Interview: Solange

October 02, 2012

Though Solange is wearing an array of colorful suits in her new video for "Losing You," she is admittedly upstaged by the guys. Filmed in South Africa, and directed by Melina Matsoukas, "Losing You" features a group of Sapeurs, men who dress beyond dandyish in pastel suits with umbrella work to upstage Mary Poppins. Solange spoke to us about how she ended up filming the video for this break-up song in South Africa.

How did you conceptualize the video for “Losing You”? Over the last few years, I’ve just become really interested in black art and African art and I’ve actually started to collect. I’ve read a bunch of different series of books on African art, and I would constantly see this Gentlemen of Bacongo book. In 2009, FADER had a feature about the Sapeurs. I remember reading about them and thinking it was the most interesting and complex and unique thing that I had seen in a long time. It left an impact but there was nothing that I could do with it. I was totally inspired but that was it. So I was finally like, three years later, let me pick this book up. I got it and was just blown away. It’s one thing to see all this insane imagery that’s so beautiful and profound and striking, but it’s another thing to actually read about the culture. I was just kinda stunned and struck. I remember calling my mom and asking her, Have you heard of these guys? At the same time, I was building these references and mood boards. I went old school. I had pushpins. And so I just thought it would be so ill to feature this culture and collaborate with them on a video. But the idea seemed so intricate and huge, and so far beyond actually making it happen that I didn’t know where to start. So obviously I was just like the starting point has to be getting in touch with this photographer. He is the guy who, not discovered it, but played a huge role in documenting this culture and lifestyle.

Where was he based? He’s based in Milan, so it was not easy tracking him down. We really didn’t have a concept or a dream, I just knew that I wanted to have them be a part of it. I asked him different questions about taping in Brazzaville and how realistic it would be and how many people we could get away with before we drew attention. And we just felt like we couldn’t do it in Brazzaville. It would have cost way too much money, we had insurance issues…it was just getting really complicated. Around the same time Elle South Africa had asked if I could do the cover. So I was like, Aha! So that pushed us to have a date, to have a real time frame and get our shit together and make it happen. I didn’t want to make it at all seem like we were trying to capture the Congo still, I just want to capture difference facets of African fashion and African style and the landscape, but I just couldn’t let [the initial concept] go. So we got in touch with the photographer and he put us in touch with this sort of head Sapeur in London, who actually has a concierge service for people. It’s the real deal. He teaches men who are getting married like proper edict and the entire thing. He said, “Listen there’s this whole culture of Congolese Sapeurs in South Africa.” So we were just beyond ourselves. We were like, we obviously want you to be there to guide us. We don’t want any fake fashion shit, we really want to capture what the vibe is. So needless to say, everything just started to fall in place and we asked Daniele, the photographer, to come out and he sort of just guided us. The most interesting thing about it is that obviously, in photos, you can’t capture the essence of performance. They are truly the most obscure performance artists I have ever seen like in so long.

What’s so exciting to you about the Sapeurs? I think it’s about the fact that they really believe that this interpretation of style is giving praise to God. Sort of marking their place in the world. There are all of these commandments that a Sapeur must abide by. Sort of like a society. [It's amazing] to really be able to capture that in its origin, which is in the Congo, which is in Brazzaville, a place that has had its fair share of horrific things happen. They’ve been able to just sort of create this movement and have the foundation of it be about, you know, having style and grace and edict and portraying that in every way. It’s not just about the fashion, a Sapeur must know how to speak French, a Sapeur must know how to tie his tie the right way, he must have perfect posture, just that classic edict. It’s so amazing, especially in contrast to what Brazzaville is like, which is why I think the book was so interesting to me.

How did you cast the video? Well actually Dixie, the main guy from London, he said he wanted to hold Sapeur auditions which they have a term for, but it's basically the equivalent to the ballroom scene here. If you Google Sapeur battles, they have these sort of ballroom-esque type competitions where they get dressed up and they battle each other and they dance and they move. It’s about who has the best socks and the best scars and the entire thing, and so of course us being sort of oblivious to that type of detail within the culture we were just like, Well we want the guys with the illest suits! He was like, No, they must be able to do X, Y, Z, etc.

