On Friday night (Feb 28) in midtown Manhattan, Solange Knowles was in attendance to accept the Town Hall’s inaugural Lena Horne Prize for Artists Creating Social Impact.
Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo set the tone for the evening an hour before the event began. “I was the last girl in a family of 10 kids,” she started. “We, women, as mothers, we’re the future of the planet. I grew up seeing that women in a community are powerful. I’ve seen men walk into a house full of women and not say a word,” Kidjo said with a laugh.
Knowles’ mother, Tina Lawson, told Billboard that her youngest daughter has always been a sort of fiery catalyst for change and giving back to her community. “My favorite song is ‘Where Do We Go?’ because it talks about the gentrifying of the neighborhoods and it’s a true story,” she said. “She tried to go to her house and she couldn’t because it was blocked off and she wasn’t allowed to go there. And I’ve felt that so many times in my life, like, where’s our place? Where do we go and who’s gonna accept us as we are? As amazing as we are…” She reveals that Solange fell in love with philanthropy at age five while serving dinner to the needy with her family, post-Sunday service [“Solange was on bread duty. We put her on a little stool to serve the rolls.”]. Knowles’ rabble rousing came a bit later in life.
On Friday night, Miss Tina shared quite a few stories about Solange while onstage. There was the time she started a petition at her school to have a teacher relieved of her position [“It didn’t work. But that teacher deserved to be fired.”]. There was another time when she was asked to take down the Nas poster she’d hung proudly inside of her locker, as the administration at her Christian school was peeved at the connotation that this black man from Queens would call himself “God’s Son.” “They claimed that it was blasphemous,” Lawson recalled. “And Solange told them that if she had to take her Nas poster down, then another student should have to take their Justin Timberlake poster down too, because Justin has a cross tattoo on his arm.”
And this is how the evening went on. For Knowles to be the first recipient of such an award — named after Lena Horne, an activist in her own right — it had to be an event powered by love, purpose, culture and community. Horne’s daughter (Gail Lumet Buckley), granddaughter (Jenny Lumet) and great grandson (Jake Cannavale) were in attendance. Her granddaughter spoke of “sleeping in her [grandmother’s] laugh” and being terrified of her drawers filled with false lashes, believing them to be spiders. She told us that her granny was the type to eat candy bars with a knife and fork but “drink her Hennessy from a Sesame Street mug.”
The room was filled with light as Tamron Hall shared that she broke the bank sending her friend to an estate sale filled with Horne’s wardrobe, armed with her American Express card, ready to outbid everyone and walk away with two beloved pieces from Lena: an overcoat and a bracelet that sparkled from the stage to the rear of the Town Hall.
The event had drawn artists like Andra Day, Alice Smith, Leon Bridges and Talib Kweli, celebrating both women and their tenacity to affect change. Ahead of his performance, BJ the Chicago explained the significance of standing in solidarity with women as they speak up for change: “That’s always been necessary. It’s not just necessary today and in these times, but it always has been — because without women there’s no men.”
Fresh off her Grammy nod for her latest LP, Rapsody rounded out the idea of affecting change by simply being honest: “I was a black woman, raised by a black woman in a village of black women, so if anything, I wanted to tell my story [with Eve]. Or our story.”
“I’ve traveled around the world, been to Africa,” she continues. “And I get a question like: ‘Are all the black women in America like the ones on Love & Hip Hop?’ I’m like, ‘No…’ And for the ones who aren’t from here and don’t know, it’s like, ‘Let me tell you who we are.’ In an authentic and honest way, there was no foresight to being socially conscious. It was just: let me tell the truth.”
Solange applied this same principle to A Seat at the Table and When I Get Home — that’s why it’s resonated with so many. People feel free when they vibe to songs like “FUBU” and “Don’t Touch My Hair.” That’s all Friday night was: liberation through honesty and a sincere desire to do good works. Knowles gifted her $100,000 prize to the Houston-based non-profit, Project Row Houses, a foundation dedicated to “empowering and enriching communities through engagement, art and direct action.”
Knowles’ acceptance speech began with her showing tearful appreciation. She thanked her friends, her family, the bass in Texas trunks, aunties and cousins “who weren’t really aunties or cousins.”
“I know that these speeches are meant to be aspirational, leaving you feeling warm and fuzzy and inspiring you to be yourself,” she continued. “But I’d like to have the space right now to be all of these things. I’m honored to be all the things that my mother and my dear friend Toyin [Oijih Odutola, a visual artist] have said, but I’m also in a moment of great transition and transformation and we all deserve the space to be all of those things — the space to love my people, to vow to continue fighting for us, for our peace, uplift us, make us seen and heard, celebrate our undeniable supreme light while trying really hard to find my own.”