South Africans have a soft spot for Solange Knowles. True, we might know less of her songs than her sister nor can we identify her child in a celebrity lineup, but she feels like our sista from another mother. Her style mirrors our own aesthetic: Her playful Afros, the keep-‘em-guessing between her natural short hair and braids, and her love of African fashion. She’s pop poetry to Beyoncé’s raunchy. She’s deep, we assume. She gets us, and we get her, we think.
But we don’t know what to make of her latest interpretation. Solange was recently in the country for a feature in an upcoming issue of South Africa’s Elle magazine. During her time here, she also shot a video for a new song, her first solo single in four years, and precursor to her third album. “Losing You” was shot in Cape Town’s Langa and Khayelitsha townships, where shacks form the panoramic opening shot and background to Solange’s trippy dance moves.
“Poverty Porn??????” screamed one friend of mine on my Facebook page.
While American blogs and tweets can’t get enough of the breezy, catchy beat, here we’ve been wondering if it’s the penchant of the wealthy to glamorize the poor in the name of art. Any visitor to Cape Town, South Africa’s tourism capital, can see how sharply the newly renovated Cape Town International Airport contrasts against the swathes of informal housing along the freeway. It’s not something to make a song and dance about, but evidence of our growing shame—inequality.
Yet Solange Knowles is hardly portraying an untruth. For that matter, our own artists use township scenes in their videos all the time. There’s more than shacks in these townships, but solid structures too (which also make an appearance in the Solange video). Despair is hardly the only condition of township life; those of us who come from them know they are also places of vibrancy, color and art, so the marching uniformed drum majorettes featured in the song are not an unfamiliar scene.
Still, “Losing You” does leave me with the same uneasy feeling described by Sibongile Mafu, columnist for South Africa’s News24. The headline on her piece: “Poverty has never looked so good.” Perhaps at the core of our sensitivity is our realization of our newfound space: in international politics, in the art scene, in this free world. No longer are we the inspiration for Peter Gabriel to write “Biko,” the mournful protest song about anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, or the muse for Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Those 1980s projects sought to know us deeply, to learn and take something of the country back to the world. They changed and benefited country and artist in equal measure. Solange, on the other hand, primarily frolics around with her American friends in designer wear; the residents are her viewers. She’s singing a song that’s disconnected from her location, an implicit indifference to the political significance of her surroundings.
Maybe, just maybe, what gnaws at us is that we are at a time in our history when we have been displaced so far from our pedestal of political morality that we can become the accessory to some young singer’s pop fantasy. The truth is, the worst of it is, for groovy Solange, this was just a business trip. The rest of it is on us.