Even if you’ve never heard a single thing Solange has recorded, you might still know that in May 2014, in the lift of a luxury hotel in Manhattan, on the starry, starry night of the annual Met Gala, she took a swing (or several) at her sister Beyoncé’s husband, the rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z. ‘Leaked’ security camera footage from inside the lift showed a shocked Jay-Z, a flustered bear of a bodyguard, Solange a kung-fu blur and the expressionless statue of Beyoncé. There was also a memorable photograph from the red carpet aftermath: a still shocked Jay-Z, a still seething Solange, and Queen Bey with the ghost of a tiny, inscrutable smile playing on her lips.
You could write a whole essay about this incident: its surfaces, subtexts and angles. How did these people come to be precisely in this place at this time? Why did whatever it was that happened happen? And how should we interpret the feverish speculation it unleashed on social media? A minute or two in this cramped little space up in the air, between floors. It’s the kind of thing that’s often dismissed as trivial gossip, not something that should matter to us. But that would be to miss the point entirely about what we used to call the zeitgeist, and Solange Piaget Knowles’s place in it.
Beyoncé’s status in pop culture amounts to regal omnipotence, but Solange is far harder to place. She only came into her own in the last five years, though her life in pop stretches back two decades. She began as a dancer for her big sister’s band, Destiny’s Child, and then in 2002, aged sixteen, released her first album. For the next fifteen years she was more than averagely successful: regular hits, songwriting gigs for other acts, acting roles, good reviews, media attention. Yet the sapping cliché hung in the air: she was ‘in the shadow’ of her sister (no matter that their bond seems to have remained secure). One website sneered that the Jay-Z contretemps was probably her ‘greatest hit’. All this changed in autumn 2016 when Solange released A Seat at the Table.
A Seat at the Table is at the heart of Stephanie Phillips’s Why Solange Matters, and is the main reason she thinks Solange does matter: ‘The album was her ode to Black culture, Black feminism, her elders, as well as a document of the impact of racism and ancestral trauma on Black people’s mental well-being.’ With A Seat at the Table, Solange suddenly seemed to be everywhere. The image on its cover – an unforgettably odd, unfiltered portrait – was inescapable, as were the two singles ‘Cranes in the Sky’ and ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’. It wasn’t just that the music was great; here was a whole new personal aesthetic and online presence, with its own casual polyvalence. In Why Solange Matters there’s a pithy quote about stereotyping from Frank Ocean (whose own phenomenal album Blonde also came out in 2016): ‘If you’re a singer and you’re Black, you’re an R&B artist. Period.’ In the years since, Solange and Ocean have both worked their own stealthy way beyond his unspoken limit. Solange is just as likely to feature in Frieze and Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, or on the Criterion Channel and Blackplanet, as on websites like Celebitchy and Jezebel. Did you see what she wore to the Met Gala? (One year it was an avant-garde puffa jacket with train; another, a customised ‘durag’ replete with the legend: ‘My God Wears a Durag’.) Did you know she’d performed at Tate Modern and MoMA? Did you read the piece she wrote about experiencing racism with her family at a Kraftwerk gig? (The culprits were fellow audience members, not the K-workers.) She goes out of her way to promote particular artists, designers, authors. Recently, she set up an online ‘library’ of important and overlooked Black authors. There’s a genuine unpredictability about what she will do, or say, or attempt next.
For a long time, asked what pop star I would choose to interview, given total access and zero interference from management, without hesitation I would have said: Beyoncé. She stands for something beyond mere stardom. Concerning her music, however, I admit to a nagging doubt. I’m not entirely unmoved, not always, but too often she leaves me stranded somewhere out on the perimeter of a choreographed emotion. Her songs can feel like the end result of a many-headed committee, voiced by a glittering but cold-blooded Beyoncé bot. Technically flawless, but lacking pull or reach. The first time I heard Solange’s ‘Cranes in the Sky’, though, that was it: one of those collapse-inside moments, one of those forever songs. At a time when other big pop/R&B hits seemed to be all sloshed-on autotune and rabbit out of a hat guest raps and amped-up sexuality, ‘Cranes in the Sky’ took its time, went its own sibylline way, stripped everything back. Both lush and austere, it felt half-dreamed, its metal skyline both a real-life feature and a personal cipher. A song about depression that doesn’t drag you down but buoys you up. My favourite moment is when Solange sings the line ‘I read it away …’ with both the hesitant ‘uh-uh-way’ and the ‘away, away, away …’ spinning and floating around a sublimely weightless rising note.
