- Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for 2017 Essence Festival
- Solange Knowles (far right) performs at the 2017 Essence Festival in New Orleans.
"I don't know if you can quote this, but this world is fucked," says Carris Adams, program and exhibition manager for south-side cultural incubator Rebuild Foundation. Today that's a widely held opinion because, well, Trump, but the fuckedness of the world has been the only thing black Americans have known since our transatlantic voyage.
"Black people need a place—whether it's literature, film, art, or a physical space—where they can relax for a minute and be normal and not have people stare at them for being there," Adams says. Cultural expression is a vital escape from a world systemically pitted against black folks. We've been forced to endure so much that we've mastered the craft of transmuting pain into creativity. It's why our songs, poems, paintings, films, dances, hairstyles, and fashions have provided the backbone of so many art forms.
Sun 7/16, 8:30 PM, Green Stage
It's also why Solange Knowles isn't just blowing into the Pitchfork Music Festival on Sunday night, singing a few songs, and going home. Like the black experience, she's bigger than a stage and a microphone in Union Park. Her work spans mediums sonically, visually, and socially, and she's parlayed her Pitchfork booking into a holistic weekend of uplifting blackness.
Solange decisively began her crusade to highlight the expansiveness of black cultural expression with the 2016 release of A Seat at the Table, and during Pitchfork she's showcasing the work of black creatives through collaborations with her Saint Heron arts collective—two of them located on the south side, the historic epicenter of Chicago's black cultural life. It's her way of helping these artists claim their own seats at the table in hypersegregated Chicago.
On Thursday, Saint Heron collaborates with Black Cinema House and Black Radical Imagination for "Roll Back, Say That," an artist talk and screening with filmmaker Frances Bodomo. And on Friday, Solange's collective hosts a panel discussion with several poets and artists (including Pitchfork performer Jamila Woods) at Soho House Chicago. (The group appears to have pulled out of Saturday's Silver Room Block Party aftershow at the Promontory.) At the Pitchfork festival itself, Saint Heron features the work of contemporary black art makers in an on-site installation that runs Friday through Sunday.
"Roll Back, Say That" with
Black Cinema House, Black Radical Imagination, and Saint Heron present two screenings of Bodomo's short films: Boneshaker, Everybody Dies!, and Afronauts. Bodomo gives a talk after the second screening. Thu 7/13, 6 and 8 PM, Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island, free with RSVP
"Roll Back, Say That" with Fatimah Asghar, Safia Elhillo, Eve L. Ewing, and Jamila Woods
Saint Heron and Young Chicago Authors present a panel discussion hosted by Elaine Welteroth. Fri 7/14, 7:30 PM (doors at 6 PM), Soho House Chicago, 113 N. Green, free with RSVP
"The days of donating money to a white dude's cause for black people—shaking hands and taking a pretty picture—are over," Adams says. "It's the beginning of future steps for celebrities and celebrity-adjacent people to really start taking stock in their communities a little bit differently. It's one thing to donate dollars and no one knows that you've donated, and it's another thing to create a collective that is actually having programming that's tangible."
Solange and her team weren't available for interviews, and details of the various collaborations were still trickling out at publication time. The crew at the Promontory could provide a little info, though: venue manager Christina Mighty says Saint Heron will give the floor to emerging artists, including Dawn Richard, the former member of Danity Kane who also performs Friday afternoon on Pitchfork's Blue Stage.
Mighty says the Promontory is inclusive—unlike some venues in the Loop and River North, it doesn't exclude people with ridiculous and arguably racist dress codes. Its mission aligns closely with Saint Heron's, and that's why the collective chose it to host an event.
"We need a space to tell real stories and take control of our narrative as artists, as consumers of nightlife, as citizens of Chicago," Mighty says. Solange and Saint Heron, she explains, "are kind of like a beacon letting people know that you can come here, view acts here, cut a rug, drink, and express yourself and be in good company with like-minded people."
Solange is in tune with the beautiful black talent brewing in Chicago, and she and big sister Beyoncé have used their international stardom to bring local black artists to bigger stages. Last year Solange caught wind of the avant-garde braiding of Chicago native Shani Crowe, then wore her braided halo during a Saturday Night Live performance of "Cranes in the Sky." Earlier in 2017, Saint Heron gave Crowe another boost with a live version of her 2016 photography exhibit "Braids," in which she included Chicago model Imani Amos and clothes by Chicago designer Alex Carter. Beyoncé did the same for Chicago-based graffiti artist turned painter Hebru Brantley when she and Jay-Z spent thousands on his artwork in 2012.
Dwamina Drew, cofounder of socially conscious Chicago clothing brand Enstrumental, is a friend of Crowe and Brantley, and he thinks it speaks volumes when a major star invests in local black art. "I definitely tip my cap to Solange," Drew says. "She seems to be one of those artists who's consistent with the culture and not just cool with the culture."
For Kenyatta Forbes, creator of the Trading Races card game, cultivating and sharing stories through art helps demonstrate that there isn't only one way to be black. In her years as an educator, her students often questioned her blackness because of the way she dressed and talked. "There's this learned experience of what blackness is at such a young age that boxes folks in," Forbes says. "I was really interested in exploring but then debunking that."
Chicago clothing designer Sheila Rashid feels the same way. She created the overalls that Chance the Rapper wore at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, and she says people are often thrown off when they learn that fact. "Being black, lesbian, and a woman, people don't expect me to make the clothes that I make," Rashid says. "My goal is to inspire, and whether people know who's making the art or not, people who are into fashion will respect me because they see not only did I design it myself but I made it from scratch."
Our city has been at the forefront of black American arts at least since the Chicago Black Renaissance, which produced the likes of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Edouard Scott, Mahalia Jackson, and Katherine Dunham. In that spirit, designers such as Drew, Rashid, and husband-and-wife duo Brian and Autumn Merritt at Hyde Park's Sir & Madame hope to continue evolving their culture.
"I do feel like we have a long way to go, but we're on the right track. People see what Fat Tiger are doing, what Chance is doing, what Sir & Madame is doing, and what Leaders has done," says Autumn Merritt. "I feel like this whole sense of cultural expression is only going to get greater—and it'll have an effect on everyone, not just black culture." v