A number of your friends are in the video—how’d you get everyone to South Africa? I literally asked everybody and their auntie for miles. It was my mom’s birthday gift to me. Everyone just gave me miles and points from their credit cards, where you can cash them in for miles. It was totally that kind of production. As I’m sure you can imagine working with Terrible Records, we’ve got to get creative sometimes.

Did you hang out with the Sapeurs outside of the shoot? I have footage of them teaching me how to walk. My posture is pretty awful and I was definitely given some direction on how I need to hold my head up, and put my shoulders back. So, yeah, we definitely kicked it on set and talked and vibed out. They were some serious ill cats. Especially Dixie. He was next level. Towards the end of the shoot the one joke was like, Yes, Solange we’re happy you were able to be a part of Dixie’s video. He was pretty sick. But there were definitely setups that we knew we wanted to create. We asked them what their everyday life would be like. As I’m sure you could imagine, tailoring a suit was very important to them. In South Africa they have all these businesses in shipping crates so the tailor shop was in the shipping crate, and we kind of really had to just go along and figure it out as we went along. We didn’t have any concrete plan. Like I knew that I wanted to have a good representation of me with my friends hanging out. I didn’t want it to be this super serious stylized video and I think we did a good job of getting a balance of that. I think for me this entire project is really just about making it the most enjoyable experience.

Is that because you haven’t had enjoyable experiences making music before? Not that they were not enjoyable, but they certainly weren’t relaxed, they certainly weren’t as stress free. I wasn’t spearheading everything that was happening.

You worked with Mickalene Thomas for your teaser video. How did that happen? I saw her work on Life and Times. They did a really cool piece on her working in her studio, and naturally that I’m drawn to color and prints and print mixing and ’70s style. I instantly was like intrigued. Did a whole Google search, bought books and just sort of poured myself into her work. So I really kind of was struggling to find my way within [Terrible Records' standard record sleeve] and actually went to Marfa, did an entire Donald Judd tour and saw these really amazing boxes, which were aluminum with the yellow, so that was sort of where [the cover of the single] came from. I wanted the video, again, to be just be me and friends, so I was trying to think of something a little more conceptual than just having us in a room. And for some reason Clueless, the suck and blow scene just popped into mind. I was like, That would be so awesome if we played suck and blow and we could use the artwork as our credit card.

Mickalene’s work was continuously in my mood board references, so one day I just blurted out, Well, why don’t we just ask her if she’d do it? and everyone kind of was like, Ha. And I’m like, You know, worst thing she could say is no. And I honestly did think she would say no. I didn’t think she would be interested in doing anything with pop music. I’m very intimidated by the art world. I always think everyone in the art world is like, Fuck pop culture. So I definitely thought it was a long shot. And I actually called her gallery and it was just the most embarrassing phone call of all time. There were a lot of “like”s. The one woman was like Okay, yeah, lemme give you a call back and we can see what we can do. And so I think she was really confused, so I ended up calling the next day and said, For clarity, I know that Mickalene does these installations where she creates these rooms. And if she just happened to have one already assembled in her studio, do you think she might be open to letting us perform this piece in her studio? She had just happened to do a MoMa PS1 collaboration which she had just taken out and installed in her studio in preparation for her big Brooklyn Museum show. So she said yes and we were just like super excited and really just like humbled. That we were able to sort of have such a fun, pop culture reference to Clueless but in contrast of her brilliant space, that’s just like the perfect scenario of all time.

What was your experience meeting her like? I was just like literally on my knees. Thank you, thank you, the whole time. She was like the most down to earth, chill woman ever. She had just had a baby so we had mom talk. We did an MTV feature where they filmed behind the scenes and I wasn’t around when they taped her, so I watched it the next day and was just so humbled. And she had such nice things to say. The love fest is so mutual.

Posted: October 02, 2012
Interview: Solange