Nothing in the video for ‘Cranes in the Sky’ betrays any of the usual celebrity fuss. It’s intensely stylised, but in a way that aptly mimics the song: spaced out and unhoused and far from home. Image reflects sound: ghost-forms inhabiting barren hillsides and abandoned rooms. Enormous care and attention has been paid to the backgrounds, clothes, locations, choreography. It leans more towards fine art and modern dance than it does to the hyper-eroticised and cartoonish mise-en-scène of other videos. At the same time both this and the similar video for ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ seem to sculpt a specific eroticism all their own. Solange uses odd, delicate dance movements, nearer Pina Bausch than the usual video hustle. Movements from a deeply private ritual, warding something off in the same movement as beckoning it in. Like the cover photo for A Seat at the Table, it all coheres around Solange’s unusually direct gaze. It’s a gaze we may have seen before in photos of Billie Holiday and Zora Neale Hurston. (It also calls up echoes from much further back, in 15th-century portraiture.) A gaze that refuses the swerve of amelioration; a gaze that makes us feel we are being surveyed.
In her videos Solange is often accompanied or surrounded by other bodies: a group of female friends, powerful looking elders, itinerant Black cowboys. Her music, like gospel, has an implied or embodied community behind it. The artist Arthur Jafa, in conversation with the late critic Greg Tate about his luminous video work Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, speaks about the various ways Black bodies are expected to fill space in American sport and worship and entertainment; and, conversely, how powerful it can be to refuse this insistence on excess or flourish and adopt instead a form of radical stillness or withdrawal. When I heard this I immediately thought of Solange’s dance and film work. It turns out that Jafa is the cinematographer Solange chose to make her videos.
Phillips begins her book with all three Knowles women seated at the table: Solange, Beyoncé and their mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson.
On an evening in late September 2016, a Black Southern mother did as many Black Southern mothers do and cooked for her daughter. The nostalgic aroma of a homemade meal and the soothing calm of a maternal presence were desperately needed, as the moment her daughter had been planning for years was days, hours even, away.
The title of the opening chapter, ‘Solange Takes Her Seat’ refers beyond A Seat at the Table to the kinds of space Solange seems interested in opening up. One of the things that album addresses is the idea of economic success as lever and leverage for Black Americans held back by institutional racism in the US. Beyoncé and Solange were raised by their parents to think of financial success as a form of power that is difficult to argue with. (‘In the final analysis,’ the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said, ‘it doesn’t bother anyone very much that politics be democratic so long as the economy is not.’) Phillips interlaces the story of the Knowles women with details from her own life: parents who immigrated from Jamaica; childhood in Wolverhampton; a move to London and work in the media. Phillips, like Solange, interweaves the voices and stories of Black women from different generations. (Her ‘Black feminist punk’ band, Big Joanie, is named for the inspiring fortitude of her own mother.) This is one answer to the question of why Solange matters: visibility and the breaking down of stereotypes. ‘She gave me space to learn to love what I describe in various ways throughout the book as my Black girl weirdo self,’ Phillips writes.
Another way in which Solange matters: her excursions into art and literacy and fashion have her speaking in a different way, in different places, to new audiences. Her now frequent art-world projects make her a kind of Bowie figure for many younger listeners who may never have heard of Sol LeWitt or Donald Judd, Robert Pruitt or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, before Solange referenced them. There’s a fascinating autodidact’s story there, I think, which is very different from today’s more usual social media dream of effortless, instantaneous global renown. Phillips charts in detail the years Solange spent on the margins of breakout success, until suddenly she clicked with work that was in many ways far more risky – more heartfelt but also more aleatory – than anything she’d tried before.
