It’s impossible to talk about Solange Knowles without acknowledging the outsized shadow of her older sister, Beyoncé. They both have careers in the same industry, are both world-famous, are both style icons, and both create art-focused visual music videos. However much overlap exists between the sisters, there is a history of love and support between them that flies in the face of convention that would tend to pit them against each other.
The ego may be strong, but a sisterly bond is stronger. Although Solange might be the younger sister, she has had an abiding influence on Beyoncé. In fact, she wrote two of Beyoncé’s most danceable and underrated hits, ‘Upgrade U’ and ‘Get Me Bodied’ – both from the album B’Day.
Solange’s large-scale performance art exhibits – ‘An Ode to’ at the Guggenheim in May 2017 and ‘Metatronia (Metatron’s Cube)’ at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in April 2018 – were incredibly impactful, especially considering their scope and their emphasis on occupying traditionally white spaces. Following in her little sister’s footsteps, Beyoncé rented out the Louvre to shoot the music video for ‘Apesh*t’ with Jay-Z. In the music video, the power couple can be seen portraying black versions of classic European art.
Both imaginatively interpretative and quietly minimalistic, there is a joy and incandescence to Solange’s performance pieces that require an orchestra of black bodies to physically take up space – to push and contort their limbs into the outer reaches of their immediate environment. It’s a beautiful visual tribute, but as Solange says in a behind-the-scenes interview for her ‘Metatronia (Metatron’s Cube)’ event, she wants her work to bring up more questions than answers. One question it raises is why we are just now starting to see significant black representation in these institutions. Solange didn’t intend to simply enter these spaces, but to “knock the f—ing walls down”.
But more than her ability to influence one of the most famous recording artists of all time or to rewrite the codes of formidable art institutions is Solange’s unwavering commitment to activism and her fearless leadership in that arena. It’s in her DNA. Her mother, Tina Knowles Lawson, has shared stories of her daughter’s early passion for activism, like the time she circulated a petition in elementary school to get a “bad teacher” fired. “She was born with her mama’s fiery spirit, thank you very much,” Lawson declared proudly.
The litany of Solange’s contributions is long. In the past, she has called out the Grammy Awards for its bias against black artists, was the first recipient of the ‘Lena Horne Prize for Artists Creating Social Impact’ (and subsequently donated the prize money to Project Row Houses, a nonprofit in her hometown of Houston, Texas), and is an advocate for and participant in the #BlackBank movement. The #BlackBank movement asks black Americans to move their money over to black-owned banks. Solange contributed to the cause by moving her money to Unity National, the only black-owned bank in Texas.
While her activism contains action, her music can also be considered her largest contribution to activism. Her 2016 album, A Seat at the Table, was dedicated almost entirely to the black female experience. Done in dipping melodies that smoothly moved from major to minor chords, the album was a neo-soul fantasy, with an unwavering central message.
A Seat at the Table simultaneously challenged and soothed; it spoke for the unspoken, it was radical. The track ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ was an intimate portrayal of the importance of natural black hair, as both a racially charged signifier and a reclamation of identity. “Don’t touch my hair / When it’s the feelings I wear / Don’t touch my soul / When it’s the rhythm I know / Don’t touch my crown / They say the vision I’ve found / Don’t touch what’s there /When it’s the feelings I wear,” Solange sings.
Her sound continues to evolve, defying typical genre labels like R&B or hip-hop, becoming an unconventional and truly unique fusion of jazz, soul, funk, and spoken-word poetry. Her eccentric fusions also influence her collaborations. For instance, on her 2019 album When I Get Home, she shares the track ‘My Skin My Logo’ with rapper Gucci Mane, but the track sees the two trading playful hypnotizing staccato lyrics, rather than rapping. Clearly, Solange is gifted at bringing out qualities in other artists that many of us weren’t aware of before.
Pop culture is successful because it relies on stereotypes, and its heroes are placed into boxes. But Solange refuses the labels. From her music and art, to her incredible style and activism, she is always changing, growing, defying, refuting. Today, on her birthday, we celebrate an artist who cannot be contained in a neat little package, who lives life boldly and fearlessly, and who not only speaks her truth but renders it in uniquely artistic expressions that are full of soul, sorrow, joy, and healing.