Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
When Solange made her debut on Saturday Night Live in late 2016, it was several days before the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. The singer/songwriter/producer performed two self-penned songs from her critically acclaimed Billboard 200 No. 1 album, A Seat at the Table: “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” featuring U.K. singer/songwriter Sampha.
Lead single “Cranes,” which talks about surmounting inner sadness, later earned Solange her first Grammy Award, for best R&B performance. But the singer recalled she felt more pressure performing the latter track, the project’s second single.
“I was clearly petrified,” Solange noted during a Billboard cover story interview in March 2018. “It was such a new range of emotions surrounding that week. It was really heavy having this album and performing a song like ‘Don’t Touch My Hair,’ juxtaposed with what was happening in our country. I felt a lot of pressure delivering that message during that time.”
That message — touting black self-empowerment — sadly still clangs loudly three years later as the country continues to grapple with diversity, inclusion, racial equality and other societal issues. With its pulsating fusion of electronic beats and funk rhythms and use of hair as a metaphor, “Don’t Touch My Hair” doubles as subtle protest song and powerful proclamation of pride and respect.
In addition to skin color, blacks’ often coarser hair texture has historically been used to unfairly devalue the race as being lesser than its straight-haired white counterparts. Slave owners were known to rub the heads of their male slaves for good luck, while black female servants were forced to wear head wraps to symbolize their inferior status. Over the ensuing years, hair has continued to play an integral role in the evolution of the black cultural experience — from chemical straightening and Marcel waves to the ‘70s black power Afros and cornrows to beaded braids, weaves/extensions and dreadlocks.
Solange depicts those changes in the “Hair” video, which she co-directed with husband Alan Ferguson. As she and a crew of stylish, yet serious-faced dancers undulate gracefully to the track’s vibrant rhythms, Solange sings: “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 found.”
“Don’t Touch My Hair” only rose to No. 91 on the Hot 100. The lack of commercial success, however, pales in comparison to the song’s compelling message that it’s time for blacks to have their seat at the table. It’s also part and parcel of Solange’s creative drive, notes Raphael Saadiq, who played bass on “Hair” and executive produced the album with Solange.
“She’s got so much heart and vision,” explains Saadiq. “She’s not always trying to make a hit, which many people don’t understand. But I understand… she just wants to make musical pieces that create whole different avenues of insight and expression.”