“Being a black woman of color, I’m not settling for just being here, but tearing the f–king walls down.” That’s how Solange Knowles concluded her immensely powerful performance “An Ode To,” a deconstruction of her hit 2016 album A Seat at the Table through movement, installation and experimentation that she composed and conceptualized, staged at The Guggenheim in New York City as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival.
And while the acclaimed singer-songwriter was referring to her physical presence at the museum (an institution with a very white history—a fact that wasn’t lost on anyone), she could have easily been talking about her artistic journey, as she disrupts traditional forms of expression (in a traditional setting, no less) to underscore her message of empowerment.
And make no mistake: It was art — not just entertainment — so it was fitting that “An Ode To” was set against one of the most iconic architectural landmarks in the world, amid such works of art. Fitting, too, was the dress code, in which all attendees were asked to wear all white, creating a neat non-distracting, fade-into-background effect. (Everyone was also asked to check their phones at the door, which demanded undivided attention and thus, a deeper appreciation for the performance).
The crowd sat cross-legged in rows on the atrium floor, with the rest overlooking from two spirals up (Zoe Kravitz was spotted on the first), as Knowles and her background vocals sang and danced in unison in monochrome sienna brown separates, while her band was outfitted in velour sets of burgundy, navy, and bright yellow, all by fashion designer Telfar Clemens.
Knowles ingeniously optimized the museum’s open rotunda to her full advantage, by entering with her ensemble from the very top and walking in a spiral downward, and having trumpet and saxophone players stationed at varying levels. And refreshingly, there wasn’t a performer versus attendee divide. A stage was built — a minimalist one accented with spheres and columns — but Knowles never set foot on it. In fact, she was barefoot (as was her whole ensemble) on the ground floor, and during an upbeat rendition of “F.U.B.U,” she walked into the audience, dancing and singing along with select fans. And when she twerked or playfully skipped across the space, it was met with a roar of cheers and applause.
For the most part, though, attendees were mostly silent, transfixed even, as she carried us through her line-up of raw, emotionally charged songs, opening first with “Rise” followed by “Weary,” the Grammy Award-winning hit “Cranes in the Sky,” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” each accompanied by graceful, fluid synchronized motions that were beautiful, and on a grander scale, were weighed by the symbolism of unity and strength. When she ended “Mad” by screaming into the mic, we all felt her rage, anger, and despair. And when she broke from synchronicity and began a grinning freestyle dance, we laughed along.
It was an intimate, completely immersive experience — and for Solange, an honest, authentic way to bring her album to life, in which she could “see the faces I wrote this album for.”