Despite its rhetorical title, Why Solange Matters is equal parts memoir, biography and music criticism. It’s a minor complaint, but the formula ‘Why X Matters’ does make me feel a bit itchy. The phrase isn’t Phillips’s own but the publisher’s (subjects in the series include everyone from Marianne Faithfull to gangsta rapper Bushwick Bill), and it feels slightly stilted, better suited to an obscure economist or a measure we might introduce to tackle climate change. It’s a bit odd when applied to Solange, who is now a massively popular, centre-stage figure. The implication is that, as a young Black woman and pop celebrity, there might remain some stubborn resistance to the idea of taking Solange seriously as an artist. Is that really the case? Everyone I know loves and reveres her.
Some of this is just my own temperamental bias against the way assumptions are made about what ‘matters’ in music (and music criticism). I think that music operates in ways far odder than we sometimes imagine, and which can’t be reduced to oppositions between, say, art and politics, or aesthetics and meaning. I’m thinking here too of attempts to co-opt Billie Holiday for a certain political idea, especially via the song ‘Strange Fruit’ – most recently in that dull and dispiriting film The United States v. Billie Holiday, which tries to reclaim the errant Holiday as a ‘godmother’ of the civil rights struggle. This sort of thing seems to me clumsy and wrong-headed, and erases or disavows the fundamental strangeness of song, and the way it works its spell on us.
Just occasionally it feels as if Phillips is ticking boxes. She stresses Solange’s ‘need to be seen as an individual unconnected to the accomplishments of others’, but doesn’t that describe the trajectory of a lot of creative people, especially those from high-achieving families? And when she says that ‘Solange speaks directly to the Black community’s complex relationship with pain, loss, healing, intergenerational trauma, ownership and empowerment,’ couldn’t this be said about so much Black music, past and present? There is a problem – which certainly isn’t Phillips’s alone – with the language of ‘trauma’ and ‘healing’ becoming a new form of boilerplate that doesn’t really connect with the pain it is describing. Which is unfortunate, as airing such painful and taboo subjects in a singular way is exactly what Solange has managed to do so brilliantly.
Phillips sees the importance of A Seat at the Table not just in the way it coincides and connects with the Black Lives Matter movement (‘Her story is the link that joins a myriad of disparate threads to form part of the Black millennial identity’) but also in the way a song like ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ echoes how she and her friends speak among themselves. One of Phillips’s recurring themes is this tension between the way people talk in private and what happens when such conversations become a public dialogue – or become music, which may amount to the same thing. When I first heard ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ I was ambushed by the moment it swings from its spare, slow-burn centre into the boisterous chorus chanted by Solange and the British singer/producer Sampha: ‘What you say to me! What you say to me!’ Seeing that phrase written down, you might imagine a ringing affirmation, but the tone, as sung, is far harder to pin down – urgent, intimate, melancholy, pleading.
Phillips’s dedication is to ‘all the revolutionary sistah punks out there. Stay loud.’ It may come as a surprise to some that ‘punk’ can still be brandished like this, as an outsider ethic, a gloriously unsafe safe-space for experiment and play, rage and reclamation. Big Joanie, Phillips’s own ‘power chord heavy feminist punk’ trio, and the gig-based economy organised by her circle of young women, are a neat feminist reclamation of all the things ur-punk promised but rarely (or barely) delivered, and a world or two removed from its original ‘last gang in town’ machismo. Phillips evokes the great ‘punk icon’ Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex as an exceptional forerunner, but Phillips’s vision of punk has, in essence, been replanted and redreamed in America in a dozen different varieties: hardcore, straight edge, Riot Grrrl etc. This is punk rock as shorthand for a whole stylistic/ideological hinterland, rather than the glowering skyline of a 1970s UK council estate. Punk means now whatever anyone wants or wills; I have seen the word used recently in pieces about Sonic Youth, the reformed Sleater-Kinney, Tom Petty and Madonna, among others. Phillips found a perfect vehicle for self-starter activism in a music that many might assume was still quintessentially pale and male and terminally insular. As if on cue, here is Solange, talking about A Seat at the Table on the eve of its release: ‘I call it my punk album. Punk artists have been allowed to be disruptive and rage and express anger, be anti-establishment, even when it means destroying property, even when it means provoking violence … That’s something that Black artists are not usually able to do, especially R&B artists.’
