Solange and I meet in a transitional season. It is early February, and the colors of Mardi Gras are blooming in the city of New Orleans. The Pontchartrain Hotel is on St. Charles Avenue, and, by dusk, the Garden District will be flooded with the sights and sounds of the first Carnival parade.
In the afternoon, the Living Room lounge at Pontchartrain is an oasis. Solange tells me that she chases quietude. It helps her to plot. Talking about her 13-year-old son, Daniel Julez Smith Jr., Snapchat and inquiring girls, she puts a hand to her temple and smiles, amused. Later, she’ll pick him up from school, as always. With her husband and collaborator, music video director Alan Ferguson, away, “I’m on mommy duty,” she says.
“Orion’s Rise,” her worldwide performance series of the 2016 album A Seat at the Table, ended in late fall. On Instagram last December, she informed fans that a diagnosis of an autonomic disorder would keep her from performing on New Year’s Eve at AfroPunk in Johannesburg. “I’m still learning about myself,” she wrote. Even in a rest period, Solange, 31, pursues change. The wisdom and splendor of her landmark work is still in the air, but she is making again: choreographing, designing stage sets, traveling and working on new music. She’s jamming with 19-year-old musician-producer Steve Lacy. “He’s like, ‘OK, I got these chords.’ ‘Hey, papa, let’s go!’” she says. She wants to immerse herself in zydeco culture. “Hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend are getting on horses and trail riding from Texas to Louisiana,” she tells me. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.”
A Seat at the Table, Solange’s third album, was her first to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and the first single, “Cranes in the Sky,” won a Grammy for best R&B performance. When her sister, Beyoncé, talked to her for Interview magazine in early 2017, Solange divulged that she had written “Cranes” eight years before as a newly single mother in Miami, writing through the noise of a development boom. “I remember looking up and seeing all these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge,” she said. Performing it on tour was difficult. “I wasn't breathing, centering myself,” she tells me.
The album is a rare work: a woman artist’s inquiry into the self that radiates common truth. Black listeners especially took to the album’s messages of self-love. That was what Solange intended. “This shit is for us,” she announces on the anthemic “F.U.B.U.” Her poetics clarified a generation’s rage, its rights to pleasure and confusion and indignation. Her songcraft -- writing on every track herself, working with longtime collaborators, including Raphael Saadiq -- solidified her status as a lyricist. And her accompanying visuals -- a suite of videos that plunged Solange, whirling alongside her family of dancers, in impossible landscapes and evocative desert worlds -- asserted a conceptual grammar. She’s a student of both the choreography of Yvonne Rainer and the personas of Lil’ Kim.
Solange identifies as a performance artist now, in addition to mother, daughter, sister and wife. Her look today is architectural: slightly fluted navy pants, a structural white blouse, her Afro presiding over it all like an electric blonde sun. We joke about the antics on Real Housewives of Atlanta, and then she grows faintly serious. “I’m clear within myself that I’m not interested in entertainment at this moment,” she tells me, leaning back on the plush rattan couch. “That might change. There might be a moment where I decide, ‘Hey, I love the game.’ For right now, I’m not [there],” she tells me. She’s not superstitious, exactly, but she believes in intuition. She only puts work out when it’s done; she submitted A Seat at the Table to her label four days before it appeared on iTunes. “I think about my gut and how many times I didn't listen and how many times that fucked me over,” she says.
Now interested in “activating” spaces, Solange is designing performances for museums and galleries. At the Tate Modern in London, she exhibited “Seventy States,” a “digital dossier” of performance-art pieces that reference collagist of black spiritual ephemera Betye Saar. In spring 2017, Solange invited viewers to dress in white and come witness her occupy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s blinding white rotunda in New York. Thelma Golden, director/chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, was there. She compares Solange to Adrian Piper and Kara Walker. “My life has been spent in museums,” says Golden. “Waiting to go into the Guggenheim, I felt a range of feelings that remain hard to describe. What it meant to be in front of one of our great temples of culture. The space transformed, created, made into black space, quite literally.”
Solange’s mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, educated her in black art as a child, and she’s now a contemporary of artists Kahlil Joseph, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose paintings were brought to life in the video for A Seat at the Table’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.” When we talk, Solange has just been named Harvard’s Artist of the Year. She sighs; this recognition and this institution is different. “It feels like such a colossal honor that I’m still working through feeling deserving of it,” she explains. “I didn't come from a line of college-educated women. I feel so humbled and appreciative, [having been] an 18-year-old teenage mother who didn't go to college, who always had to explore academia on her own.”
