After the sun had gone down on the Friday of weekend two of ACL, it was Solange’s turn to take the Barton Springs stage. As 7:15pm passed and there was still no sight of the singer, a message flashed on the big screen: “DUE TO UNFORESEEN TRAVEL DELAYS, SOLANGE’S SET HAS BEEN PUSHED BACK. SHE IS RUSHING TO THE FESTIVAL AND LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING EVERYONE SOON.” As I watched throngs of people jump ship to go watch the xx or Jay Z instead, the rest of us firmly stood our ground and held onto hope of her arrival. My heart jumped back to two years ago, when we (and perhaps some of the same “we” awaiting Solange) had stood waiting for Lauryn Hill to take the stage at what would be the last Fun Fun Fun Fest out on the southwestern lake (river) bank. With all the instruments set up on stage and lighting done in dark but bright reds on tonight’s stage, we stood in heightened anticipation for a live rendition of one of the best albums from 2016—and certainly one of the most important and powerful albums for and by black people (and particularly for black women) to be released in my lifetime.
The stakes were high, both in terms of delivering a moving set but also simultaneously offering something to give we in the audience a break from the heaviness of the world around us. Standing near the sound booth with a politically aware white lady friend, our voices erupted with joy as the band—and, finally, Solange—took the stage. The ensemble began by following the order of songs on A Seat at the Table, smoothly transitioning from “Rise” to “Weary” (the latter portrayed in the video above). After Solange and her backup singers finish flipping their hair—and their entire bodies—up and down, the bass line of “Weary” sends them strutting and crouching from side to side on the stage. “I’m weary of the ways of the world,” Solange sings at the beginning of the song. There is a tiredness in her voice that comes through in a stronger way in the live setting than on the recorded album. But there is also a channeling of the weariness that we are only able to experience in the flesh. As Solange begins singing, the bass player and guitarist move their instruments back and forth in sync with the beat of the song. Not only do they also still move in spite of the weariness but they also move together; they push through. The combination of shared exhaustion and making music together leads to a black collectivity on stage.
In the middle of the set, this black collectivity literally extends out into the audience. Although the above video is from weekend one, a similar moment occurs when the group perform “F.U.B.U.” during weekend two. Once again, Solange and her band enact a choreography on stage—but it is looser than the tight, synchronized movements of “Weary.” After singing “Some shit is for us,” Solange moves to the edge of the stage and then eventually walks out into the crowd. During weekend two, she approaches a middle-aged black woman with tied back dreadlocks and glasses, putting her arm around her and then holding her hand. For the remainder of the song, she stays with this woman, looking her in the eye and being fully present with her. The woman begins to cry—and everyone from the crowd warmly cheers as a way of letting her know that it’s okay. Further back in the crowd, I break into tears as I watch all of this unfold on the big screen. As I turn to my friend, I see that she is also crying. What does it mean to be included in this moment as a white person, albeit one who also identifies as a queer woman? Without being all the way up in the front (where many black women and women of color are crowding around Solange), I am a part of this from afar. Given all the white privilege that I already have, I feel fortunate to even get to be there at all, standing in the background as black collectivity takes center stage.
I flash back to a few weeks earlier, when I’m driving around New Orleans with a trusted (and also white) friend and colleague, listening to A Seat at the Table. We’re doing our sound studies and black studies thing, picking out particular parts of each song and then thinking aloud about how aurality and race are working together in those moments. But, we’re also touching down in our ongoing conversation about what it means to be white people writing about black popular music. As I get deeper into writing about 80s and contemporary black pop stars, I only have more and more questions for myself—and an increasing awareness of what I will never be able to fully grasp on account of my whiteness. Solange seems to be acutely aware of how race affects one’s access to her music, as she now only allows women of color to interview her and prioritizes black women in her performances. A special intimacy is reserved for women of color while the rest of us get to join in in the enormity of the festival space from behind. When too many things (including so much art and music) have been about shutting black people out, Solange’s music works as a clever reversal of the ways of the world. Yet unlike the white heteropatriarchy that governs everything, Solange does not completely reproduce the total exclusion of so many of these institutions. We (white people) are allowed to enter on her—and black people’s—terms. This is one of the greatest successes of her music. And I am grateful to have been let in on it.