Vision Quest, Realized: Solange and the Look of Black Optimism

She took us to the astral plane Sunday night at the Greek.

(Grady Brannan/Twitter)

I mourned. I grieved. I raged. I felt fear and triumph while working through some of the trauma I set out to heal from. The state I so greatly wanted to experience, but that never arrived was optimism.”

I couldn’t answer my own question, if I had a responsibility as an artist to also express optimism in the midst of working through so much of my own healing. I decided to do this through a visual language.”

There are times when the cosmos deign to descend from the realm of abstraction and astronomy to smack Earth right in its face, to leave us reeling — and, maybe, to hit us hard enough to change the pace and path of the globe itself.

If you stared at the sky sometime between midnight and dawn on Saturday or Sunday, you stood a good chance of catching a glimpse of the Orionid meteor shower, when pieces of Halley’s Comet lit up the sky as Earth orbits through the comet’s tail. This happens once a year, and so it isn’t a significant event, nothing like the appearance of the comet itself, which has presaged momentous events.

Now, a comet is “just” a ball of ice and gas catapulted around the universe by gravity. The point is that when a celestial something visits, humans don’t always fully understand what they’ve witnessed. But we rarely forget.

What does any of this have to do with Solange Knowles, whose monthlong, five-date, three-city “Orion’s Rise” mini-tour concluded Sunday night at Berkeley’s Greek Theater? Nothing, possibly.

There is the irrelevant trivia: It was possible to see Orionids and Orion’s Rise all in one night. There is analogy. As the newswrap owned by an ex-KGB agent and unwillingly pressed upon a million unsuspecting Londoners a day proved last week, it is still possible to pretend to attend to Solange while so completely missing the point that you stumble into demonstrating the equation. And then there is metaphor.

This tour, Solange says, is to mark the path of her “spiritual orbit,” the passage of a year that has seen her become, in our eyes, “serious.” A serious artist, across media, with work in the Tate Modern in London. A serious musician no longer eclipsed by her more accessible, more famous, more accomplished — by our own earthly standards, anyway — older sister.

Solange will never again be referred to in headline or tweet as “Beyonce’s sister.” That is a recent transformation and one worth remarking, but it is also mere footnote. Like James Baldwin or the MacArthur genius grant winner Jesmyn Ward — another leviathan, who emerged from the same Gulf soil (would you believe: they call it “black”?)— Solange is now a serious voice. Solange is one of the eloquent muses speaking on behalf of Black people in America — which is another way of saying, a voice for the idea and imperfect, ongoing experiment that is our time and place.

This is all quite a bit to unload on a 31-year-old for whom A Seat at the Table was only her third full-length album, and who, before that, was known to most white Americans, if at all, for a certain notorious elevator ride. As has been said before, the record is a triumph: a line in the sand, a looming monolith, a testament, undeniable if not always precisely decipherable.


At the same time, in the year since its release, Solange is unsatisfied. She has shown a capacity and thirst for more. Many of us do. Some of those yearners are even artists. Orion’s Rise is a demonstration that Solange is able. Here is the required vision and discipline on display.

Let’s return to the stars. Much of the power of “Orion’s Rise” is in its visuals. What did we see? A giant orb astride a set of stairs, flanked on either side by steep-angled pyramids—so sharp as to be knifelike, more Shard than Khufu — and all of it a bright, brilliant white. White turns to blood-red and to ice-blue and back again. From either side of the orb emerge musicians: a full Lincoln Center-worthy string section, enough horns and brass to do a parade down Frenchmen Street proud.

Dressed in simple, two-piece, loose-fitting monochrome vestments, they stand motionless as statues or the figures painted on an Egyptian temple’s walls when not playing. (And though we hope there is a day when this does not warrant mention, this is not that day, and thus it does and must be: They are all Black.) When creating sound, they move in deceptively simple, understated elegance. Head raised, head lowered. Foot out, and back in. And yes, the sound. Here, Solange the songwriter becomes the composer. She has arranged her work, the work you knew–and some of the work you didn’t, playing as she did cuts from 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams as well as the precursor and the hint that this might be coming, 2012’s True EP–to be projected by this new massive band. You could say she altered it to fit, but that doesn’t feel right. This isn’t an old garment gussied up. This feels like something else entirely.

