Solange is saving R&B

Solange | barkerrr | 3 bros barker

R&B has been given a run for its money in the past few years. Since rap’s rise and rise through the charts, music people haven’t been shy in declaring the R&B genre, which peaked in the nineties and early 2000s, either “dying” or “dead.” In my humble opinion, those people aren’t looking closely enough at Solange.

In a brand new show called Witness!, which she’s only ever performed twice (the first time was in Germany last year, the second was at the Sydney Opera House last week), Solange reinvents R&B as a genre worthy of the ‘performance art’ pronoun. Of course, advancing the genre probably isn’t her primary intention for Witness!. But a by-product of the evolution of her own music and performance is that the entire genre is regaining its cool.

Can you imagine having that kind of cultural impact?!

Anyhow, I digress.

Taking to the stage alongside two back up vocalists and dancers, and flanked by a full band which she flew over just for the show, Solange opened her Opera House performance with a floaty reincarnation of Things I Imagined, the first track off her most recent record, When I Get Home.

The repetition of the line Taking on the light (or was it Taking on the lie? Or both?) set the tone for what was to come: Witness! wasn’t going to be a play-by-play of her most recent albums with O.G. bops like T.O.N.Y interwoven (though Losing You did make a surprise cameo) but a totally new piece of work altogether.

Just as we relaxed into the familiar tempo of Way to the Show, or 2016’s Cranes in the Sky, Solange would rearrange a verse, or step back completely and allow her trombone player to take centre stage. It reminded me that music isn’t a stagnant thing. As much as I love to go to gigs and chant every lyric, there’s not much art in a prescriptive performance like that. It’s possible that, when composing Witness!, this is something Solange was thinking about.

Then there was the set, which I originally described as ‘sculpture’ but now wonder whether it was symbolic of something more political. A set of stairs leading up to a platform, this centrepiece glowed a luminous white. The way Solange’s backup dancers ascended and descended the platform at various points of the show felt like a powerful display of black solidarity; of reclaiming an art form (R&B, perhaps?) that’s no stranger to white appropriation.

Don’t Touch My Hair and Binz – a personal favourite, enhanced by her dancer’s gravity-defying twerking – were other standout pieces. As was “Bridge-s”, a special piece that Solange arranged, choreographed and wrote especially for Witness!

Bringing things full circle, the artist closed the show by returning to Things I Imagined, as one of her dancers drifted up the platform wearing a full-length gown made from crystals, like a ghostly apparition. It was haunting and ephemeral and transformative, in a way R&B typically isn’t. Critics, pay attention.

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