As a preteen, Solange danced backup for Destiny’s Child. She released her first album, Solo Star, at 16. Nearly 16 years later, evolution is her watchword. Before we leave the Living Room, Solange writes up a short guide of New Orleans in my reporter’s notebook. She impresses on me that I should make sure to sit inside Radcliffe Bailey’s sculpture, “Vessel,” installed in Crescent Park for the Prospect.4 triennial. “It does something to sound,” she says. (The next morning, I sit in the metal cylinder by the Mississippi River and listen to the sound of water pouring from a conch shell.) She exits the Pontchartrain to fetch her son. For the rest of the Mardi Gras season, on Instagram, she leaves evidence of her whereabouts, and maybe her state of mind. She documents a writing retreat at the 17th-century Itopia estate in Jamaica, posing in purple among the brush. At a fete, she grins from under a cowboy hat, embellished with crystals, that she made with her son. On Lundi Gras, she strolls in the street in a billowing white outfit. By Ash Wednesday, these dispatches vanish, and Solange is wherever she is.
What does it feel like when your labor meets the events and the politics of the day? Like when you had to perform on Saturday Night Live days before the 2016 election?
Dave Chappelle was there preparing for his performance [on the next episode], and he was just so wonderful, giving me encouragement. I was clearly petrified. It was such a new range of emotions surrounding that week. It was really heavy having this album and performing a song like “Don’t Touch My Hair” juxtaposed with what was happening in our country. I felt a lot of pressure delivering that message during that time. I certainly didn't time my album to come out then. I have always, all my life’s three projects, released them when they’re done. Even now, I’m thinking about writing songs for my next project, and it feels exactly the time that it’s meant to be. I’m just coming into my 30s, and now I’m really ready to listen and willing to be led.
How has the creative process changed for you over the years? Do you feel pressure to quickly release another album?
This cycle of you put out an album, now you go and perform it, and then you go back and you work on another one for however long, and then as soon as that’s done, you put one out again... it’s the cycle that the music industry has set in place for us. Artists are really whimsical. And I have a 13-year-old son now, so that is a compass of how I have to set up my life and set up my work. It matters to be present with him. I’m relieved when I hear other mothers say, “Yeah, we’re going through this, too.”
Where are you writing now?
I’ve been working in Laurel Canyon, Topanga Canyon and Jamaica. I actually have been following Joni Mitchell. It has been really wild. The house that I was just recording in [in] Jamaica, I stayed there for four days. And then the last day, the owner was like, “You know that mural that’s downstairs in the spare bedroom that the engineer booth is in? Joni Mitchell painted that.”
What is it about the category of pop artist that appealed to you in the past?
Through the  True EP, I actually wrote down the dissertation of me wanting to create a pop record that was still nuanced and still had intricacies and still explored space and time and identity. That was during a time, especially in indie music, where pop music was sort of this icky forbidden term that you didn't want to be associated with. But I always [associated] pop music with popularity, and, you know, D’Angelo sold mad records. Lauryn Hill sold millions and millions of records. Beyoncé sold records. Those were my pop stars growing up, and I didn't internalize pop, and still don’t internalize pop, as this dismissive and reductive term. I want to be able to just look at the trajectory of my work at this present time and say, “Hey, I had a singular vision. This is the way that I saw the world and wanted to see the world, and I feel proud of that.”
Which musicians excite you now?
Tierra Whack. She sent me a shirt that says, “Tierra Whack is my mom,” and I wear it proudly. I love Cardi B. I can’t wait to hear what her album sounds like. Moses [Sumney] and Kelela put out incredible projects last year. Azealia Banks is putting out new music. I think she’s phenomenal. I saw Missy [Elliott] and Busta [Rhymes] and Kelly [Rowland] are putting out a record [“Get It”] today, which I’m going home to listen to. Missy is... well, she’s my mom.
Did you watch the Grammys?
I did not. I was in the studio. But I watched some of the performances online.
What’s your opinion on the controversy over the lack of representation for women and lack of recognition for people of color at this year’s awards?
I would like to see more diversity in all institutions, and I don’t just mean in music and art and fashion. I would like to see more people who look like me making decisions. But I certainly don’t subscribe to [awards] as the only way, best way or most important way to celebrate work. Through Saint Heron [a brand, founded by Solange, that encompasses a record label, online publisher, management company and more], we hope to uplift and empower and tell our story and celebrate each other every day. I am certainly not going to wait for anyone else to tell us that we’re worthy of that. I watched my mother creating the space that she wanted to be in, whether that was a hair salon or small business or an idea she started in our garage.
I remember first learning, in 2012, that you had moved from Brooklyn to New Orleans. I wondered if it was a reverse migration.
