Annett Scheffel on„When I Get Home“ by Solange Knowles

Solange “And Do You Feel Addressed? I Do.”

Illustration: Yella Roth

And Do You Feel Addressed? I Do.

In the spirit of slow journalism, we are not giving in to the next and newest hype this month. Instead, we take our time and listen more closely, looking for the distinctly feminist perspective on pop culture.

Annett Scheffel starts off by immersing herself deeply into “When I Get Home”, Solange Knowles’ new album. She writes about its political relevance for our time – and about what the music of a black American woman has to do with herself.

1. Solange and a lot of questions

What is it like when you love music that you can’t understand in its entirety? When you have the feeling that this music speaks to you, to your own moods and emotions and convictions, even if you know that you are not addressed at all? When this music is about the experiences and circumstances of people who are thousands of miles away – mentally and geographically? How close can my relationship as a white European be to pop music that discusses being black in America? Is it presumptuous to say that I feel close to this music?
Or is it completely different and you are still included because music always does include or can include everyone? Because music connects what at first seems not to belong together? Because music is like a big room that you can get into through a lot of doors and where there’s plenty of space for all kinds of projections? And: Does a song, an album, a music video only become relevant to me because I recognize myself in it? Or do I recognize it because it is relevant?
Questions upon questions. This is not the first time I have thought of them, but in the light of the Solange Knowles’ music, they turn into a deep self-interrogation. Why do I love this music that talks about the life of a black woman so much? Why am I interested, or rather fascinated, by these artistically floating soul and R&B tracks down to the smallest detail, why do they speak to me and what do they say? What is it like to be black in an American, supposedly post-racist society? Can I even understand that from here, from my point of view, in Europe? Can I as understand that a white woman?
There are many explanations for my adoration. In this text, I want to explore some of them, I have already spoken about others in other places. Most of them are related to the artistic vision behind Solange’s music. For some, I had to dig deeper, into a world that points beyond the boundaries of music, that envelops it and embeds it in its time.

2. This shit is for them

Solange has long been much more than a pop singer – and more than Beyoncé’s little sister anyway. She is a headstrong pop figure, she is a songwriter and her own producer, she is a choreographer, a dancer, a performance artist and a video director, and she is an activist, a role model and the head of her own company Saint Heron (a mixture of record label, creative agency and black think tank). In 2016, she became known outside the dedicated indie circles with her album “A Seat at The Table”, on which she distilled the essential moods and thoughts of black America in warm and syrupy flowing neo-soul songs. “A Seat at The Table” came out of nowhere, no announcement, no premonitions – and like hardly any other record it hit the nerve of the time. And it hit me. I was overwhelmed by its beauty and the courage, with which the frustration over the marginalization of black people was countered by a radiant confidence. For me, it was the most important album of the decade. I wouldn’t know what else could come to change this.

Many black Americans, especially black women, recognize themselves in the art Solange creates. And I also saw something in it. That’s how you face the world, I thought. And at the same time, I had no idea. “They don’t understand / What it means to me / Where we chose to go / Where we’ve been to know”, sang Solange in “Don’t Touch My Hair”. And in ” F.U.B.U.” she defended her blackness against the fetishization and presumptuousness of a white audience: “This shit is for us!” The line she drew here, like white chalk on a sidewalk, shut out white people, shut me out. Nevertheless, I do not have to be black to understand this much: She protects herself from violation by pronouncing and criticising them, loud and clear. The basic tool of any emancipation. This can give courage to everyone. Even to those who have no points of contact with this particular form of injustice. Even to me.
The new album “When I Get Home”, released in March, is fuelled by the same power. It deals with the images and imaginations of a black America in a much more experimental and fragmentary way. Whereas with “A Seat At The Table” she expressed herself clearly, “When I Get Home” is a rather artistic, free-associated notion of black identity. On the one hand, this makes it even more difficult to understand it from the outside. On the other hand, isn’t it often much easier to feel things and truths than to name them?

3. An unexpected love

It is, of course, impossible to regard Solange’s music – or R&B, soul, hip hop or every other modern pop music genre with African-American roots – without being aware of the complex entanglements of culture, race and music. It would be so easy if music was just music, and if things like skin color or gender would not play any role. But it is so much more complicated since the audience is not objective, and the audience has a skin color.
Nevertheless, my own love for African-American music was naive in the beginning. Maybe like every love. Back then, in those days between childhood and prepubescent search movements, my quickly-discovered enthusiasm for Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu or De La Soul initially resembled the phenomenon of Northern Soul: in its historical consciousness: the British music scene that developed around rediscovered and newly discovered American R&B music in the late 1960s. The (mostly white) young Brits had no idea of the conditions in the country of origin. They just loved the music, its danceability and grooving warmth. Music that hadn’t been intended for a European audience in the first place, but in which they found an authenticity that perhaps had an even stronger effect because it made its way to them from a foreign reality. It was more or less the same for me: I initially understood black music, its voices and beats on an emotional level, before gradually becoming aware of the social context. Before I listened more closely to what Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron or Public Enemy were saying about revolution, pride and the black Community.

