The multi-day music festivals that have popped up all over the U.S. over the past 15 years are hardly contained affairs—especially when they're located in cities where curfews and noise ordinances can result in amps being cut way before last call. Extracurricular events are the norm for any festival worth its brand sponsorship.
So it made perfect sense for Solange Knowles to bring the Saint Heron House to Chicago this weekend as she headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park. (In December, Pitchfork named the stunning A Seat At The Table 2016's best album.)
Knowles launched Saint Heron in 2013 with a compilation of the same name; it came out on her label Saint Records and featured then-up-and-coming artists like Kelela (who went on to play Pitchfork in 2014) and Sampha (who appeared on Seat's "Don't Touch My Hair") alongside Knowles as well as the soul doyenne Cassie, who sang lead on the sparse, Knowles-written-and-produced track "Indo."
That compilation ignited a movement that reflected a goal of creating "a haven for R&B lovers and listeners to discover music free of marketplace politics"; the Saint Heron site is a nearly perfect vision of what a culture site could be, spotlighting new tracks and music news while also taking time to ruminate on older releases, spotlight businesses run by people of color, and give the floor to the occasional essayist. It's a slow-metabolism music site in an age of quick-hit streams, allowing lovers of soul music to learn about and savor the artwork on display.
Saint Heron's events are multi-disciplinary affairs focusing on artists of color, presenting work while also allowing them to talk about their process and experiences. The Saint Heron booth at the festival was a minimalist structure that reflected the July sun's heat and featured gorgeously embroidered Saint Heron sweatshirts and a small installation of ceramics. Visitors could buy tote bags or handsomely bound volumes—produced in conjunction with Knowles' May Guggenheim Museum installation "An Ode To"—that split its pages between Knowles' lyrics and the striking videos she and her husband Alan Ferguson had created for "Cranes In The Sky" and "Don't Touch My Hair."
Also for sale: "Saint," a chapbook produced in conjunction with the organization Young Chicago Authors, as a complement to a sold-out "Roll Back, Say That" artists-in-conversation event on Friday evening at Soho House. Sociologist and essayist-poet Eve Ewing's "July, July!" is a meditation on heat with a striking opening line—"one summer in Chicago the people baked to death in brick"—calling back the horrific 1995 heat wave that killed 739 city residents in five days; R&B singer-songwriter Jamila Woods' "Blk Girl Art (after Amiri Baraka)" declares: "Poems are bulls--t unless they are eyeglasses, honey tea with lemon, hot water bottles on tummies." Woods, who preceded Knowles on the Pitchfork Festival's Green Stage on Sunday (the result of a last-minute cancellation), also spoke at Friday night's event, as part of a conversation about women artists of color's existence in the world moderated by Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth.
Thursday night's "Roll Back, Say That" event, meanwhile, focused on film, spotlighting the work of Frances Bodomo, director of the Quvenzhané Wallis-starring short Boneshaker in a collaborative effort with the touring collective Black Radical Imagination and Chicago's Black Cinema House. And on Sunday night, Saint Heron sponsored a sweaty, hit-filled dance party at the West Humboldt Park space Silent Funny; when Knowles and her entourage arrived, partygoers were gently urged to focus on the good vibes, not the big names.
Knowles' festival-closing set on Sunday was an eye-popping re-introduction to A Seat at the Table that allowed the songs to fully breathe, and allowed Knowles to take control as bandleader, choreographer, and scorching center of the action. Opening with the meditation on healing "Rise," which showcased Knowles and her backup singer-dancers' gently meshing harmonies and skill at vocal acrobatics, Knowles and her band performed a tightly choreographed, exquisitely played set that showcased the breadth of her artistry.
They gave quieter songs like "Cranes In The Sky" a beautiful heft that was rendered even more moving by the audience reverently singing along; on the swaggering "F.U.B.U.," a massive horn section joined the on-stage action, and Knowles hopped off the stage and plunged into the crowd for some cacophonous call-and-response action; she prefaced the bubbling "Junie" with a tribute to the late funk master Walter "Junie" Morrison.
The set included a few tracks from her 2012 EP True, including the sinuous "Losing You," and she even threw back to her 2008 album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams with a sparse, deeply felt rendition of the regretful "T.O.N.Y." A fiery rendition of "Don't Touch My Hair," punctuated by pugilistic moves when her backup singers uttered "but this hair is mine," put an exclamation point on the evening's festivities. "I hope you leave feeling a little better than you came," Knowles said before exiting the stage.
Shortly before the release of Seat last year, Knowles wrote a visceral first-person essay about the hostility she, as a black woman, has experienced in predominantly white spaces over the course of her life. While she was spurred to write by an incident at a show by the German synth-rock pioneers Kraftwerk, it's not too much of a stretch to say that American music festivals that don't explicitly cater to R&B audiences (Essence Fest, the Cincinnati Music Festival) fall into that category.
Over the years, Pitchfork has broadened its remit to include R&B and pop, hip-hop and metal. And its festival has, particularly in recent years, been much less white-bread than others of its multi-day, multi-headliner ilk, with past headliners including Chance the Rapper and FKA Twigs, and, this year, the likes of Dawn Richard, Kilo Kish, and the George Clinton-led Parliament-Funkadelic. (Disclaimer: I occasionally write for Pitchfork.)
But as Knowles has noted over and over again, in her art as well as in her essays and Tweeted observations, American music—like American culture—still has a long way to go. Opening spaces where women of color can lead conversations, whether through their art or speaking their truth, is an essential part of that progress.
"While making the album, I actually gave a great deal of thought to how much responsibility I had to express optimism and hope," Knowles told NPR last fall. "And ultimately, I decided that me expressing optimism and me expressing hope came from telling the truth—that gave me optimism that I was able to be explicitly honest about my feelings. And for it to have the reception that it's had, and for me to have people share with me that they listen to the album first thing when they wake up to empower them to get through their day and the micro-aggressions that we experience and the healing that, you know, they're expressing that they're feeling—that is the optimism. I think the optimism is in having the conversation, and being able to have the conversation now, and people being open to having that conversation."
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