I almost felt like I was coming home because I really missed the South. I think there are certain qualities of living in the South that I really, really resonate and connect with. The sort of slowness. I feel like, rhythmically, I move at a much slower pace. I create at a much slower pace. I really like to take my time with things.
You grew up in Houston, but your mother’s line is from Louisiana. Did that have an effect on your move?
I really wanted to connect with my mother’s lineage. Her family is from New Iberia, which is about two hours away from here. My dad’s family is from Alabama. I was really curious about what having my ancestors in that type of proximity would do for me spiritually and artistically and, also, as a mother. I also wanted to live in a black city. Houston and Brooklyn and Los Angeles are very diverse cities, but they are not where the majority of the population is black. I think it has been phenomenal just seeing black women occupy every realm of space here in New Orleans. I wrote most of A Seat at the Table in New Iberia. I was there, off and on, for about three months. I would go up on Monday through Friday, come home on the weekends, or vice versa, depending on my son’s school schedule.
Have you learned anything about your mother’s family that you didn't know before?
Our family actually owns a graveyard in New Iberia, to this day. I would visit. Just being on the land told me way more than any kind of background research could have. I felt that energy, and I felt that guidance, creating and writing there.
What was it like recording your mother and your father for the skits on A Seat at the Table?
I knew I wanted to interview my parents when the album was done because I knew that if I interviewed them earlier in the process, it would shape and mold the way I personally related to my experience in New Iberia. Obviously, my parents are divorced, and getting the two of them in a room together was a powerful moment in time. They really led the conversation. I felt that because of my yearning to know, they were honest with me. I understood my father so much more. To sort out my adolescent and young adult years, there was still so much I needed to know because our relationship was not always very good. It’s still very much a work in progress. But I think I have a much clearer idea of the trauma that he experienced and how it felt like it was then generationally passed on to me. Both kind of existing in the white spaces as an “only,” and how much that can really shape and mold your experience of the world, race and identity. My mother, on the other hand, I knew how she felt. Heard it my whole life!
You also had Master P and Lil Wayne, NOLA legends, speaking on the album.
I immediately knew that I wanted [Master P] to come in and speak about his journey as a black entrepreneur during the time where black ownership in the music business was really not present. Saint Heron actually built the first release of our compilations modeled off of Cash Money’s sales of CDs out of trunks.
Wayne is an old friend of mine. He is a monster when it comes to how quickly he’s able to articulate his feelings. There were actually three rounds of verses, and he was so receptive and so wonderful and so giving. The second round, he was like, “OK, if that’s what you want, you’re going to get it.” I cannot put into words how much I appreciated his willingness to project his truth in that verse and share something that was so vulnerable and so very real.
What have you been reading lately?
On my last trip, I read Grace Coddington’s autobiography, Grace. A chapter she wrote about being married to Michael Chow and resisting the principles of minimalism for so long resonated. I have a hard time getting rid of things. It’s just so much consumerism, so many clothes, bags, books. I’ve started to shed. And the poet Sherman Alexie, who wrote a book about his mother, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. He is Native American, grew up on a reservation. His mother died. What really struck me the most, after I read the book and books about him and looked up interviews, is that he said he had to end the book tour because reading these excerpts was like throwing salt into wounds.
Is that what performing is like for you? Does it exhaust you?
I very much related to that at the beginning of performing this record. I felt like singing “Cranes” every night in front of everyone was like throwing salt on the wounds all over again. There were things that I was trying to get away from. It was very different recording it in a room in a safe space. And I remember my voice would quiver and shake for probably the first three months of singing that song: “I tried to drink it away... I sexed it away...” All of this, every night, in a festival environment.
There’s a dissonance between the lyrics, which are so inward, and the public consumption of the song.
Once I identified what my show was and what I wanted people to experience, I was able to control those emotions a lot more. I really related to Alexie’s idea that you do the work by writing the thing. Then the notion of then going out and releasing it to the world and revisiting and revisiting it is difficult, but it’s so rewarding.
Your performances at sites like the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York connect your work to institutional spaces that have excluded black artists and their cultural production. Do you feel anxiety making your entrance into the art world?
On one hand, I feel really, really grateful and just really lucky that my mom introduced us to black art at a very young age. But I don’t think that I ever saw this idea of existing as a performance artist or a multifaceted artist as a possibility as a black woman. Over the last 10 years, we’ve become more understanding and supportive of multidimensional artists, but there’s still such a long way to go. I have made myself pretty clear that I’m not interested in entering these spaces unless I am wholeheartedly occupying the space. I can’t even tell you what going down that rotunda [at the Guggenheim] felt like, seeing all of those black and brown faces. I am constantly trying to keep [connected] to my 13-, 14-, 15-year-old self. Imagine what it would have meant to see that at that age.