With When I Get Home, Solange Knowles Reaffirms What It Means to Be a Black Woman, and an Auteur
I began to realize, at a very young age, that I was setting myself up for a colossal, lifelong complication: I, a little girl of color, liked whiling afternoons away listening to Chopin and other piano virtuosos; I lost myself in classic cinema and devoured vintage musicals; I was so intoxicated with fine art that I was gifted a massive tome on Monet’s life and career for my eleventh birthday. I liked art, in short, be it weird or venerated, obscure or apotheosized.
I was, by no means, an exception. Countless other girls like me have appreciated and worshipped pop culture and artistic prodigies — but this, I wouldn’t know for a long time. I felt insulated, isolated with the belief of what was being told to me: namely, that I was the odd one out, because I did not listen to what “girls like me“ were expected to be into, such as mainstream music, books that barely scratched the surface of our immeasurable potential, and films and shows that thrived on backhanded stereotypes about people of color.
The awareness was acute: I could love modern architecture as much as my peers, aspire to write offbeat novels about outlandish occurrences, dream about making quirky, surreal short films until hell froze over, but these spaces would never truly belong to non-white people, let alone women.
The recent acclaim received by Solange Knowles’ album and short film, When I Get Home, proves how far we have come in seeing black women as legitimate auteurs. It is an album from an eccentric artist at the peak of her fluid self-exploration, even if the road to this culmination hasn’t always been obvious.
A few years ago, no one would have bet on Solange to be one of those picking up this mantle. Oft relegated to the title of “Beyoncé’s sister”, or else an occasional addendum to the more obscure offerings of Destiny’s Child, nothing seemed to indicate that by 2019, she’d be one of the most intriguing artists to keep an eye out for.
In truth, we should always have been paying attention, because Solange has been honing and polishing her aim for years. The singer’s early decade collaboration with Dirty Projectors, and her affinity for indie rock music, chronicled in a Vulture article in 2010, revealed the singer’s fascination with blurring genre lines, as well as her inclination to break the mold that singers of her ilk were often relegated to: R&B, or nil. Similar features published around that time by The Atlantic, Refinery29 and Vibe lauded the young singer’s unique outlook, and the many ways in which she neutralized the comparisons between her and her older sister.
Over the following years, Solange would expand upon her singular, slightly trippy vision with the release of True in 2012, before going full tilt with the masterpiece that is A Seat at the Table (2016), where heartbreak was examined with as much grace as social unrest.
When I Get Home, at barely 40 minutes long, feels nonetheless expansive. It is a nebulous album, with barely a break and a breath between the songs: one track ends halfway into the beginning of another, the whole of it interspersed with spoken word interludes and breezy raps. It sounds almost as if one long song had been vaguely chopped up into an inconclusive tracklist.
The end result is deliciously strange, straddling the territories of jazz, soul, hip-hop and something in between, much less definable, like a gentle, soporific embrace.
Lyrically, it is stranger still, although this does not mean it is aimless. As the third interlude “Nothing Without Intention” indicates, Solange is never purposeless, no matter how adventurous the album gets. When I Get Home is a coming-of-age, an exploration of the blurry boundaries between our past selves and who we are becoming, between who we wish we were and who we could have been, between how we perceive ourselves and our worth, and how the world perceives us.
The most interesting aspect of When I Get Home is not one that immediately jumps to mind. At first, it appears to — and certainly does — celebrate black culture and the subtle things that make it either intensely dazzling or quietly comforting. Peppered throughout the album and the short film are such references as: Houston’s candy paint shops, callbacks to early hip-hop techniques like the chopped-and-screwed, and what looks like an allusion to Aaliyah’s “Down With the Clique” and Mista's "Blackberry Molasses".
The short film underlines this direction further, with shots depicting a dreamy Third Ward, the neighborhood where Solange and her sister grew up, a place featured heavily in the lyrics. This tribute also shows up in the collaborations Solange has chosen: black artists like Sampha, Metro Boomin and Devin the Dude whose respective visions are as particular as her own, and who have also made it a point to defy the expectations put upon artists of color, through their art.
This, in short, is an album of celebration, not of loss, and certainly not of brutality.
But beyond the aforementioned eccentricity, When I Get Home is a culmination of an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to recalibrate the way black women and art have been pejoratively interlaced. The album almost immediately drew comparisons to Stevie Wonder’s highly experimental The Secret Life of Plants (1979), a comparison Solange herself has actually endorsed: in similar ways, When I Get Home gives itself permission to be weird and offbeat, threatening and powerful, vague and non-committal. Whereas Stevie Wonder’s was labelled everything on the spectrum of pretentious and indulgent, When I Get Home is being praised for changing the blueprint of what a female artist can achieve when she has full creative control, and an insouciance regarding critics to boot.
Solange is a conductor, rather than the star, a director, rather than the artist: she drifts in and out, sometimes slips away entirely, leaving the spotlight on her collaborators, many of whom aren’t namechecked: it is about the experience, the intermingling of anonymous voices, rather than the who’s who of liner notes.
When I Get Home is, in many ways, different from A Seat At The Table which had a message, something to express — here, the medium is the message, as the saying goes. And in doing that, Solange makes a more fleeting statement, one that white avant-garde artists have been given leave to do for centuries: it does not need to concretely mean anything, as long as your audience can feel it.