The potential downside of this punk ethic is the risk of purism, a conservatism that repels anything new or different and instead fetishises micro-differences of style and caste. Which makes Phillips’s enthusiasm for Solange’s woozy eclecticism all the more invigorating. What these two scenes have in common – Phillips’s bootstrap London DIY and the glam-mag, MoMA world of Solange – is the notion of private speech made public: starting arguments, resisting stereotypes, creating your own community. To speak the word ‘punk’ is to imagine a place where you road-test versions of your own voice (or what you have been told is your own voice), until it chimes with who you think you really are, or want to be. It’s where an edgy hashtag activism meets what is in some ways quite an old-fashioned, consoling belief in certain truths and values, held to be self-evident. The use of digital recording tech on phones and computers is another factor that narrows the gulf between Phillips’s aesthetic and the way artists like Frank Ocean and Solange put together their work.
Some of the richest writing in Why Solange Matters is about Phillips’s own life, her family, her relationship to Britishness, and the feeling of being a ‘teenage Black girl weirdo’ growing up liking music she wasn’t supposed to and ‘rarely seeing depictions of beauty that looked like me’. At one point she says that the person Solange most reminds her of is Kate Bush, and it’s this kind of sparky detail that makes her book much more than a dry thesis and at times something nearer to personal reverie: an extended reflection on what she and Solange have in common, and what they don’t.
The process of finding your own voice can be an unnerving thing, involving the transformation of something supposedly innate. It might feel vaguely occult: a presence in the air, both you and not-you. What speaks inside you: is it soulful exuberance or some cryptic legacy? Consider our two singers, Beyoncé and Solange, so intimately linked and yet so different. The virtues of Beyoncé’s singing seem incontestable. Yet perhaps the reason it leaves some of us cold is that exactly this kind of Great Voice has by now been so endlessly iterated – and X-Factor degraded. In conventional terms, Solange possesses the ‘weaker’ voice by far – so why is it those passages in ‘Stay Flo’, say, when Solange’s voice is just pure keening vocalese, that completely slay me? Why do we always tend to say of such ‘weaker’ voices that they are haunting? Is song a form of dispossession?
All kinds of odd things are being done to the voice these days: the use of AI to simulate famous voices in documentaries; hologram performances by dead singers; the triumphant reign of autotune. The singing voice is now pitch-shifted and time-stretched as a matter of routine. On the polyphonic reverie of Blonde, Frank Ocean uses tiny nuggets of nu-tech to create a resplendent choir of himself, revelling in smeary textures and uncanny tones like a digital-era Brian Wilson. When I Get Home, Solange’s follow-up to A Seat at the Table from 2019, includes a brief echoic tribute to the late Houston legend DJ Screw, who remixed the exclamatory voice of soul singers into a syrupy, nod-out sublime, both slumbrous and scarifying. Today, the singing voice is an interstitial ghost. But then wasn’t that the case the minute it first leaked, or leaped, into the microphone? Wasn’t that the moment it stopped being any kind of reliable guarantee or vessel of truth? The effect was perhaps most alchemical in gospel, which hatched so many blisteringly profane singers for rock ’n’ roll.
The old model of a soulful voice, one foot in gospel and the other in the blues, can obscure many powerful voices that are stubbornly in between or all at sea. Fragile voices – lush, askew, undecided. Voices of ache and susurrating hush. Voices that are technically weak but still resound with personal strength. I think again of Billie Holiday, and while technically there’s no reason to compare them, I wonder if Solange’s similar ability to suggest strength through eloquent vulnerability is one of the reasons I love her voice. A kind of transcendence is often demanded of Black voices, as singers or as political orators: the kind of voice that fills the heart, fills the hall, embraces the land. There’s an unspoken expectation that such voices gift us some exalted truth. But quieter, weaker voices can ruffle our feathers too. Maybe they chime with the murky or tattered voices in our own psychical crypts. They seem to befall us.
