s sister, is a confessional song cycle that is as much Carole King as Erykah Badu. She connected with her adoring audience—mostly young, beautiful, and a gorgeous mosaic of backgrounds, to paraphrase Nina Simone—precisely by exposing her vulnerabilities. Most fans sang along with every word.  Many of them were in tears.  It was Solangemania.

Someone once wrote of the band Radiohead that the best songs were full of contradiction. “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo,” Thom Yorke would sing, but in a beautiful, soaring, angelic voice that said, “I am beautiful.” Solange at the Guggenheim was the same way. “Cranes in the Sky” is about depression, but it was also, for my money, the most beautiful song of 2016, with a heartbreaking melody and infectious backing groove. And here she was, singing her anthems of brokenness, in an artistic palace. She turned the Guggeinheim into a cathedral of vulnerability.

And resilience. “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble / Fall in your ways, so you can sleep at night / Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.” There was nothing mopey about the show: This was about triumph. Like her sister Beyonce, Solange’s album of defiance blends the personal and the political. Her heartbreak is in part because of her life, growing up as a black woman in a racist and sexist society, and is in part because of her personality, her loves, her constitution. And yet so is her triumph. As around three dozen young black women marched with Solange (dare I say “in formation”?), occupying the Guggenheim, taking it over, it was an assertion of both personal and communal defiance.

“I’m so proud to be black!” one woman near me shouted after the show, dancing down a ramp. She laughed; she knew it was corny to say it so obviously. And yet, not entirely corny—Solange is, after all, a woman of color taking not just her seat at the table, but her seat at the center of one of American art’s sacred spaces. And doing so while remaining proudly, defiantly black, not erasing her identity but embracing it, singing “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “FUBU” (For Us By Us), telling the crowd to “hold tight to your community,” only granting interviews to reporters who are women of color, and saying to the audience, after the show that “inclusion is not enough. I mean, we built this shit.”

Indeed, at times the short concert—part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival—felt like a mixture of an intimate campfire for adoring fans and a next-level statement of purpose, an occupation of territory. It’s still not clear how people even got tickets to this thing—the crowd looked far too beautiful to be a random sampling, and the $60 tickets, which sold out in minutes, were reportedly going for over $1,500 on the “secondary market” (i.e. the scalpers’ den of thieves).

But however they got there, Solange’s fans got a treat. She was mere feet away from us, and often ventured out into the crowd to sing right into the eyes of a fan. And in an audacious move, Solange requested that all cellphones be checked prior to entry; the result was an immediacy impossible when everyone’s trying to capture the moment for Instagram. After the show, Solange told the audience, “I’m so glad to see your faces today—these are the faces I wrote the record for.”

Musically, the band was tight, with a brass section (and later, a virtual marching band) augmenting the basic keyboards, bass, drums, and guitar. The unique acoustics of the cylindrical space did wonders for Solange’s voice, transforming it from a thin instrument well-suited to the confessional R&B of the album into a resonant force. It was hard to hear the words among the echoes, but then again, most people knew the words by heart anyway.

Meanwhile, the music was complemented by gestural choreography—also by Solange—which evoked the themes of A Seat at the Table without representing them literally. Some of these numbers worked better than others; the musicians, too, doubled as dancers, and lacked the kind of grace or precision one might expect from, well, actual dancers. But at their best, I couldn’t help but think of that other Knowles sister and the “Formation” video, which was more literal in its gestures of resistance but still conversant in a pop vocabulary.

“Solange reflected the zeitgeist before it happened,” one fan said to me after the show. Indeed, it’s almost as if Black Lives Matter woke up a lot of people just in time for us to live under Donald Trump’s ultranationalism, Jeff Sessions’ absurd-if-it-weren’t-tragic reboot of the drug war, and the remilitarization of the police. Solange, in incorporating the social terror of our times into a highly personal narrative—without lapsing into the cliché of, say, emo confessionals—does seem to have preemptively reflected the alienation and fear many of us are experiencing today. Those cranes in the sky are for real.

Leonard Cohen, quoting Rumi, famously said that there’s a crack in everything, and that’s where the light gets in. For Cohen (and for Rumi), the meaning is that our brokenness, our vulnerability, is where we are open to other people and to the sacred. For Solange, I’d propose that the crack is where the light gets out. By risking to be seen, by attempting a profound openness, Solange has shined.