Solange knows that reaching the top isn't as important as enjoying the ride.
This feature appears in Complex's June/July 2013 issue.
Kinetic energy hums through the Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling lobby in midtown Manhattan, packed for the annual Armory Party benefit gala on the first Wednesday in March. Jessica Biel and Melanie Fiona are here, along with fashionistas Alexa Chung and Harley Viera-Newton; the latter, a DJ signed to Roc Nation, warms up the artsy crowd as drinks flow. Partygoers loom by the stage in anticipation of a live performance by Solange, the younger Knowles sister who went indie in 2009 and emerged with some of the best music of her career on her latest EP, True.
Backstage, Solange’s drummer realizes that he left the pants he was supposed to wear tonight at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s close to showtime but the star of the evening keeps her cool as others start to scurry. Having started training as a backup dancer with Destiny’s Child at age 13, she’s not easily rattled. “I try to transition my energy into just having fun,” says Solange, now 26. When she arrived for sound check earlier in the day, she was pleased to see that the Confetti System-designed stage set matched her Vika Gazinskaya outfit, a metallic skirt and black turtleneck with a white cloud floating across her chest.
From the atrium balcony overlooking the stage, Solange’s mom, Tina Knowles, clad in tight all-black-leather everything, stands alongside Solange’s boyfriend, music video director Alan Ferguson, and snaps a photo of the crowd below. Behind the scenes, Solange and her band, including the British producer/co-writer/guitarist Devonté Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, gather in a cipher and chant in unison: “LET’S HAVE FUN!”
“Hopefully everyone’s had a little Champagne,” Solange quips to the crowd as she takes the MoMA stage. Her band starts breezing through tracks from True, seven slices of sultry funk pop—think “Paisley Park” meets Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—released last November on the Brooklyn-based indie label Terrible Records. Surrounded by orchid light, she glides into the churning groove of “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work.” Then she launches into the EP’s forlorn standout, “Bad Girls,” singing, “And still I try to pull you into my own hurricane/It’s like you spot me trying from a thousand miles away.”
Toward the end of the set, as Solange performs the single “Losing You,” the crowd realizes that Beyoncé and Jay-Z are in the balcony, behind Tina Knowles. For a moment, it seems as if the audience may turn away from the stage. With her head down, Beyoncé shakes her blond locks along with her sister’s tune, snatching the spotlight even as she crouches to conceal her presence. Below, Hynes and Solange shimmy in unison, glowing, grooving, and having a great time.
Her fourth-grade teacher, Miss Bethann, found Solange on the verge of tears in her Pocahontas costume outside of the classroom and gave her a lesson that stuck with her: 'Don’t you ever, ever bend or break because of who you are.'
A week and a half after Solange’s MoMA performance, Beyoncé drops a new single on her Tumblr page, “Bow Down,” a Hit-Boy–produced anthem that stirs up controversy for being so big on bravado. The single’s artwork features Mrs. Carter as a young girl surrounded by trophies.
When she was about the same age as her older sister in that photo, Solange was racking up more insults than accolades. One day, she wore a “full-on Native American outfit” to Will Rogers Elementary School in Houston. “I had my own little quirks as a child,” Solange says. “I had a very vivid imagination, mostly through my style and fashion choices. The kids had a lot to say.” Her fourth-grade teacher, Miss Bethann, found Solange on the verge of tears in her Pocahontas costume outside of the classroom and gave her a lesson that stuck with her: “Don’t you ever, ever bend or break because of who you are.”
“From that point,” Solange says, “the idea of convention versus non-convention or mainstream versus indie or any of those quote-unquote ‘conflicts’ has never crossed my mind.” Her cutting-edge taste and eclectic style are reflected in Solange’s circle of friends, from the crew of girls she grew up with to fellow indie acts like Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and Oliver Sim from the xx. Her friend Jay Electronica, who met Solange during “the great Twitter boom of 2009,” as he calls it, admires Solange’s self-awareness. “She’s a beautiful person and open and she seems unafraid to be herself.”
“I call her Hollyhood,” he adds. “You can ask her why.”