4. The new black cultural power

The fact that Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” had such a strong effect 20 years later, is also due to the moment in which it entered the world: back in the fall of 2016, in those weeks before and after Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections, in which the shock was deep-seated between right-wing populism, Brexit and #BlackLivesMatter, and in which an entire generation was re-politicized in an inconvenient way. And during which the voices of black artists in the American entertainment industry began to grow louder: Kendrick Lamars „To Pimp A Butterfly“ had been released the previous year, Beyoncé had referenced the Black Panther movement during her Super Bowl halftime show, in the spring of 2017 director Barry Jenkins won the Oscar for „Moonlight“ and Jordan Peele’s socio-political satire „Get Out“ was much more discussed than any horror movie for a long time. In 2018, the first black Marvel superhero movie film, Childish Gambinos „This Is America“ followed and became the most debated video clip of the year, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé appropriated a very white cultural institution, the Louvre in Paris, with “Apeshit”.

These are just a few examples, but they reflect a time during which the public awareness is being conditioned on issues like racism, police violence and black empowerment. A few months ago, Barry Jenkins drew my attention to a peculiarity of this development in recent years in an interview: “More and more works by black artists are communicating with each other. Musicians, writers, directors inspire each other.” Elements and meanings would reappear in different places and be further developed. A video aesthetic would reappear in a movie, the movie as a reference in song lyrics, the song in a novel. This “growing cosmos”, its greatness and power, is distinct to our time.

5. The interdisciplinary exploratory room

Solange is part of this cosmos. For me, who has been looking at this universe from the outside for 20 years, she is its centre. Because in her art she combines different disciplines as cleverly and elegantly as no one else. The new album shows this even more clearly than before, especially when you look at the 30-minute film that Solange directed for “When I Get Home”. Together with her roughly sketched songs, the Moog synthesizers and muted drum patterns, the surreal visual world between black cowboys, empty city scenes and wondrous dance formations create a special kind of multimedia art. Solange, who in recent years has also directed videos for other artists (SZA – „The Weekend“), has meanwhile developed her own aesthetic: weightless movements, black bodies in the midst of brutalist architecture, and slow, wide zooms.
The extent to which Solange has extended her work towards the art world is particularly evident in a sequence towards the end of the film: several dozens of dancers gather in the middle of a circular, white art object in a barren desert. The artificial, gigantic sculpture in the middle of the landscape and the meditative expressive dances turn the clip into video art, turn pop music into an interdisciplinary space of exploration. At an album release event in Houston, Solange said she imagined what it would be like if in 20 years a young black girl would look for a reference, for a black artist who had made works of art of this dimension in the landscape. And that she wanted to create something that this future girl could discover.

This focus on the art world was already apparent in Solange’s work several years ago: A first sign was the ambitious live shows for “A Seat at the Table”, which merged dance, music and art performance. Among other venues, she performed at the at Guggenheim Museum in New York auf. She also showed performance videos at Hammer Museum (Los Angeles) and Tate Modern (London). The idea behind it is as simple as it is revolutionary: black art, especially that of black women, must be integrated into the still predominantly white art institutions (an idea that Beyoncé and Jay-Z have adopted with their video shot at the Louvre). Solange has written an essay worth reading about how hostile these place still are, its title: „And Do You Belong? I Do“.
For this reason, she shows set pieces of black everyday culture as artistic artefacts of American history in the “When I Get Home” film: grills, the screwed & chopped music in slow motion, twerking and pole dancing, hanging out in parking lots. All this is dramaturgically charged with so much meaning that it seems like an Afrofuturistic ceremony, that Sun-Ra, Rotary Connection or the Stevie Wonder of the „Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants“-phase would have liked. In this way, Solange creates her own reference system – regardless of what is currently popular and what might sell well. With “When I Get Home” Solange manages to spectacularly liberate herself from the idea that pop music needs to be easily grasped in the age of Spotify and YouTube. Solange wants to get somewhere else, she doesn’t want 15 minutes of attention, she wants

6. Being black, being a woman

Solange’s art tells us what it’s like to be a black woman. I can and will never understand the first part of this, but I do get the second: I know what it means to be a woman in this world. I understand the anger at inequality and the desire to oppose it. Obviously, racism and sexism are not the same. But both are about power and interpretive sovereignty. And in both cases, harmful role models and discriminatory structures work together. Inequality is intensified when different forms of domination are intertwined. A mechanism that intersectional theory tries to untangle and discuss.
The extent to which sexism and racism are intertwined can be seen in the comments under a feature in the New York Times Magazine on Solange: It is almost frightening how many commentators (and we are talking about the liberal American readership!) deem it necessary and appropriate to judge the permissive and “blatantly sexual” way in which Solange appears in the images accompanying the feature and to complain that the text describes her as polymath. Another (female) commentator notes wonderfully clever: “Maybe it’s the smug urge to assert one’s presumption of being the true judge of greatness, whose title must solely be attributed to Michelangelo or Frank Sinatra, and not some avant-garde R&B artist they’ve never heard of.”
There may be too few black artists in museums – even less than female ones – but there are still also too few women. And even in the music industry, the image of women embodied by Solange is not yet a self-evident fact: the self-determined artist who holds all the creative threads of her music in her hands. It’s not just about the black girl who will look back in 20 years, it’s about how we get there in the first place.
For that we need strong women, like Solange, to counter these everyday attacks with their own narrative. Who reminds us that societies grow from different perspectives. Who tell us about their world, which we may never fully understand, but from which we can learn. About being black, being female, being human. That’s how you face the world.

Annett Scheffel is a freelance journalist and editor, among others for Musikexpress and Süddeutsche Zeitung. She says it takes at least five attempts to understand Solange Knowles’ music. She lives in Berlin.

Translation by Denise Oemcke.

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