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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: Stephanie Phillips's rousing argument for 'Why Solange Matters'

Solange performs onstage at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, in Washington, D.C., 2017.
Solange performs onstage at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, in Washington, D.C., 2017.Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Busboys and Poets

by Jay Gabler

April 29, 2021

If author Stephanie Phillips had any doubt as to whether the world needed a book on Why Solange Matters (buy now), she got her answer when she started to tell people she was working on one. "For a majority of white people," Phillips writes, "a quizzical look would appear on their face. Solange? Are you sure you don't mean Beyoncé?"

No, she meant Solange — whose biggest fan, after all, is her elder sister in the tight-knit Knowles family. Imagine saying you were writing a book about John Lennon and getting a confused look in response: are you sure you don't mean Paul McCartney? No. Related, but not the same.

Solange matters deeply to Phillips, and after spending years as a fan of Solange and as a Black musician herself (the British author founded the band Big Joanie), Phillips was well aware that a large number of white people have failed to appreciate the artist's importance.

While Beyoncé has become a transformative icon, her career has followed a trajectory that maps more closely onto a relatively familiar path for Black women music stars. After finding pop R&B fame with a vocal group, Beyoncé broke out as a solo star, pushing genre boundaries as she grew. Even her colossal renown infamously couldn't break "Daddy Lessons" onto country radio, but by that point in her career Beyoncé was already a household name.

Solange, five years her sister's junior, could have followed a similar path; having toured as a backing dancer for Destiny's Child, she was perfectly positioned, as Phillips notes, to trod the well-worn path of a star's younger sibling leveraging her name recognition to continue the dynasty. That was never going to be Solange's route, though.

Immediately recognizing that Beyoncé’s shooting star could cause a rift between the sisters, Phillips recounts, mom Tina Knowles made a decision that was almost inconceivably healthy for a show biz parent: she proactively put the girls in therapy together. With a regular channel of communication open, Solange and her older sister avoided a destructive rivalry and remained steadfast supporters of one another's artistic visions.

Raised to respect her Black heritage but also placed in what Phillips calls "a predominantly white Christian school," Solange from a young age found herself shouldering the burden of representation (she didn't shy away, singing "Strange Fruit" at a talent show at age ten) while also developing a fascination with alternative music, where whiteness was vastly overrepresented as the genre burgeoned in the '90s. Among Solange's teen idols, Phillips reports, were Minnie Riperton and Alanis Morissette. She became president of a Fiona Apple fan club.

Solange's first three albums were all different, but the artist has resisted narratives that portray her as "finding her way": she simply expressed herself in different ways in each era of her youthful artistry. Solo Star, her debut released at age 15, was influenced by Jamaican music and served more as a calling card for her ambition — including as writer and producer — than as an effective examplar.

Still, with memorable cuts like "Crush" and "Feelin' You," it introduced the world to Solange. Although Solo Star didn't produce a "Wuthering Heights" or "Bad Guy," Phillips compares the sheer ambition and all-encompassing vision of the teen Solange to Kate Bush and Billie Eilish; the author wonders how Solo Star might have turned out differently if industry pros had granted Solange the deference they did to similarly talented white girls.

Solange moved on to retro soul with Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (2008), which invited constant comparisons to Amy Winehouse — inspired in part by the fact that Solange also worked with producer Mark Ronson. Solange, though, saw herself as less akin to Winehouse than to a band like Grizzly Bear; in 2009, she made a stir by bringing her sister and brother-in-law (that would be Jay-Z) to watch sidestage when that band played in Williamsburg.

As the indie rock scene exploded — with bands like Vampire Weekend and their Afrobeat appropriation at the forefront — Solange dropped True (2012), an electro-soul EP co-produced by Dev Hynes (Lightspeed Champion, Blood Orange). Phillips's chronicle of how Solange was treated by the music industry when she dared to bring her whole Black self to an indie music world centered on white male voices makes for stomach-turning reading. Terms like "blipster" (Black hipster) and "PBR&B" were thrown around; on top of the racism there was sexism, with Pitchfork calling Solange an "ideal female vocal muse" for Hynes, the EP's presumed mastermind. Solange said she was disappointed, but not surprised, at that take: "I write or co-write every f---ing song."

In a comment that would enrage Solange and earn a devastating response on the artist's subsequent masterpiece, A Seat at the Table, New York Times music writer Jon Caramanica said that with respect to her calling out the sexism and racism of indie music culture, Solange needed to be careful of "not biting the hand that feeds you." The implication was that it was presumptuous of an artist like Solange to imply that the indie music world owed her anything, despite her gifts.

"I don't want to bite the hand/ that'll show me the other side," she sang on her next album, "but I didn't want to build the land/ That had fed you your whole life." A Seat at the Table, released in 2016, instantly became a defining statement of its era, standing alongside Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as a musical document of the years when Black Lives Matter became a robust rallying cry for the largest social movement in American history.

Phillips devotes much of her book to that album, going through song by song and explaining its impact. As a white man, Why Solange Matters helped me to re-hear A Seat at the Table through new ears. This is an album, Phillips writes — with insights from a number of other fans — that Black women treasure, that they talk about with one another. "I don't know if anyone else would really understand," said podcast host Didi Jenning.

Interspersed with recorded reflections from her parents and from hip-hop legend Master P, A Seat at the Table is an extended, intimate examination of what it means to be a Black person, and specifically a Black woman, in America. For Phillips, it's all the more impactful because the artist made it on her own terms, on her own schedule, and on her own label (after the irritating buzz around True, she launched Saint Records to become her own gatekeeper).

She followed it with the moving When I Get Home (2019), a musical love letter to her home town of Houston. A less urgent record than its predecessor, When I Get Home disappointed some listeners who hoped she'd follow Seat with an even more commanding statement, but Phillips writes that one of the things she loves most about Solange is that the artist follows her own muse. "Solange truly is the embodiment of Black girl freedom that Black women spend a lifetime striving to achieve."

In another powerful passage, Phillips writes that "to watch Solange is to see a version of unapologetic Blackness many Black people aspire to — one that doesn't subscribe to previous notions of what it means to be Black, one aware of self-preservation, one that doesn't give a f--k about what Becky in the back thinks Black people should do."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

May 6: A Little Devil In America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib

May 13: Billie Eilish by Billie Eilish

May 20: The World of Bob Dylan, ed. Sean Latham

May 27: Butterflies and Tall Bikes by Jamie Schumacher