It’s been a year since the release of Solange’s A Seat at the Table, an album that became a spiritual salve amid the 2016 presidential election and ongoing, Black Lives Matter-led organizing against police brutality. A year later, we’re still inundated with discriminatory policies and tragic news, and A Seat at the Table is as relevant as it ever was.
In promoting the album, Solange was un-abstract about its thesis: “a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief, and healing” -- the central identity being the artist’s own, a black woman, mother, sister, and daughter. The critically acclaimed album gave its listeners a source of comfort in the face of hopelessness and articulated racial microaggressions that too often leave us stunned.
On Friday, Oct. 20, Solange brought Orion’s Rise, an immersive live experience in support of A Seat at the Table, to a sold-out audience at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Most of the audience members were intimately familiar with the album and this rare headlining tour was a chance to experience it publicly and communally.
After opening sets from Chassol and Flying Lotus, the Greek Theatre reached full capacity and it was finally time for Solange. Her set arrangement was at once celestial and post-modern. Two large pyramids -- likely a reference to the Giza pyramids, where she recently found out she was conceived -- bookended steep stairs. An enormous, glowing sphere sat in the middle. Even before Solange's band had played a single note, the stage was stunning and mesmerizing. A 20-piece orchestra dressed in light grey dripped down either side of the sphere to take their seats on the grand steps. The crowd’s anticipation was audible as they waited for Solange.
Bathed in red light, Solange made her entrance from above and walked down the steps with a smile on her face. She began the show with a choral rendition of “Rise,” repeating the titular refrain in escalating tones. This rendition fit the meditative song, which reflects on self-awareness and self-assurance. The night would feature many more viscerally moving elaborations of her music, which her and her band's movement and choreography amplified.
Solange stood at the center of set wearing the same muted colors as her band. Many times during the night, she and her crew moved in sync with a compelling precision and control. This sonic and visual harmony emphasized a collective performance of her music rather than an individual one, a message also echoed in her album.
A few moments of spontaneity broke the synchronization as brassy horns buoyed ebullient moments where Solange danced and twerked around stage freely -- a necessary physical catharsis for the heavy subject matter of her album. During “Losing You”, Solange’s danceable break-up record from her 2012 EP, True, she asked the audience to dance with her and they had happily obliged, becoming a sea of bobbing heads and jumping bodies.
Reaching back into her catalogue again, Solange performed the languid ballad “Bad Girls,” also from True, with an unexpected punk twist. For “Mad,” a powerful song from A Seat at the Table that affirms black rage, she added a refrain for emphasis. “I’m not, I’m not allowed I be mad. But you are allowed to be mad,” she sang. “And I deserve and you deserve, but I’m not allowed to be mad. And isn’t that sad?”
Earlier in the show, Solange paused to acknowledge a recent incident that angered her. “When I ask folks not to touch my hair, and then [expletive] touch my hair!” she explained to the audience. Her comments were in reference to the Evening Standard, a British weekly magazine that Photoshopped her hair out of a cover photo. In the unaltered version of the photo Solange posted on Instagram, she looks regal with a circular braid extending above her head, her ears adorned with oversized, swirling pearl hoops. She captioned it “dtmh @eveningstandardmagazine,” with the acronym for “Don’t Touch My Hair”. The editors reasoned that the edits were for “layout purposes” in an apology to the singer, but it was clear that they hadn’t grasped the song’s message.
Solange and her band rushed off stage momentarily but returned for an epilogue, closing the show with “Don’t Touch My Hair,” an anthem of sorts for black women who know too well the feeling of being physically examined by strangers. Oddly enough -- as I also witnessed when Solange performed at Outside Lands and FYF -- non-black folks sang along even though the song’s lyrics are specific to this experience. It was even odder when non-black audience members sang along to “F.U.B.U.”, a song with the refrain, “This sh-t is for us.” “Don’t be mad if you can’t sing along,” Solange sings, further warning, “Some sh-t you can't touch.” But, nonetheless, that didn't detract from the celebratory energy and communal solace that Solange's show brought the black women in attendance.
It felt uncanny that Orion’s Rise arrived at Berkeley’s Greek Theater the same weekend as the peak of the Orionid meteor shower. Solange acknowledged the Orionids when she thanked her fans, adding that it was divine destiny that she’s closing Orion’s Rise on a weekend that meteoroids from Orion radiate across the sky.
Felicitous as the timing might have been, it’s not unimaginable that Solange, an artist so intentional and diligent, wouldn’t also forecast the stars.
Solange performs again on Oct. 22 at the Greek Theater. More info here.