The space in “Mad,” usually inhabited by two verses from Lil’ Wayne, is filled with hypnotic vocal arrangements that could make a cathedral feel small and echo Philip Glass at his best. There are breaks and returns and segues back to where we were before the break. “T.O.N.Y.” sounds every bit as developed and mature as “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work.” As if predicting and already tiring of the “space-and-goddess” shit, she punctuates “F.U.B.U.” with delicate, destroying thunderclaps.  

It’s seamless. It’s mesmerizing. There is power and there is majesty. There is vulnerability and there is love. There is “swagger,” that mixture of defiance and detachment living in Barkley Hendricks. You sit and you watch, agape and agog. You “fuckin dance,” as Solange commands. If you were ignorant or — as I am — raised in a different perspective, that of the white male, you might call it defiant, a poor way of describing that undefeated quality of blackness in America, which confounds, fascinates, and obsesses. But in order to “defy,” you must be resisting a more powerful force — and can the sun or the moon defy?

The overall effect is to be transported to a different astral plane, to be a worshiper at a cosmic temple, to arrive with an elaborate ritual in full swing. Who is the deity? It would be too easy to say it’s Solange. She is the center and the focus, of course — it’s she who has free range of motion, breaking from the reverent form around her to stomp, to show a few flashes of capoeira, to drop to the floor and deliver a taste of New Orleans bounce. But remember what else she’s done with this tour: Share the stage and the love.

Solange Knowles/Twitter

In New York and Washington, it was the otherworldly jazz master Sun Ra’s Arkestra with whom Solange shared the light now aimed at her. In Berkeley, Los Angeles’ Flying Lotus, who gave the weed-and-molly crowd a 3-D dose of the visual crack the iPad generation craves just prior to Solange’s set. Before him, the pianist and score composer Chassol, virtually unknown to American audiences, who Solange took pains to introduce to us and to publicly praise, patiently nodding as awareness dawns around her. (A rare sour note: the bill was absent the raw, weird rap prodigy Earl Sweatshirt, who canceled.)

Like the paragon of a “Black auntie,” Solange is both muse and poet, both deity and priestess leading the proceedings. (It’s no accident she chose Berkeley as the location for this ritual: As a child, she spent many summers in Oakland with her real-life aunt — who was in the audience on Sunday, and, as Solange told us, once left the child-her unattended long enough for her to go onto the computer of author Terry McMillan, a close friend, and delete a few pages’ worth of the original draft of How Stella Got her Groove back). Orion is at least partially an homage to Sun Ra and Afrofuturism, the cocktail of black liberation and black self-determination familiar to Marcus Garvey, chased with a brew of space-age technology and occult mysticism. Partially.

“I am a Black woman,” Solange told the Tate Modern, one of a very select list of interlocutors given the opportunity to interview her. (Also on this A-list: Beyonce.) “A woman yes, but a Black woman first and last. Black womanhood has been at the root of my entire existence since birth.”

On this tour, to tell this story, Solange adopted the language of the stars. Subtle celestial visions abound in Solange’s Tate work and in the visuals accompanying Orion’s Rise. The arcs, circles and lines that remind you of the astronomical calendars mastered by civilizations other than our Western white one, resemble nothing so much as the Golden Record fused onto the Voyager space probe and launched into the sky. And she threw it on in a way that looks as easy as donning terrycloth.

“Space is the place,” Sun Ra’s most famous record intoned. Well, where is that—and what is it? It’s tangible. It’s achievable. Here it is: A stage populated entirely by Black musicians, performing magic. A young woman in command, exercising her power. The warm glow covering all who witnessed it as they exit. And the reminder that this is an artist still on her rise.


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