This tendency is perhaps most apparent in the short film. The faded, pastel-tinted visuals present peculiar scenes, like that of Solange dressed in shiny tassels, dancing around a tall sequined figure, a parking lot full of DeLoreans, black women gathering around a white circular monument, or else a metallic bikini-clad woman building a futuristic looking machine and then dragging it through an empty highway. These unconnected images seemingly have no meaning, but they are no less stunning.
But by far, the most striking imagery in Solange’s short film is that of black cowboys riding their horses, racing down the desert, lassoing a rogue bull. It is a representation that stands starkly at odds from the traditional stereotype of the cowboy: rogue, virile white men who cavort in and out of small towns on their horses, their outlaw-ness sanctioned and immortalized through film and lore. If there are minorities present in the South, according to those outlets, they are downgraded to being stock side-characters and distasteful villains.
And in this way, Solange brazenly reaffirms blackness in places that haven’t always been welcoming and accessible to minorities. The album takes back concepts that have been deemed conventional to white spaces like the American West, science-fiction, pop culture, fine art, experimental cinema, surrealism and dream journaling, and repurposes them, all the while bolstering the beauty of spaces to which we have often been expelled.
Solange has, over the years, furthered that reach and sought to bring together those two gaping parts, namely blackness and art: this, by frequently and effusively proclaiming her infatuation with modern art; by appearing at the Met Gala, a historically elitist space, wearing a du-rag and carrying Florida Water in her purse; by holding listening parties and art installations in museums like the Guggenheim, by collaborating with artists and curators like Antwaun Sargent for her highly singular visuals.
It is a bit of an implied notion that “auteur” is a title reserved exclusively for white men, who are accorded the space to be as exploratory and ambiguous as they want through their art, without ever truly suffering from the connotations that “pretentiousness” creates. The recent turn of Solange’s career is, thus, remarkable because “auteur” is a title that is rarely, if ever, attributed to women, let along minorities, who have to work twice as hard to get the same level of deference.
White women, to a certain extent, get a softer deal; artists like Sofia Coppola have managed to transcend the nonsense usually tacked onto those who want to be taken seriously. Even, Lady Gaga, who was once written off as a talentless, gimmicky hack — despite her love of modern art and mythology — is today enjoying a remarkable level of success.
Similarly, black men — the Jordan Peele, Spike Lee and Boots Rileys of the world — have been given more breadth to explore their stranger, more intimate tendencies, and to experience the hit-and-misses without too much lasting damage.
We women of color, on the other hand, have a parallel predicament: that of the discriminatory pitfalls that put us in the same stifling boxes as our male counterparts, and the deeply rooted sexism that condemns us to being objects of desire, at the receiving end of the heterosexual male gaze, like other white women.
When the glorious Tilda Swinton spent hours in a box at the MoMa for a performance art piece, it barely registered because that was an acceptable spectacle. When Beyoncé shut down the Louvre for her “Apeshit” music video with her husband, it made waves, and underneath the criticism — and even the praise — those waves had a clear message: who, her?
This, because the correlations between black womanhood and art has always been a thorny one. Passionate black women are too easily reduced to the adjectives “angry” and "savage". When this passion, as is the case for Solange, takes whimsical forms, it is even less stomach-able, because it goes against the uniformity critics would tack upon us.
Over the decades, the most normalized representations of black women in mainstream music have ranged from video vixens to jazz/soul musicians, from pop artists with little to no agency, to feuding rappers: and we are, and have always been, so much more than that.
Nina Simone’s audacious “Four Women” was banned soon after its release because its defiant subject matter made white critics uncomfortable. But it did not stop her from channeling her love of classical music and the African-American cause into one of the most seminal careers of the 20th century; her heartbreaking cover of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” remains a timeless piece of music.
The mercurial Grace Jones fielded decades of scrutiny and shoddy attempts at defining her sound and image; she remains a cult figure in multimedia and art, and an icon of the modeling industry.
Dawn Richard, of Danity Kane fame, faced a wave of skepticism and condescension when she embarked on her solo career: six years later, she is considered one of the most interesting voices in alternative pop and R&B. Additionally, her 2013 album Goldenheart continues to earn praise for its experimental production and the unconventional way heartbreak was processed through allusions to classical music, medieval imagery, and science fiction.
Kelis, FKA Twigs, Janelle Monae… all were nearly denied success because they preferred to tread their own paths and approach their music like concepts, part of a bigger, outlandish whole, rather than straightforward artifacts.
And in the same way, it is evident that Solange has taken control of her strange ship, a ship other black women before her have fearlessly steered, and other black women after her will hopefully navigate with greater ease and power.
The little girl in me, who searched for meaning in classic art and rock music, who searched for affinity in Victorian-era daguerrotypes and art films, who reveled in architecture and modern art and space opera comic books and fantastical short tales, and in all the places that wordlessly told her people like her did not belong, did not exist — that little girl feels seen.
Solange, and other artists of her kind, are proving that we can honor the places where we come from, all the while search for representation in places where we seemingly have never belonged, and prove that black women are the chameleonic wonders the world has always found it easy to dismiss.
She, like those before her, is an auteur declaring, through sound, lyrics and images that yes, there is a seat at the table for everyone, even in the unlikeliest of places. This is an auteur declaring: “we have always been here, if you only looked hard enough”.