Writer and musician Stephanie Phillips’s new book chronicles the dramatic story of songwriter, performer and activist Solange Knowles. In this extract she writes about the significance of the artist’s switch to natural hair…
My [own] natural hair is a confusion. The soft wisps of fluff at my crown have no business sitting next to the tough, tightly wound curls that congregate near my temples. Neither patch seems to want anything to do with the fast-growing mass at the nape of my neck that constantly threatens to transform into a mullet if I don’t trim it regularly.
Don’t get me wrong, I found joy in my hair ever since I first went relaxer-free in my early twenties. I became addicted to the light resistance my fingers found every time I ran my hand through my curls.
I love my hair, but I’m also lazy, and by 2017, I needed an easier style for my “incapable of deep conditioning on a regular basis” self. I opted to get the “big chop,” normally a process in which Black women transition to a natural style by cutting off chemically relaxed hair.
I went to my hairdresser far more certain of my decision than my stylist, who asked me twice whether I was ready for this. I was ready, and so out came the clippers and off came my curls, leaving behind a short, cropped Afro.
As I stared in the mirror, I was certain I was as cute as I had ever looked, and walked out of the salon, almost skipping down the road with happiness.
I imagine Solange had the same feeling when she went for the big chop in 2009. Instead of the joyful praise I received from my friends, Solange had to deal with the media, who couldn’t understand why a woman would shave her head.
The British newspaper Daily Mail, known for its celebrity gossip and conservative takes, immediately went with the low blow and questioned her mental health: “The long-suffering sister of singer Beyoncé has long resented the comparisons to the famous diva. She once playfully said she would ‘go crazy like Britney’ if people kept comparing her to her sister. And it seems she might finally have flipped as she hit the streets of Los Angeles in a new shorn hairstyle yesterday.”
Other outlets were less offensive but no more impressed. MTV News wrote: “The motive is still unclear, but considering how gorgeous her mane was, it’s not a great style choice.”
The reaction to what should have been a normal, unannounced haircut unfolded into an attack on a woman for stepping outside of the norms of femininity. It also showed white people’s lack of knowledge about one of the most essential aspects of Black culture: our hair.
Solange fired back in a series of tweets calling out those who made her the #3 trending topic on Twitter that day, above the Iran election:
i. have. done. this. twice. in. my. life. i. was 16. i was 18. did. not care about your opinion. then. dont. care. now.
i. just. wanted. to. be. free. from. the. bondage. that. Black. women sometimes. put. on. themselves. with. hair.
The attention resulted in Solange becoming an unofficial figurehead of the then-nascent natural hair movement, and she found herself humbled by the women who proclaimed that she was their inspiration for embracing their curls. She appeared on Oprah and in Black publications like Essence magazine to talk about natural hair. She also became an ambassador for the haircare brand Carol’s Daughter and its campaign for women transitioning from chemically relaxed hair to natural hair.
Solange’s hair is part of most people’s introduction to A Seat at the Table: the album cover. Solange stares defiantly at the camera, her body angled away. Her hair, still holding the transitional multicoloured clips used to exaggerate her curls, falls in waves around her makeup-free face. We see only her face and shoulders, but she appears to be naked.
The raw shot fulfils Solange’s original intention of creating an image that “invited people to have an up-close and personal experience,” but it was not the original shot she intended to get that day: “I wanted to nod to the Mona Lisa and the stateliness, the sternness that that image has. And I wanted to put these waves in my hair, and to really set the waves, you have to put these clips in. And when Neal, the hairstylist, put the clips in, I remember thinking, ‘Woah, this is the transition, in the same way that I’m speaking about on “Cranes.”’ It was really important to capture that transition, to show the vulnerability and the imperfection of the transition—those clips signify just that, you know? Holding it down until you can get to the other side. I wanted to capture that.”
It is a striking image, one that helped define this era of Black culture, laying bare the need to work through trauma and toward healing. It speaks to those in transitional periods of life, showing that vulnerability and imperfection can also be as stately as a Black Mona Lisa.
It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the central songs on the album is about hair. “Don’t Touch My Hair” opens on a pulsating kick-drum beat while scattered synth notes back up Solange’s wispy vocals. As the song continues, a flurry of chords cascade down like raindrops, brightening the mood until a horn section swoops in to back up Solange and Sampha’s confrontational refrain, “What you say to me?” The video featured a small selection of the creative ways Black people wear our hair, showing the world the beauty in beaded braids, mini Afros, and finger-wave styles alike.
Much like another natural hair anthem, India Arie’s classic “I Am Not My Hair” (the 2005 neo-soul-indebted single that depicted the many stages in the natural hair journey), “Don’t Touch My Hair” is quietly subversive, with none of the upfront ferocity of Solange’s previous clap-back tweet. Instead, the calm delivery reveals a woman who has experienced enough to believe so deeply in the power of her words that she doesn’t need to raise her voice above a whisper to make her thoughts known. She has spoken now so you won’t touch her hair, her skin, her crown, you’ll know your place. She details the work she put into her crowning glory:
You know this hair is my shit
Rolled the rod, I gave it time
But this here is mine
She, like other Black people, spent hours of their life clenching their teeth to distract from the burning heat of the salon hood dryers and digging their nails into their thighs to get through the final minutes of the chemical relaxer treatment while it smoulders on your scalp.
Some of the most inventive Black hairstyles have been ridiculed for being too “ghetto” or “ratchet.” The Black community has endured the difficulties to be able to claim ownership of the hairstyles we hold dear.
The phrase “don’t touch my hair” was in wide usage for years prior to Solange’s take. It was the lead segment on Black talk shows where women would joke about the looming white hand that would reach out of nowhere to run their fingers through our scalps. It was the topic of TED talks on the radical nature of natural hair. It even became a video game (Hair Nah, created by the developer Momo Pixel) that prompted gamers to prevent various white characters from touching their mane. It is the universality of the term in Black culture that allows Solange to address her Black audience directly within the song:
They don’t understand what it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know
Extracted from Why Solange Matters by Stephanie Phillips (Faber & Faber). Buy a copy here.
Stephanie Phillips is a special guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 20 May.