We are familiar with the use in art and writing of confessional forms that are self-consciously fragmented, evasive, elusive. It’s less common in popular music. When I Get Home is a patchwork narrative about the loss and recovery of self, and about home in several senses. In part it’s a topographical sketch of Solange’s old Houston stomping ground, with fleeting references to things that were popular in her teen years: a map made of echoes. You don’t need to know all the references to navigate its sonic world. It’s a work of memory that doesn’t feel clammily nostalgic; a work of autobiography that uses other people’s voices (healers and activists, poets and rappers) as a form of call and response, like old-time singer and choir, quietly honouring Solange’s obligations to the past. Home here is a large community, both of the living and the ‘invisible crowd of the dead’. Music as both a welcoming home and a nowhere place – in the air, in collective memory, waiting to be downloaded.
It’s notable that some of the people Solange has named as influences on When I Get Home (Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Stevie Wonder) could be accurately described as synthesisers. Also as artists not afraid to meander, drift, leap into the mystic. The old paradigm of ‘confessional’ music might be something like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks – pained and worthy, lyrically explicit or heavily symbolic. But lightly applied tone and texture can be a form of autobiography too, and When I Get Home is more like Solange’s version of Bowie’s Low. A host of tiny snippet-songs, feathery and abrupt. Songs like sketchy diagrams other artists would have muscled up into big technicolour productions. Her music is very much of its moment in deploying a whole Cubist wink of samples, producers, writers, voices, textures, but its mood is more low-key: elegantly funky but also spiky, astringent, quasi-ambient. Rolling Stone was quite right in describing it as ‘both meticulous and off the cuff’. A song like ‘Almeda’ is as purringly opaque as anything on Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Tricky’s Maxinquaye: this is a quiet radicalism that is veiled, literally offbeat. Things loom and disappear. Apparently random phrases fall from various lips: ‘We were fallin’ in the deep … chasin’ the divine … bound to come undone … my mind’s slippin’ … sometimes I think I’m gonna die.’
One of the locations used by Solange in the film accompanying When I Get Home is the Rothko Chapel in Houston – not simply a place for looking at art, but a non-denominational space for peace and healing. Solange has talked of sitting in front of the Rothkos for hours, appreciating their ‘different, nuanced shades of black’. The non-representational aesthetic of Rothko seems apt for an album that’s partly about thinking yourself better in washes of sound. In other ways it’s a surprising choice for a utopian space – all these dark images painted by a very tired, depressed, alcoholic and ultimately suicidal man. This isn’t at all the usual realm of candle-scented ‘wellness’. Imagine the different resonances the simple phrase ‘when I get home’ might have if spoken by refugees, guest workers, activists, exiles. Or think of feeling ‘finally home’ in places we’ve never been before and have little or no apparent connection with. Home as somewhere else.
‘When I first started creating When I Get Home,’ Solange posted on Instagram on the second anniversary of the album’s release, ‘I was quite literally fighting for my life … in and out of hospitals … with depleting health and broken spirits … asking God to send me a sign I would not only survive … I would step into the light, whatever that meant.’ On the opening track, ‘Things I Imagined’, Solange repeats a single phrase, turning it like a jewel in recalcitrant light: ‘I saw things/I imagined …’ A different emphasis each time, shorter or longer pauses between the five bare words. Is she talking about episodes of hallucination? Hopeful dreams of utopia? Invoking a kind of artistic ‘seeing’ different yet indivisible from the imagination? (We see things in dreams and nightmares, too.) ‘I’m a Witness’, the final track on When I Get Home, is a song about ‘taking on the light’. Is this evidence of a positive end to her weary day? Some unexpected flash of gnostic illumination? Perhaps it’s simply a new translation of that old, shimmeringly stoical line from the blues: ‘I know the sun’s gonna shine in my back door/someday.’