Solange Knowles | The Ground


Solange Knowles is often in the spotlight for her worldly music as much as for her daring red carpet appearances. Recently, Knowles made the headlines for very different reasons. Outraged by George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case, she led a peaceful protest in downtown Brooklyn and held up a banner with a quote from Malcolm X: I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.

Going further on Twitter, she urged her 1.6 million followers to sign a NAACP petition for a federal civil rights case against Zimmerman, who shot and killed the teenageR in Florida last year. “Justice for Trayvon Martin,” Solange wrote. “Is this not what our ancestors, grandfathers and fathers fought for? Now, I will be fighting for my son.” This kind of powerful stand is what we have come to expect from this fearless female. Unafraid to speak her mind, and always faithful to her music, fans and her famous family, the 27-year-old performer is a whole lot more than a pretty face.

Solange grew up singing and dancing just like her elder sister Beyoncé Knowles, whose career in the girl band, Girl’s Tyme and then Destiny’s Child was managed by their parents Matthew and Tina. “My parents encouraged me to be a free-thinking, free spirited person,” Solange says, in her steady Texas drawl. “Sure, I caused some trouble once in a while, but when I think back on my childhood, I have great memories. I was lucky.” She started writing songs in her pre-teens and decided to go into the family business at the age of 13.

Solange went on tour with Destiny’s Child as a backup dancer, collaborated with the likes of Lil’ Romeo and Lil Bow Wow, and in 2003, at age 16, she released her debut album, Solo Star. The upbeat R&B offering with reggae undertones features her work with The Neptunes and Timberland. “I still feel proud of that record, more so than the statement behind it. That was during the height of manufactured artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but I was head strong about my ideas and was involved in the process as I am today.”

The following year, she married her boyfriend Daniel Smith, a college football player, and gave birth to Daniel Julez Smith Jr. The young family moved to Idaho where she stayed out of the limelight to concentrate on motherhood. However within four years, she divorced, relocated to Los Angeles and released her second album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. It was a soulful offering influenced by 1960s Motown and producers, Cee Lo Green and Mark Ronson.

After two outings with two major labels, she admits that she felt “burned out” and disillusioned by mainstream music as her 2010 single, Fuck The Industry (Signed Sincerely), made abundantly clear to the public. As she grew into her 20s, her musical tastes took a more genre-frying direction away from the cookie cutter urban, pop star mould someone in her privileged position could have easily slotted into – and made a fortune from. Instead, she put out a cover of Stillness Is The Move by her pals, Dirty Projectors, and made the track, Flying Overseas with Theophilus London and her present co-writer/producer, Dev Hynes (Blood Orange, Lightspeed Champion and Test Icicles).

This collaboration was her first meeting with Hynes and the pair instantly clicked so she invited him to join her for a recording session in Santa Monica the following week. “I have a sensibility when it comes to songs that they should have a concrete hook and a bridge, the expand and climax: all of that. For Dev, it’s more instinctual. His songs have no firm structure, which is brilliantly him, but it’s not at all me. So, the beauty of us collaborating is that yin and yang. We meet in the middle.”

They went on to work closely together on what would become her next release, the mini album, True, and then she relocated to Brooklyn, New York in 2011 to “give the songs life” in their spiritual home. She signed with Terrible Records, which houses the band, Grizzly Bear and has since become the gravitating light, in the process of creating a new direction for R&B, far away from the over-polished, over-sexed, trance-fuelled tunes that filled the charts. The song, True, released in late 2012, is comprised of seven sparse, sensual songs that owe as much to Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan as they do to MGMT and Of Montreal. The melancholic pop style of the first single, “Losing You,” and the new wave style, Locked In Closets, is reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper in during the prime of her rebellion. More recently, Knowles became busy with hip hop recording artist, Kendrick Lamar to rework the post-garage track, Looks Good With Trouble.

“It’s interesting that genres even still exist. How do you define pop or indie or R&B when the Internet gives us exposure to so much these days? I don’t see the point of trying, but it’s exciting to experience the beautiful evolution of music and I’m honoured to be part of it,” Knowles reflects. “Even as a young girl, I listened to so much. I went through an angsty Alanis Morissette phase, and then I had an electronic phase, and then my Rasta phase. I would listen to Houston rappers like Kiki and Big Moe at the same time as Björk. I’d get teased at school but it’s great … that sort of thing isn’t questioned anymore.”

Outside of music, Knowles become fashion’s It girl. She has modelled for Alberta Ferretti and Madewell, is a regular in Vogue and champions edgy brands such as Kenzo, Suno, Maki Oh, William Okpo and Opening Ceremony. "I’m a lover of colours and prints and [I am] always looking for new talent. Style is an important means of expressing ourselves and gaining confidence," she muses.

From having chopped off her treated hair in 2009, being hailed as the official poster girl for natural hair to personal attacks for looking "unkempt". Either way, she’s unfazed. "I prefer my hair the most when it’s my own. I keep it at a short to medium length but as natural girls may know, it’s a lot of energy to take care of it and the lifestyle that I live at the moment - constantly being on a tour bus with no shower - means that I’m sometimes wearing afro weaves and wigs. But that’s all part of the versatility of being a woman."

She also enjoys sporting long braids and has been swinging them around with abandon at live shows across the globe from the Glastonbury Festival, United Kingdom to Union Park, Chicago - and everywhere in between. Does she ever get pre show nerves? "A little, but as I walk on stage, the first thing I do is look around and take it all in. In that moment, there’s no time to be nervous because it’s just overwhelming to realise that music has connected me to so many people," she says. Furthermore, she adds, "I’ve also just implemented a super, cheesy, backstage ritual. Before we go on stage, the band stands around in a circle and spell out, ‘Let’s Have Fun’. It’s all about making the experience enjoyable for everyone, which is one of the freedoms of being an independent artist."

Her next step is to launch her own label, Saint Records, via Sony. "I’ll be releasing my music and other projects," she says. "I will have 100 per cent creative, artistic control and continue to passionately pursue my footing in this new musical movement." Her new niche music, her inimitable personal style and her unapologetic public persona all add up to someone who is comfortable in her own skin. Knowles inspires other young women to find and follow their own unique paths too.

We'll leave the last word to Knowles, who recently made the following statement on her website, the suitably, bluntly-named blog, My Damn Blog:

Remember you have options.
Remember you have power.
Hold down your integrity.
Hold down your pride.
Never let your light go.
Don’t break. Don’t bend. Don’t bow. Don’t fold. Don’t fall. Don’t falter.

Photography: Seiji Fujimori
Publication: The Ground

Helen Jennings