September 16, 2021

Book review: ‘Why Solange Matters’ by Stephanie Phillips

Writer and musician Stephanie Phillips charts how Solange’s rise to stardom and self-determination influenced her own life. The result is a moving testament to the creative powers of Black women.

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London-based music journalist, Stephanie Phillips wrote “Why Solange Matters,” while she was on tour with her feminist punk band, Big Joanie. She wrote with a laptop balanced on her legs “in bumpy tour vans,” backstage between sets, and nights spent Airbnb hopping. Phillips states that the book “has punk rock spirit embedded into its very DNA.” This is so true; “Why Solange Matters” is a double helix of sharp cultural criticism and personal vignettes, held together by an unwavering love of music. Phillips grew up in the U.K., a self-proclaimed “Black girl weirdo,” who appreciated all musical genres from riot grrrl to R&B.

Stephanie Phillips
London-based arts journalist Stephanie Phillips is the author of ‘Why Solange Matters’ (UT Press). Phillips is also singer and guitarist in the Black feminist punk band Big Joanie. Photo by Maryann Morris

“Why Solange Matters” is the latest edition in the Music Matters series published by the University of Texas Press. In 2018, the series began with “Why the Ramones Matter” and “Why the Beachboys Matter.” Since then it’s taken a more interesting turn, diving deeper into the vault to highlight artists and girl groups — such as Labelle, and the forthcoming “Why Bushwick Bill Matters” and “Why Marianne Faithful Matters”— who haven’t yet secured a place in the music cannon, or whose contributions have been overlooked by majority white male gatekeepers. Indeed, when Phillips first mentioned that she’d be contributing to the Music Matters series, she observed that the most common reaction she got from white people was a look of confusion: “Solange? Are you sure you don’t mean Beyoncé? What does Solange do… why would she matter?”

Phillips sets out to answer this question in a big way, looking at the themes of Solange’s music, her personal growth as a woman and artist, her role, as a “critically acclaimed powerhouse of Black feminist thought and musicianship,” and as a leader within the Black Lives Matter movement. Phillips writes:

“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 fuck about what Becky in the back thinks Black people should do.”



Throughout, Phillips argues that there are so few Black spaces, where Black women especially, feel at ease, safe, and able to heal. For all the Beckys and Karens, standing with arms crossed, bathed in the light of white privilege, the broader issue is that music industry itself is built on a foundation of white supremacy; it holds the keys to the castle of fame, and demands that Black artists perform a set role in order to gain entry. As Phillips reveals, Solange never wanted those keys. She’d build her own castle.

Solange grew up in Houston; her parents Tina and Mathew “succeeded in imbuing a sense of pride, unwavering work ethic, and a love of Black culture in their daughters.” Phillips tells a story that speaks volumes about Solange’s strength: in middle school, she was asked to remove a poster of Nas from her locker because his tattoo said “God’s Son.” Solange argued that another student had a poster of Justin Timberlake, who had a cross tattoo. If these tattoos, according to the school were blasphemous, why was she the one being asked to take down her poster? She refused to take down her poster and was suspended. “Her parents” Phillips writes, “admired her ability to stand up for herself.”

Five years younger than her sister, Solange watched Beyoncé become a local teenage celebrity — then go on to appear on “Star Search” with Girl’s Tyme, a seedling for what would later become Destiny’s Child. Tina nipped sibling resentment in the bud by sending both girls to therapy. Phillips quotes Tina as saying, “I wanted Beyoncé to be sensitive to the fact that Solange had to deal with being a little bit in her shadow…[i]t made her more sensitive and protective, and they’re still fiercely protective of each other.” Philips writes: “Ultimately, Solange came from a household where her dreams were taken seriously, her emotional needs were catered to, and her talent was nurtured from an early age.”

Solange released her first album, “Solo Star,” at the age of 15. At a time when bubblegum pop was in full swing — Britney Spears, a hit in her school girl uniform and upturned braids — the last thing producers at Columbia Records wanted was for Solange to “make a reggae-tinged lovers rock album” heavily influenced by Rastafarian culture. “Solo Star” did not perform well on the charts, but it was one of the first indicators that Solange would always go her own way; her musical interests would not be swayed by trends. “Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams,” released in 2008, was heavily influenced by Motown — Martha and the Vandellas, and The Ronettes, with samples of “handclaps from The Supremes.”

“A Seat at the Table “was the album that caused the world to take notice of Solange as an artist, a visionary with a distinctive “breathy falsetto.” Three years in the making, “A Seat at the Table” was released in 2016 — in the eye of a national political storm that was shaping itself into a tornado. With songs such as “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Phillips writes that “Solange speaks directly to the Black community’s complex relationship with pain, loss, healing, intergenerational trauma, ownership, and empowerment.

At the time of the album’s release, Phillips was living in a mice-infested flat, working a dead-end job in London, fearing her dreams would be smothered. She writes:

“Listening to ‘A Seat at the Table’ gave me a space to better understand my own experiences of racism and the daily microaggressions I and other people of color experience. The album was an extension of the Black feminism I practiced in my daily life, through which I could feel pride in my approach to creating culture…and communicating with the people I love.”

Not everyone understood the artistry of “A Seat at the Table.” Music journalist Robert Christgau stated that he believed that the album probably had something “to do with Black female identity.” And he didn’t mince words — the songs left him “unmoved” and “untouched.” Phillips’s response is brilliant: “I appreciate that Christgau admitted that his lived experience as a white man may have hindered the album’s appeal for him, given its focus on Black womanhood.”

No matter how big the spotlight surrounding herself or her family grew, Solange was not protected from racism nor microaggressions. In 2014, media portrayed her as an unhinged angry Black woman after she took a few swings at her brother-in-law Jay-Z in a hotel elevator. TMZ snidely called it “her biggest hit.” At a Kraftwerk concert a group of white women threw trash at her when she started dancing in front of them. In Marfa, Texas, the police showed up unannounced at Solange and her husband’s Airbnb. Another time, after showing her resident’s pass “an officer refused to let her into her own neighborhood.”

Solange’s 2019 release “When I Get Home,” is an ode to her Houston hometown and an album of joy. Phillips writes, “[s]he was free to do whatever she wanted…” no longer interested in “entertainment,” Solange now makes art on her own terms, fully, and unapologetically.

“Why Solange Matters” is a love letter to outsider music nerds, but especially to Black women, who continually have their tastes, talents, hearts, bodies, and minds suppressed by “the limited imagination of the white mainstream.” The book is a call to action — embrace yourself, embrace those who are hurting alongside you, and be brave.

Why Solange Matters
By Stephanie Phillips
UT Press, 248 pages, $18.95


Julie Poolehttps://juliepoolejp.com
Julie Poole is a writer based in Austin. She received a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New Writers Project at UT Austin. Her debut book of poems, Bright Specimen, was published in 2021 by Deep Vellum. Her articles and essays have appeared in Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, and HuffPost.

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