Solange on the Third Ward: 'It'll Always Be in My Work'
Two days after the surprise drop of When I Get Home, Solange Knowles orchestrated a Houston-spanning album release that revealed her project’s deep personal significance.
Solange selected nine locations based on their meaning in her life and for the black community writ large. Institutions like the Ensemble Theatre and Project Row Houses stood out as obvious venues for the artist to debut her film, but Sunday’s sold-out crowds were also directed to Unity National Bank—the first black-owned bank in Texas—and Texan Tire & Wheel, ground zero for so much of the city's ubiquitous slab culture. Solange appeared herself for a post-screening talk at the SHAPE Community Center.
In conversation with writer/curator Antwaun Sargent, the artist explained how she embarked on the project in a rented Third Ward house “off Wichita” where she quietly reacquainted herself with the Houston of her youth. The end result? A 19-track album she called an “exploration of origin,” something that offers a “snapshot” of herself and her place in the world. And unlike her previous record, this project is meant to be experienced as much as it's supposed to be heard.
“With A Seat at the Table, I had so much to say,” Knowles said. “With this album, I have so much to feel—I have so, so much to feel."
Inspired by Steve Reich, Alice Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, and Sun Ra, repetition became her primary mode of exploration. She would obsess for days over a single drum beat, and trancelike improv sessions with members of her high school jazz band laid the foundation for many of the tracks. Twenty-minute demos were ultimately whittled down to mostly sub-three-minute tracks, polished to a point where Solange dedicated an estimated 80 percent of her creative efforts to production and editing. “Words would've been reductive to what I needed to feel and express,” she told the crowd. “It's in the sonics for me.”
That’s to say nothing of the visuals, of course, which arrive onscreen as a postmodern fantasia that heightens the mundane Houston setting to a dreamlike realm. The When I Get Home film opens inside the Rothko Chapel before sliding into shots of black cowboys galloping down Third Ward streets. Camera lenses stare out downtown skyscrapers, where Solange reclines in snakeskin stiletto boots. Dramatic rodeo scenes punctuate found YouTube footage—motivational clips and mantras—and Photobooth videos show private moments of the artist twerking in various states of dress and undress.
Later in the talk, Solange addressed the film's prominent yeehaw imagery, which sought to push back against the lily-white stereotypes of the American cowboy. For Knowles, black cowboys “off Almeda road” were simply what she knew growing up, and what her Houston friends continue to experience today. There aren’t two ways about it for Knowles: “I don't know who John Wayne is, I don't know what his story is—I really don't.”
Reasserting this strand of black history into the culture was an explicit part of her ambition. She was also thinking about legacy with the project, of how to transmit some schematic of what black art might look like for future generations of girls growing up in the Third Ward—to have something for those girls to point to as a piece of culture created by someone like them. That huge, arena-like sculpture present throughout the film? She wanted to create a monumental icon that would live on to inspire others.
Most of all, she said she wanted to capture her truth.
“To have something out in the world that feels like a true reflection of who I am, the things that I love to listen to, the things that I love to experience as sort of a snapshot of myself at this present time...That feels so good,” Knowles said.
Yet her gratitude for the Third Ward—for Houston—rose above all else. The 32-year-old remembered her childhood days at the Ensemble Theatre, where she starred as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz. She mused about the unrelenting joy of landing at IAH, getting in the car, and tuning the radio to 97.9. Hell, she said she was even grateful for Sunday, when Paul Wall picked her up in a slab to take her to this event, where Bun B and Miss Tina and at least a dozen folks in cowboy hats were nodding their heads in affirmation.
“This is who I am,” Knowles said of her neighborhood. “I don't even have to say it or express it—it's just a part of me, it'll always be in my work.”
You can stream the When I Get Home film now on Apple Music; audio streaming everywhere.